Marble Cave (today called Marvel Cave), Branson’s first tourist draw, opened in 1894 when William Henry Lynch developed the ancient cave and charged visitors to tour it.
Branson became a high popularity tourist destination in 1907 with the publication of Harold Bell Wright’s novel about the Ozarks, The Shepherd of the Hills. In 1960, The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama & Homestead opened based on the novel. As more and more visitors flocked to Branson, big-name entertainers and musicians opened more and more theaters. Today, Branson’s nicknamed the Live Entertainment Capital of the World.
1. Silver Dollar City
This top-drawer amusement park is one of the biggest draws in Branson. It’s huge and multi-faceted in the types of entertainment: there are shows, rides, dining, crafters, classes, and the unbelievable Marvel Cave that began it all.
If you’re out for thrills, try Outlaw Run, the world’s most daring wooden rollercoaster. It takes you soaring through the Ozark Mountains. Among wooden roller coasters, it has the steepest drop, is the only to twist upside down, and is the second-fastest with a top speed of 68 miles per hour.
For something tamer, take the Silver Dollar Train. You’ll pass a moonshine still, some gun-toting characters, great scenery, and have a blast on this steam engine train.
Besides the multitude of rides, some talented craftsmen are demonstrating their skills daily. Watch a potter at work, or take a cooking class complete with sampling.
Then there is the entertainment. Bands and singers perform music at multiple spots around the park.
The natural wonder Marvel Cave is open for underground tours and will be a special treat.
2. Live Shows
With over 57,000 seats throughout its dozens of theaters, Branson has more seats than Broadway. You can attend 100 different live shows each season from pop, rock ‘n’ roll, country, classical, gospel, illusionist, and Broadway-style musical productions. Shows offer performances morning, noon, and night. You want it, Branson has it.
Here are a few examples of the shows. Remember, they change often so you might see a different version than the ones I saw.
The Baldknobbers are one of my favorites. The name comes from a group of robbers that roamed the area during reconstruction and met on the mountain balds. They struck terror into the hearts of the locals who lived in the mountains during the 1880s.
The Baldknobbers show won’t scare anyone but will leave you helpless with laughter. Tim Mabe plays Droopy Drawers, Jr., a toothy hillbilly whose underwear hung out long before it was a fashion, and Jerl Adams plays toothless Hargus Marcel, a dour character that is so outrageous he is often laughing at himself. The jokes are corny and clean, but the delivery will have you rolling in the aisles.
The music, which is the largest part of the show, will bring back a few memories. Songs like Orange Blossom Special, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, and El Paso are so good you could close your eyes and envision Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Marty Robbins on stage.
The rest of the cast are equally good. Patty Mabe did a soulful version of some of Patsy Clines favorites. The band, established in 1959 by Jim, Lyle, Bill, and Bob Mabe, will live up to your highest expectations.
The Baldknobbers Show is Branson’s longest-running show. Baldknobbers’ original costumes and instruments are now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama is based on one of the first million-copy selling books in the country, The Shepherd of the Hills. It’s a true story that sparked the beginning of tourism in Branson. The play, the longest-running outdoor drama in the country, deals with faith, forgiveness, and family connections among the people that live in the Ozarks. It has 80 actors and actresses, 40 horses, a flock of sheep, several guns and rifles, an actual burning log cabin, and a vintage 1908 DeWitt automobile to tell the story.
It has grown to much more than a play: there is a complete homestead tour of the places depicted, like Old Matt’s grist mill and the cabin of Old Matt and Aunt Mollie. There is also Shepherd’s Adventure Park onsite where you can zipline over the locations.
Smoke on the Mountain at the Little Opry Theatre will have you rolling in the aisles at the antics at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. The audience becomes the congregation as Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe interacts with the Sanders Family Singers. The interaction between the mother and her twins is hilarious. Their older sister uses sign language since she cannot sing. Some of it is standard sign language but the exaggerations and emphasis will have you in hysterics it is so funny.
