The Missouri town of Branson is booming with wholesome visitor attractions.
BRANSON, Mo. — Wheel into town and the eyes come under assault.
It’s as if Donald Trump married an Ozarks girl and took to redecorating her town. Gold meets calico.
Drive through the hills of Branson and signs fight for your attention, mostly touting an attraction more patriotic, more church-loving, more family-friendly, more country than the next.
Even the neon of today is faithful to Branson’s down-home beginnings of a century ago.
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This Ozarks crossroads lacks L.A.’s beaches, Aspen’s slopes, Manhattan’s buzz. And it certainly doesn’t celebrate sin like Las Vegas.
Yet part by calculation, part by happenstance and part by the celebration of hillbilly chic, Branson has grown into a prosperous getaway. It drew 7.5 million visitors last year, slightly fewer than the year before. By one calculation, it ranks 25th on the country’s list of most popular tourist destinations.
Missouri’s holiday holler has shown tourism staying power. Even as it celebrates its 100th birthday this spring with a series of events marking its 1912 incorporation, it remains a mild miracle that bloomed into a country music company town.
It’s in the midst of healing the wounds from a tornado that bulled through part of its commercial strip earlier this year. And it’s still adjusting to the last big growth spurt that came in the 1990s.
Its marquee acts, and just as importantly their fans, are aging. The eclectic collection of G-rated attractions in town doesn’t just hustle to draw folks to southwest Missouri, but competes to draw them once they land (now more conveniently at a new airport). And the perception of the city as a place where country music legends still play after their touring days has been watered down a bit.
Still, Branson stands as a thriving budget vacation spot linked to an earlier age and the pastimes and entertainers that came with it. Community leaders feel no embarrassment peddling country sensibilities — maybe even Grandpa’s version of country — even as they try to update to 21st century audiences.
“We feel like it’s a wholesome place,” said Raeanne Presley. She’s mayor and a married-in member of one of the oldest theater families in town. “We’re proud of our country. We talk about faith. We’re about families.”
This big little city makes its dough at places like the God and Country Theater, the Baldknobbers Jamboree Music Show and the Gone With the Wind Book and Film Museum.
Yet Branson also is moving beyond country music. Locals concede the audience for the old stuff may be dwindling, so they talk excitedly about Chinese acrobats from the New Shanghai Circus seen at the Beijing Olympics setting up shop in town. There’s a Titanic exhibit.
Likewise, the Sight & Sound Theater opened in 2008 with a 110-foot-wide stage flanked by 50-foot-wings that nearly encircle 2,085 seats. It’s “where the Bible comes to Life” in elaborate musicals. Think Christian Broadway.
“It’s a great place where we know our audience will find us,” said director Earl Grove.
He’s cast his 40 actors from more than a dozen auditions held across the country. They’ll stay, like so many in Branson, for a tourist season that generally runs from March through December.
It’s a town of about 10,500 year-round souls that swells to 60,000 or 70,000 for 10 months of the year. That means it has to have the sewers, the cops and the firefighters for a town much larger than residents could afford on their own.
Luckily, it’s got a herd of cash cows in its hotels and theaters that pick up the tab through the collection of tourist taxes.