Long a popular tourist destination, Branson has been a place of memories for me, mostly of summer vacations and trips to Silver Dollar City. But this year, I have made two trips to the small town nestled in the Ozark mountains.
My most recent trip was over Labor Day weekend, summer’s last hurrah. My mother, Judy, stepdad, Nelson, and 10-year-old nephew, Zach, and I headed out on a Saturday morning. Once we were past Springfield, we stopped at Lambert’s in Ozark, the second location of the well-known restaurant in Sikeston famous for its “throwed rolls” as well as its comfort-style food. We waited a long time for a table but the catfish was delicious and we were stuffed as we continued our drive on U.S. 65, where the leaves on either side of the freeway were already turning colors.
We were headed to the Chateau on the Lake Resort & Spa on Table Rock Lake. For years I’d been receiving press releases about the property, so I decided to give it a try. To get there we took Missouri Highway 465, also known as Ozark Mountain Highroad, that winds around Branson. We exited briefly on 76, and then hit Missouri 265. Soon the Chateau rose in the distance and we were checking in to the hotel. Our room on the 6th floor was fairly nondescript – two double beds, a small desk and other standard features. What made the room stand out was the view of Table Rock Lake, accessed by the small balcony with two chairs and a small table.
Surprisingly we had to ask for a small refrigerator for the bottled water, snacks and soda we had brought. There was no microwave either, which is fairly standard in more upscale properties.
The 301-room resort is more of a destination property, where guests can use the full-service marina and rent boats and enjoy water sports, fishing and get away from it all. Yet there’s a convenient back way that lands you on the strip in a few minutes, minus the bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The Hilton downtown, which I stayed at earlier in the spring, is more of an urban setting with shops and restaurants within walking distance. I enjoyed Dick’s 5 & 10 and spent some time at the Landing, an upscale outdoor mall development on the banks of Lake Taneycomo that opened in 2006. Anchored by Bass Pro Shop, founded by John Morris of Springfield, who also owns Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, it also features many shops, restaurants and condos, along with a fountain and light show created by the same company that designed the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Branson and Vegas are similar as both are built around an entertainment strip, which serves as the heart and hub of both cities. According to promotional materials, Branson is home to roughly 10,500 people but plays host to more than 7.5 million tourists each year who visit the 50 live music venues on the strip
The Presleys’ Country Jubilee was considered the first variety show on the Branson strip and the family built their own theater on Hwy. 76 in 1967. Roy Clark opened a theater in the early ‘80s and Branson continued to grow. In the early ‘90s, The CBS news show “60 Minutes” featured a segment on Branson and dubbed it the “Live Entertainment Capitol of the World.” In 1992 Andy Williams opened the Moon River Theater, bringing the first non-country act to the strip. The Osmond Brothers, Willie Nelson Wayne Newton and Tony Orlando followed and the strip was booming.
My mom remembered seeing Ray Price, Shoji Tabuchi and the Presley’s show, which I had also seen earlier this year. It features four generations of the family performing country classics from Patsy Cline and George Jones along with gospel tunes and comedy bits.
With the recent economic downtown, Branson has struggled, with some theaters sitting empty and a decline in ticket sales overall. Still, earlier this year Branson was included in TripAdvisor’s top “25 U.S. Destinations,” based on reviews on the site from travelers. That’s not surprising given the variety of attractions, museums, outlet malls and of course lots of shows. We had tickets for three shows that none of us had seen before.
Since it was on the way to the Chateau, first up was Acrobats of China (and the new Shanghai Circus) at the RFD-TV Theater, formerly the Ray Steven’s Theater where Kenny Rogers once performed on a regular basis. The colorful costumes and skilled performances of the artists made it a visual delight and the different dance and acrobatic acts and scenes move quickly.
We thought the first half of the show was better than the second but it’s family entertainment that’s sure to please.
That night we had tickets to see the 8 p.m. show of The Legends in Concert at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater, a live musical celebrity tribute show. First we rested a bit at the Chateau and Zach and I wandered around and found the indoor and outdoor swimming pools and The Sassafras Theater, which offers complimentary movies. We also sat on the balcony and ate some leftovers from Lamberts and then freshened up.
The concierge had given me directions to Fall Creek Road, which is a quick, convenient route to the strip. Inside the venue, the Elvis and Whitney Houston impersonators greeted us in the lobby. There were lots of people milling around the gift shop and buying refreshments; I bought some popcorn.
Then we found our seats. Inside the show, which is produced by a company in Las Vegas, “Kenny Chesney” was the first performer. Although a bit taller, he had an amazing likeness to the country music star and a solid singing voice. My parents weren’t big on the performers impersonating pop sensations Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry, but I enjoyed them. My expectations were probably too high for Elvis, and Houston owns the song “I Will Always Love You,” and only she can belt it out with the nuance and power that usually gives me chills. Now that she’s dead, seeing images of Houston on the large screen juxtaposed with the impersonator made the song even more emotional.
We all agreed that the Blues Brothers were one of the best acts. With major stage presence and energy, they rocked the house that night, and that’s probably why they’re regulars on the show, which rotates performers. I would definitely return to see other impersonators perform. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, The Legends in Concert will feature Rod Stewart, Nat King Cole, Reba McEntire and Elvis impersonators. The Legends features a Christmas Spectacular, too.
