Christmas in the Ozarks has become big business for Branson. The southwest Missouri town of 7,435 welcomes the holiday season with dancing Santas, reindeer, penguins and millions of twinkling lights.
Twenty years ago, Branson nearly shut down after Halloween until the spring season. But now, November and December are Branson’s second busiest period — exceeded only in numbers of visitors by the summer onslaught of families with kids interested in miniature golf, bumper cars and boats, go-karts and swimming in the area’s three lakes.
Branson’s older visitors are often the town’s best customers during the holidays. On a recent Friday night, 24 buses (or coaches, as insiders refer to them) sat outside fiddler Shoji Tabuchi’s show.
Another favorite — singer Andy Williams — sings about Christmas being “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” He’ll celebrate his 80th birthday on Dec. 3 with 4,000 of his closest friends in two shows he’ll be doing that day at his Moon River Theatre.
And a few other acts include:
— Singer-comedian Jim Stafford gives audience members a reason to ho-ho-ho as he dons a Santa suit each night at his show.
— Fiddler Shoji Tabuchi, who performs holiday tunes, is often surrounded by 7-foot tall reindeer standing on their hind legs. The reindeer return later wearing hula skirts and coconut bras to do another dance with Tabuchi, who wears an aqua blue jacket emblazoned with sequined pineapples.
— Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff is backed up by Frosty the Snowman, Santa and a Russian dance troupe.
— Country’s Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers, Lawrence Welk’s Lennon Sisters, “Mr. Banjo” Buck Trent and Mel Tillis spend much of the holidays entertaining busloads of tourists and those who “drive on their own” to Branson. Many of the big-name shows will shut down by Dec. 15 until the spring season begins in early April.
SILVER DOLLAR CHRISTMAS
By far the biggest Christmas spectacular is “An Old Time Christmas” at Silver Dollar City, which switched this year to more energy-efficient lights, cutting its energy usage to 20 percent of what it was a year ago, explained Brad Thomas, park general manager.
This year, the park’s Main Street features a five-story special effects Christmas tree covered with 300,000 lights that glow and flash in unison to music that begins at 5:30 p.m. and continues every 15 minutes after that. More than 450,000 lights adorn the surrounding 10 storefronts and 250 cut pine trees. A Gifts of Christmas Light Parade with 80,000 lights winds through the park twice each night. In addition, Silver Dollar City’s excellent production of “A Dickens’ Christmas Carol” with 14 actors is performed six times daily, along with a “live” nativity scene.
On a recent Saturday night, a wedding party delayed the ceremony to watch the tree-lighting before exchanging vows in the park’s picturesque Wilderness Chapel.
Toby Thompson of Topeka, Kan., brings his wife, son and in-laws to Branson each year for Thanksgiving and a family reunion. However this year, the reunion has moved to Fort Worth, Texas. But they took a quick three-day trip to Branson over Veteran’s Day weekend, anyway. “We enjoy coming here for the Christmas activities and staying in a log cabin,” he said. “The area is just so beautiful that we love coming here. And the women love to go shopping here.”
The Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce survey confirms that 88 percent of its nearly 8 million visitors last year report going shopping in Branson compared with 84 percent attending shows, 36 percent going to theme parks and 33 percent to museums. Other tourists went to the lake (29 percent), participated in outdoor activities (8 percent) and played golf (5 percent).
Branson’s newest shopping complex, the $420 million Branson Landing, which opened in May last year, has been renamed Branson Winter WonderLanding for the season, with Santa setting up in a 50-foot illuminated Christmas Treehouse with its own fireplace. The outdoor mall along Lake Taneycomo is adorned with 20 million sparkling lights. The $7.5 million Branson Landing fountains are choreographed to holiday songs as they shoot water 120 feet into the air and five cannon blast fireballs above the lake.
Information St. Louis Post-Dispatch