Like tourist destinations throughout the world, Branson suffered during the pandemic when potential visitors stayed home. Most venues were shuttered for a time.
However, the absence of paying customers did not stop the entertainment destination from adding new attractions, many of which opened just before or soon after the rapid spread of the virus got underway.
Then after the initial shutdowns and with COVID still virulent, Branson roared back to life. “Federal programs such as Save Our Stages /Shuttered Venue dollars helped,” says Lynn Berry, director of communications for the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB, and Taney County Partnership. “The program provided grants and emergency assistance for eligible venues affected by the pandemic.
“When we reopened May 18, 2020, Branson was one of the only places to see live entertainment until Broadway reopened in 2021. In 2021 we welcomed more than 1 million visitors over our best year, which was 2019 just before COVID. Tourism, sales and our Enhancement District taxes all were up over 20% in 2021, and they reflect the dollars being spent in our community.”
“For 2022, Branson ranks No. 3 in TripAdvisor’s top 10 trending destinations in the U.S.,” Berry adds. “We are on pace for another record year in 2022.”
Tourists come from far and near. An informal survey of license plates reveals Missouri tags are a distant minority. Out-of-state tour buses compete with automobiles.
At intermission during many of Branson’s live shows (almost daily there are 100 different shows), groups in the audience are frequently recognized, and the variety of home states and cities is astonishingly widespread. For many groups recognition of their presence comes with acknowledgment they are visiting for the fifth or 10th year, or more.
In fact, surveys reveal that 89% of visitors plan to return.
Still, out of the 10 million visitors in 2021, 15% had come for the first time.
But there are changes in the demographic. “Our average age visitor is 56, but we are seeing younger and more diverse people, and a rise in ‘empty nesters’ during the fall,” Berry reports, “and we are attracting more affluent customers who spend an average of $1,000 per party of four per day.”
The list that follows are the new venues opened during the past two years, or those that have been substantially changed. For a comprehensive website with information about all the attractions, shows and accommodations, visit: explorebranson.com.
Copperhead Mountain Coaster at Shepherd of the Hills • Adjectives used to describe this ride include the “newest, fastest, most scenic and longest” downhill family-fun coaster ride in Branson, To gain elevation, the ride climbs 1,450 feet before descending for 3,350 feet incorporating loops, drops and curves along the way as it zooms through the Ozark forest canopy. At night the course is illuminated with thousands of LED lights. $10 per passenger, $16 for the coaster driver; theshepherdofthehills.com/coaster/
Mystic River Falls at Silver Dollar City • Billed as “The Tallest Drop on a Water Raft Ride in the Western Hemisphere,” the new 2,100-foot-long attraction opened during the pandemic, replacing the former Lost River of the Ozarks thrill ride. The almost six-minute wet adventure includes cascading down a winding, turquoise-colored, foaming, roaring rapids set in an Ozarks mountain river theme. The ride culminates with a waterfall drop that plummets riders down the equivalent of a four-story building. A $23 million investment, guests take the plunge aboard 8-person circular rafts. The ride is the focus of the expanded area called Rivertown in the park that includes an expanded Rivertown Smokehouse restaurant. Ride included with park admission, which starts at $79; silverdollarcity.com
Fritz’s Adventure • Though this attraction opened several years ago, it recently added an indoor/outdoor TreeTops course with 45 obstacles, including eight suspension bridges and two free falls. Overall the attraction includes 80,000 square feet of explorable, climbable space that brings outdoor adventure into the great indoors. Included are a multistory ropes course, multistory slides, underground tunnels to explore, a laser room and a variety of climbing challenges, including a 48-foot climbing wall. Admission begins at $25; fritzsadventure.com
Splash Country at Grand Country Resort • Over the pandemic, Grand Country Resort doubled the size of its Splash Country indoor water park with the addition of a 5,000 square foot wave pool, two racing raft rides, a dark raft ride and a new basketball activity pool. The park also features nine other water attractions, from a relaxing 250-foot long lazy river to a treehouse with a 1,000 gallon tipping bucket. $15 adults, $10 children; grandcountry.com/waterpark