There are many other shows, including Legends in Concert, Branson Hot Hits Theatre, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater, Mickey Gilley Grand Shanghai Theatre, and more for about 50 total.
3. Sight and Sound Theater
Branson’s largest theater is Sight and Sound Theater. The plays are Bible-related stories. The music and dance scenes rival Broadway productions. The scenes that call for animals use live ones. It is fascinating to see horses, camels, donkeys, and other animals prancing across the stage, however the production gets the highest kudos for its special effects.
One example is in the show I saw, Jonah, when the first act ends with Jonah getting tossed into the ocean from the storm ridden ship. Then the second act begins. When the curtain goes up, you are in an underwater setting. A gigantic whale swims out over the audience in the lower level. Giant lighted jellyfish descend over the balcony seats. The entire theater is filled with swimming fish and other sea creatures. It is the most reality you will ever experience in a live theater.
In addition to seeing a show, you can also do a backstage tour where you learn about all the behind the scenes activity it takes to bring an epic show to the stage. Huge sets and habitats for the animal actors are built, and lighting and equipment are geared to the specific play. You get to meet some of the animals, trainers, and handlers. The animals do rehearsals just like the human actors.
Trainers work with the animals, so they know what’s going to happen during the show. The animals live downstairs and are treated well. They have both outdoor pasture and indoor space with a large arena to train. When they become too old to act, some are retired to the founder’s farm and others are rehomed to carefully vetted facilities.
4. Showboat Branson Belle
Cruise Table Rock Lake on the Belle and see a great variety show while you enjoy a delicious lunch or dinner meal. The meal is three courses and you have several choices. After dining, you are free to wander around and even visit the captain. There is a nice intermission before the main show starts.
The Branson Belle is modeled after the majestic showboats of the 1800s and is a relaxing way to spend two hours. It’s huge with a three-story stage and ballroom floor with second and third-floor balconies around it. The lake is beautiful and the actors are top of the line talent.
5. Branson’s White Water
If you’re looking for a wet adventure, then Branson’s White Water is the place. It has slides, rides, and other attractions. You can take a refreshing swim, or you can go on an adventure like the KaPau Plummet, a seven-story freefall slide. If you aren’t into daring stuff, just float down the Aloha River.
Coconut Cove is especially fun for the kids.
6. The Track Family Fun Parks
This is really four parks in one. You can play a game of miniature golf or go hang-gliding. There is an upscale version of bumper cars. There’s also go-karts, laser tag, a laser maze challenge, and lots of kid’s rides.
The 150 feet tall, 40 carriage Ferris wheel has a long history. It was formerly Chicago’s iconic Navy Pier Ferris Wheel from 1995 to 2015. At night it’s lit with 16,000 LED lights.
It’s all about the rides at the fun park, and entry is free! Just pay for the rides you want to go on.
7. Branson Scenic Railroad
This scenic route winds for 40 miles through the foothills and tunnels of the Ozarks. Over the course, a narrator tells stories of the places that you pass along. You start your tour at the historic 1905 depot in downtown Branson. Since this is an actual working railroad line, your tour could go one of two directions depending on other traffic. The northern route goes to Galena, Missouri, and the James River Valley; the southern route takes you into Arkansas via the Barren Fork Trestle.
I took the northern route and the scenery was fantastic despite it being a rainy day. We passed picturesque farms nestled in the valley and went through a dark tunnel.
Experiencing the train itself is worth the tour. The cars and engine are vintage models from the 1930s to the 1960s. You are not assigned specific seats, it’s first come first served. You can wander through vintage dining cars and see how passengers traveled in the golden age of rail. You can visit the observation car and enjoy the scenery. The cars have all been restored and refurbished to offer the same experience passengers enjoyed fifty years ago.
8. College of the Ozarks
Know as Hard Work U, where students work their way through school and in the process create a small village for you to enjoy. The students here will not leave college with student debt; they work it all off in school.
Start at the The Keeter Center, an impressive lodge for visitors with 15 rooms and suites. The lobby soars three stories high and is supported by thick logs from Montana. They were already down so none were felled to build the center. The huge fireplace in the lobby is cozy on a cool day.