Back at our room at the Chateau we all plopped on our beds and vegged. For Zach, just using the room key and checking out everything in the hotel was fun, including the waterfall in the lobby, with koi swimming in a small pool.
I woke up first on Sunday morning and went down to the Sweet Shoppe for some coffee and enjoyed looking at the tempting cakes and pastries in the case. There was a coffee maker in the room but wanted to save that for Mom. Dad and Zach had breakfast at the Chateau Grille. Other food offerings at the Chateau included a Downstairs Deli for sandwiches and salads, an Atrium Cafe & Wine Bar and the Library Lounge.
I had already booked some time at the Spa Chateau, a European-style spa, located in a separate building near the entrance to the hotel. I waited in the women’s lounge areas until Olga took me to the private darkened room for my Dogwood Signature Facial. Olga, who moved to Branson from Russia, was soft-spoken and the music playing in the background was soothing, too.
First she cleaned my face with an aloe gel followed by a pear fig polishing enzyme peel with a white tea antioxidant mask, which she left on for a while. The smells of the carrot seed facial oil and Beech Tree Ginseng daily moisturizer were amazing and the treatment included a scalp massage and warm foot treatment. For my eye’s she used Vitamin K brightening eye serum and for lips there was a honey vanilla lip balm.
All customers have use of the spa’s steam room and whirlpool along with the Infinity Tub and outdoor Roman Bath for the entire day of their service. We had tickets to the 3 p.m. show at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Branson.
My stepdad had always wanted to see the show and we felt it was right up Zach’s alley. We arrived early and first checked out some of the “stars” of the show, the horses munching hay in their stalls outside the venue. The black Friesian horse, described as a cross between a Clydesdale and an Arabian, served as the mount of the master of ceremonies. Later I found out the horse was imported from the Netherlands and only 500 of this rare breed exist in the U.S.
We walked with others to the carriage room for the pre-show, where my dad bought some tourist priced soft drinks in plastic souvenir cups for us while we watched a juggler perform tricks. Then it was time to head to the very large arena for the main event.
We had wonderful seats for the show, which tells the story of the settlers making their way to the Wild West. There’s numerous horse acts, including the Roman Ring of Fire, and lots of pageantry. Our usher called them the “The Dolly Seats” as they were right above her large portrait of the country music legend hanging below. Right on the dividing line of the large arena Mom and I ended up in the North section while dad and Zach were part of the South contingent. That day, there were 1,000 people expected, close to a full house, but our waiters were very efficient, serving the four-course meal of creamy vegetable soup in the bowl with a handle and a small, rotisserie chicken with sides including corn on the cob and hot, homemade biscuit, everything eaten with your hands; there’s no silverware provided but plenty of wet wipes.
The show was fun, action-packed and as American as apple pie; it was one of my parent’s and Zach’s favorite parts of the trip. Stuffed, with doggie bags in tow, we headed back to the hotel. So far this trip, we hadn’t eaten at any of the restaurants in Branson. On the way we passed the Fall Creek Steak & Catfish House that Dad had heard was a great restaurant, with tossed rolls, too.
Once back at the hotel, Zach and I headed down to the pool area, moving from the less-crowded indoor one to the large outdoor one with a view of the lake. Lots of people were mingling around as there was a barbecue going on nearby under a white tent with a band playing in honor of the Labor Day holiday.
After swimming until early evening, we watched some of the fireworks from our balcony. The next morning, we all ate from the breakfast buffet, with custom-made omelets, pancakes, pastries and the works with fresh-squeezed orange juice. Then we headed out as the rain poured until we reached Lebanon.
The Ozark Mountain Christmas Celebration in Branson began in 1988 and the town transforms itself for the holidays.
The Ozark Mountain Christmas Package at Chateau on the Lake Resort & Spa will be offered through Dec. 30. The package includes two-nights stay, a $50 food and beverage credit (to use during your stay) and free indoor parking. The package includes day tickets for two adults to the Silver Dollar City’s An Old Time Christmas festival. www.ChateauOnTheLake.com
Sha Na Na’s Rockin’ Christmas Show is Nov. 24 – Dec. 6 at Andy Williams Moon River Theater. www.andywilliamstheatre.com
The Polar Express train ride takes off of the popular Christmas movie and parents and children can wear their pajamas, sip cocoa and cookies as they ride the Branson Scenic Railway. www.bransontrain.com/polar-express/tickets/
Christmas at Dixie Stampede runs from now through Jan. 3, 2015, and features waiters dressed as elves. The show features a Toys Come to Life musical number along with a living nativity and a visit from Santa. www.dixiestampede.com
Silver Dollar City’s “An Old Time Christmas” festival is underway runs through Dec. 30 and features a holiday light parade and musical production of A Dickens’ Christmas Carol and a Living Nativity show. www.silverdollarcity.com
Christmas on the Trail Chuckwagon Dinner Show includes a trip through the Trail of Lights, a 2 ½-mile drive through the light show in the 160-acre Shepherd of the Hills Homestead. www.christmasonthetrail.com