Aquarium at the Boardwalk • It is impossible to drive past and miss the giant mirror-covered octopus that has its eight tentacles wrapped around the outside of the new 46,000 square foot Aquarium at the Boardwalk. A visit begins with an original 5D submarine adventure to the bottom of the sea. Then, once “underwater,” and in addition to the myriad fish tanks holding more than 250 fish species, there is a walk through a glass tunnel with sharks and other fish on all three sides. Farther on there is a 24-foot-high Kelp Forest climbing structure for kids and starfish and stingrays that can be touched. A free, spectacular fountain show in front of the aquarium opened in 2022, and is reminiscent of the famed fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, albeit on a smaller scale. The 12,500-square-foot lake is adjacent to the aquarium and will incorporate the octopus into the show fountain with color-changing LED lights. $36 for adults, $16 for children 4-11; aquariumattheboardwalk.com
Flyride and Beyond the Lens • With state-of-the-art technology, you’ll have the feeling of flight as this inspiring journey glides over 22 national landmarks at about the height of a high-flying bird. When the scene dips close to crashing waves, the audience is sprayed with a fine mist. The ride is realistic, and the seats move just enough that guests must be strapped into their seats before the adventure begins. Located in the same building as Flyride, Beyond the Lens consists of eight separate sensory mini-attractions. Included are a 20-foot walk through a corridor of patterns of flashing lights and pulsating colors called the Human Kaleidoscope, an exhibit on the search for Big Foot, and the Flip Zone bumper car ride that flips a full 360 degrees horizontally and vertically as you bump into other riders. (Stable stomach required.) Combination tickets for both attractions: $37 adults, $25 child; beyondthelens.com
Tommyhawks Axe House • Ax throwing is gaining popularity in the United States, and it has come to Branson. Ax throwing is about as historical of a pastime as you can get, according to the company’s website, which proclaims that “from the first waves of Northmen to the American Frontier — tomahawks, axes, and hatchets were every day carry items of those eras.” $20 per ax throwing lane. Instructor included; tommyhawks.net
Wonder Works • According to (recent) folklore, the 48,000 square foot building filled with “edu-tainment” adventures was once a top-secret laboratory that was jettisoned off its foundation and onto its roof by an experiment gone awry. It’s safe to explore, though. When guests venture inside they find themselves standing upright and able to explore four stories of over 100 science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) focused, hands-on activities suitable for everyone in a family. $32 adults; $23 children; wonderworksonline.com/branson/
Pink Jeep Tours • Known worldwide for its tours of Sedona, Arizona, as well as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and the Smokey Mountains, this tour company is offering four different tours in Branson, beginning in 2022. Common to each of the tours is an off-road adventure along private roads to panoramic views from the top of 1,234 foot Baird Mountain. All tours also include a narrated history of the area, Table Rock Lake and Dam, and area folklore and legends. Two-hour tours are $55 for adults, $48 for children; pinkadventuretours.com/tours/branson-tours
Outraged rage room • After protecting you from yourself in protective overalls, a full-face mask and gloves, you are given an arsenal of tools such as baseball bats, sledgehammers, crow bars and golf clubs to use to demolish dishes, automobile windshields, entertainment centers and computers, or whatever is in “inventory.” Throw them, bash them, smash them, stomp them or even crush them, and then leave the mess for the owners to clean up. $40 per person for 20 minutes, $140 for four people for 30 minutes; outragedbranson.com
New at Branson Landing
Branson Landing is a $435 million 95-acre project spanning 1.5 miles of waterfront on Lake Taneycomo, adjacent to historic downtown Branson. The Landing is home to more than 100 shops, restaurants and attractions, as well as the Hilton Promenade Hotel and is anchored by Bass Pro Shops and a BELK Department store.