There is a dining room for both guests and students. The food comes from the campus garden, dairy, bakery, mill, and hog farm. The Sunday brunch is a huge event.
For a sweet treat, try Nettie Marie’s Homemade Ice Cream Shop in the lobby. It’s created and sold by students who milk the 60 or so Holstein, Guernsey, and Jersey cows at the W. Alton Jones Campus Dairy. The milk is pasteurized, bottled, and brought to the ice cream parlor where the students turn it into ice cream.
Also onsite is the Ralph Foster Museum, known as the “Smithsonian of the Ozarks.” It’s filled with eclectic items and has something for everyone from gun collections to butterflies.
My favorite item at the museum is the 1921 Model 46 Roadster used in filming the Beverly Hillbillies. It was donated to the museum by series creator and producer Paul Henning. He’s from Missouri and got the idea for the show from a boy scout camping trip to the Ozarks. You can have your picture taken “driving” the truck with the picture of the cast behind you.
There is an exhibit on Rose O’Neill, the creator of the Kewpie doll, with an impressive collection of dolls besides the Kewpie doll. More about her later.
The Gaetz Tractor Museum, filled with tractors and farm equipment from earlier eras, is another museum on campus that takes you back in time.
The Star Schoolhouse, a vintage one-room school, is located right next to the Ralph Foster Museum. Built in 1910 it was moved here for preservation. There is a schoolmarm costume and the old McGuffey’s Readers.
Edwards Mill was built in 1973 using timber salvaged from former Missouri mills. It’s powered by a 12-foot water wheel. When you step into this working grist mill you feel like you stepped back in time. It’s operated by students who grind the corn and wheat into whole-grain meal and flour. The mill also houses a weaving studio where students design and weave rugs on traditional looms. The basement has an exhibit of antique milling equipment.
College of the Ozark Greenhouses, right next to the mill, is filled with the McDade Orchid Collection. The collection has over 7,000 plants tended to by the student workers. You can even buy an orchid!
The Farmers Market offers beautiful produce, fresh meat from the farm, potting plants and flowers, fruit cakes and jellies, and milk from the college dairy.
The Fruitcake and Jelly Kitchen is a great place to buy a fruitcake or canned jellies for yourself or as a present. You can watch the students make the cakes and jellies.
This is a religious university, so Williams Memorial Chapel is the heart of the campus. It was built by student with local limestone.
9. Bonniebrook Gallery, Museum, and Homestead
If you enjoyed the small taste of Rose O’Neill at the Ralph Foster Museum, this is a large feast. It includes a reproduction of her home, Bonniebrook Mansion, because the original was destroyed by fire in 1947. It’s like stepping back in time 100 years. When she and her family originally moved her she named the homestead Bonniebrook because of the little stream that ran alongside the family’s cabin.
The Rose O’Neill Art Collection is found at a state-of-the-art gallery that houses about 60 of her original works.
The Kewpie Museum houses Kewpie memorabilia that O’Neill made famous. There are hundreds of Kewpie items that were a spinoff from her dolls during the Kewpie boom in the early 20th century.
Start your visit with a 45-minute slideshow presentation that explains who Rose O’Neill was and what she accomplished. Rose O’Neill was a talented illustrator, author, and sculptor. She lived during a time when she was forced to sign her work as C.R.O. to hide the fact that she was a woman.
No surprise she was an ardent suffragist. She survived two disastrous marriages and lived much of her life as a very wealthy woman, but she died impoverished in April of 1944 at the age of 69.
10. Antique Car Museums
Guys that love old cars are going to be in heaven here. There are two antique car museums in Branson.
The Celebrity Car Museum is filled with old Hollywood movie cars. There’s Herbie The Love Bug, a Batmobile, a 1969 Charger General Lee, and more you will remember from films. You can travel back in time and see the Jurassic Park Ford Explorer, and the Flintstones’ ride. You can talk to K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider…whether she answers you is a different question. They let you get in the cars and take selfies, too.