New businesses that opened in the Landing the last two years are below; bransonlanding.com
Ramata Italian • Open just over a year, this ultra-contemporary, fine-dining Italian restaurant includes a bar and an impressive 26-foot long, 500-bottle glass wine case featuring some of the finest Italian wines in the world. RamataItalian.com
Guy Fieri’s Kitchen and Bar • Celebrity Chef Guy Fieri and his distinctive, award-wining take on American cuisine is now being served in Branson. Popular on the menu at this 8,000 square-foot eatery are Trash Can Nachos and Jalapeno Pig Poppers, but the menu is loaded with similar inventive entrees and sandwiches. The drink menu features craft beers, Sonoma County wine and a frozen tap system shot bar that dispenses eight different shots straight out of an iced dispenser. Guysbranson.com
Andy B’s Tiki Bar • Located underneath a straw roof at the end of a short boardwalk with wooden pelicans on the piers and views of Lake Taneycomo, this bar only lacks a sand beach. But it is a fun place to enjoy specialty cocktails, beers, spirits, and nonalcoholic beverages. Because all four sides are open, it closes during stormy weather or when the temperature dips below 60 degrees. bransontikibar.com
Ozark home • Adding to the 100 shops and restaurants on Branson Landing, this new retail store features unique cabin, lake and country living gifts and home décor. A second location is open at the Tanger Outlets location in Branson. ozarkhomebranson.com
Ferro’s Gourmet Popcorn • White cheddar and caramel flavored popcorn are offered, but why not take a chance and try some of the other eight unique varieties such as Margarita Time, Kiss of Lemon and Creamy Dill? And then there is Afterburn. It’s a flavor, too. Ferrospopcorn.com
More new spots
The Jerk Spot on Highway 165 serves 100% authentic Jamaican food influenced by African, Irish, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern people who have inhabited the island for hundreds of years. Popular dishes include jerk chicken, curry goat and fried ripe plantains. Thejerkspotbranson.com
Tai Kitchen • This delightful 10-table restaurant in downtown Branson opened in the midst of the pandemic and is thriving. You will think you are family when the owners greet you, and you will want to be family when you are served your food. The website says it all: “We’re on a simple, soul-satisfying mission to spread positively delicious healthy food in Branson. We make every last bite on our menu with love and want send a message to our customers that we honestly give you authentic Thai food.” taikitchenbranson.com
The Summit • Open since November 2021, the Summit is being promoted as Branson’s “only true night club.” The 10,000 square foot state-of-the-art dance club featuring pulsating neon lights and a Colorado theme is focused on playing today’s hits hosted by guest deejays from across the nation. “Our core brand is playing today’s influential music, top 40s artists and remixes of popular songs,” said co-owner Pierce Evans. “We expect to see mostly the 18-35 age group. The past few years we have watched Branson embrace a younger demographic.” summitnightlife.com
Local flavor • Newly opened Local Flavor Cafe offers homecooked Southern meals, including, of course, fried green tomatoes served with house-made jalapeno ranch dressing. The “junk” cheeseburger is topped with ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato and house-made garlic mayo, and is served on house made jalapeño cornbread toast. Localflavorbranson.com
With more than 100 stages hosting several live performances weekly, there is no lack of attractions for any age group. “There are over 1,000 performers living and working in town,” Berry says.
Prices listed below are for mid-summer and mid-week but vary based on month, day of the week, and show time.
For a list of all stage shows and times of performances, click on the “live shows” tab at bransonshows.com.