The Branson Auto & Farm Museum has more than 100 cars from the 1920s to 2010 and is well represented for most of the years in between. There’s a 1958 Edsel Pacer, a shiny red 76 GM Midget, several 1920 era model T and A Fords. Motorcycles are on exhibit too with a 1942 Harley.
Even for those of us who remember the Studebaker, who knew they made a pickup? There’s a 1959 Studebaker half-ton pickup on sale for a mere $21,000. Yes, most of these cars are for sale if you have a hefty pocketbook. The 1921 Ford Model T duffy is $30,000, and the Edsel is only $9,000. But remember there was a reason they only made them for one year!
11. Titanic Museum
The Titanic Museum is a tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest disasters. The exterior is a half-sized model of the ship but that is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended.) It’s when you step aboard that the real ship comes to life. What makes it even more interesting is you are made a passenger: when you enter you are given a boarding pass in the name of one of the real passengers that was on the fateful voyage.
My pass named me as Helena Baxter, widow of the infamous Diamond Jim Baxter. “I” was traveling first class in the second most expensive suite onboard with my adult daughter and son. Yes, I survived.
One of my favorite things here is the Grand Staircase. It’s an exact replica and really makes you feel as if you were on the ship.
12. Ripley’s Odditorium
Housed in a building that looks as if it was cracked wide open by an earthquake or another disaster, it’s crammed with the odd and unusual. It’s probably the most filmed building in Branson.
A lava flow guides you through. Here you will find a two-headed calf, a vampire killing kit, and the largest roll of toilet paper in existence. You couldn’t get through that roll, no matter how long the pandemic lasts! Ripley’s is definitely the weirdest place in Branson.
13. Dick’s Oldtime 5 & 10
Dick Hartley opened this museum and store in 1961 and over the years it evolved into a nationally known destination. Today it’s run by his son.
The store is filled with items you may not have seen since you were a kid. Some of the collections in the store are Carl Taylor White River Arrowhead Collection, WWII Aviation Prints, a Baseball Wall of Fame, G Scale Trains, old-time Cap Guns, early 20th-century washing machines, Green Handled Kitchen Utensils, and Native American items.
There are signs in the store telling you about its history. You can purchase souvenirs and items you may have forgotten to pack at a reasonable price.
14. Lake of the Ozarks State Park
With over 200 campsites, Ozarks State Park is the perfect base to enjoy all Branson has to offer. The park has plenty of hiking and biking trails.
At the marina you can rent water sport equipment from ski boats to paddle boards. You can even parasail over the lake or explore beneath it on a scuba diving adventure.
15. Dining Options
If you want to hear live music while enjoying your meal, try Mel’s Diner. Instead of musicians working as waiters until they get their big chance, Mel’s Diner istheir big chance. Plus the food is fantastic. Save room for dessert. The sodas are out of this world.
If you can’t take a cruise, you can still dine on the water at The Floating Café on Table Lake. The first floating cafe was built in 1960 and reconstructed in 2011 with materials and artifacts from the original café.
Finally, Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction is rodeo, music, and dining all combined into a spectacular event.
Branson has three pristine lakes: Table Rock, Taneycomo, and Bull Shoals. All three have camping and RV parks as well as boat docks. Indian Point Marina offers another option for getting on to Table Rock Lake. You can rent anything from a tiny Waverunner to a 12-passenger pontoon boat. Or visit the dive shop to get under the water.
I recently learned a brand-new attraction is opening in Branson. WonderWorks Branson had its grand opening on June 5, 2020. This is the company’s sixth and largest location, offering 48,000 square feet of family-friendly activities and two cafes. The park offers Branson-area experiences including a tribute to the birthplace of Route 66 and exhibits on the history of the city the military. WonderWorks Branson also gives several nods to the Baldknobber Theater, which was previously housed at the address.
No matter what you’re interested in, there is always something new going on in Branson!
Last Updated on November 3, 2020