“Jesus” at Sight & Sound Theater • The Sight & Sound Theater’s 2½ hour inspirational performance of “Jesus” tells the life history of the most iconic biblical figure and how he began his teachings. In 2022 the performance returns for the second season. The show incorporates a variety of special effects and original score and script that make Sight & Sound an amazing theatrical venue. Just the size of the stage alone is spectacular. The main stage measures 114 feet in width while the side stages used periodically during the performance are each 90 feet long, making it the second-largest stage in North America. The result is that the 2,000-seat audience in enveloped by the performance on three sides. Throughout the performance animals and actors use the aisles to enter and exit the stage. Visitors are warned to keep their hands to themselves as camels, horses, sheep and other four-legged creatures come and go. $60; sight-sound.com
“Sons of Britches” • Although the blue jean clad three “Sons of Britches” in this 90-minute show have been performing their act for nine years, the performance deserves mention since every performance is entirely new. Audience members make the song suggestions, and the trio performs its version, along with a good dose of comedy. It is all the more enjoyable being performed in a cozy theater that seats 200, making the audience feel as though they are on stage with the performers. $37.50 adults, $10 kids; thesonsofbritches.com
Dean Z — The Ultimate Elvis • This year will be the second that Dean Z, star of the hit internationally touring production “Elvis Lives,” will be performing his high-energy Elvis tribute show in Branson at the Clay Cooper Theatre. The show spans the 20-year career of the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” from his rise to fame in the 1950s, to his infamous Las Vegas performances of the 1970s. $44; deanz.com
“Back to the Bee Gees” at Hamners Variety Theater • The 2021 season will be the second for “Back to the Bee Gees” live stage show. Three entertainers take each audience back to the days of disco in the ‘50s and ‘60s as they bring their own voices to the unmistakable sound of the Bee Gees.$34, free under 12; bransonshows.com/activity/BackTotheBeeGees.cfm
Andy Williams Moon River Theater • The venue has been completely renovated after having been vacant most of 2021. “We intend to continue Andy Williams’ legacy of bringing quality family friendly entertainment to Branson,” says new owner John Redmon. “The Liverpool Legends — The Incredible Beatles Experience” tribute show, which has been performing in Branson for more than a decade, has moved to the Moon River Theater. andywilliamspac.com
New and renovated hotels
For the hotels below sample rates are based on mid-summer visits. Rates change frequently depending on the month, day of the week, holidays and demand. Check the websites for accurate rates when you plan to visit.
Westlake • When David Siegel happened upon someone in his orange grove near Orlando, Florida, in the early 1980s, he asked what they were doing there. When they explained they wanted to purchase the land for a condominium development, Siegel liked the idea and decided to develop it himself. Today, he has built or purchased 14,000 villa rooms in 27 resorts in travel destinations throughout the United States. Westgate Branson Woods and Westgate Branson Lakes are his two properties in Branson, and the pandemic offered the opportunity to gut and refurbish most of the units in each development. Westgate Branson Lakes rates begin at $127 per night for a one-bedroom villa. One-bedroom, lake view deluxe villas start at $239. Westgate Branson Woods one-bedroom villas start at $159 a night. Three-bedroom cabins are $509 a night. westgateresorts.com/hotels/missouri/branson/
Bass Pro Angler’s Lodge • The newest accommodation in the Big Cedar family of attractions opened in 2020. Just a short drive away are some of the top golf courses in the country, each designed by some of the most recognizable names in golf, such as Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw. This new smoke-free, 94-room lodge features an indoor pool, restaurant and a fitness center, a free buffet breakfast and free self -parking. $218 per night. bassproanglerslodge.com/hollister/
Cabins at Grand Mountain • Thousand Hills Vacation manages 250 units in Branson and added 12 new free-standing cabins in 2020. According to Berry, they are all “hanging off the mountain,” and close to the major theaters in Branson. Each is completely unique. Prices vary greatly due to the variety of sizes. See website for details. thousandhillsvacations.com/cabins/?home_type_id=6341
Payne’s Valley Golf Course • This course opened in 2020, and in 2021 was named the best new public golf course in America by Golf Digest magazine. It is Tiger Woods’ first (and to date only) public access course. Designed by Woods and his TGR team, it pays tribute to the Ozark native Payne Stewart, one of the most respected golfers in the World Golf Hall of Fame. An especially unique feature is the extraordinary 19th hole, which is totally surrounded by water and set within a natural cavern. The course is the fifth in the Big Cedar family of golf courses in Branson. Resort guest green fee: $300, public guest green fee $325, 17 and under $85; bigcedar.com/golf/paynes-valley-course/
GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR TRIP
Lynn Berry, of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB, has these suggestions:
• Come on weekdays if possible.
• Be aware the busiest months are June, July, October and November. Popular but less crowded months are April, May, August and September.
• For the best deals on discount tickets, go directly to the attraction website.
• Do not overlook the opportunities to enjoy free outdoor activities such as hiking and biking.
• The traffic on 76/Country Boulevard, the main route through the entertainment district, can be quite congested. To avoid the backups, become familiar with a road map of Branson and use the color-coded alternative routes. They all connect to 76/Country Boulevard. A map can be downloaded here: bransontourismcenter.com/page/map-of-branson
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