[ General ]

Branson, Missouri Goes Upscale

Nearly everyone who’s a regular visitor has an I-remember-Branson-when story. Here is Bob Allen’s version: “When I first came down here, the only things in Branson were the Presleys, Silver Dollar City and bait shops.”

Branson started as an Ozark fishing hole, with the Presley family setting up a metal building on Highway 76 in 1967 to provide wholesome entertainment for the sportsmen who used the man-made lakes. That simple start multiplied into some 50 theaters, earning Branson the title of America’s live music capital. The evolution is continuing today, and Allen is a part of it.

Allen grew up in Springfield, Mo., where he was friends with Payne Stewart, the pro golfer who died in a plane accident in 1999 at the age of 42. Now, Allen is the club pro for Branson Hills Golf Co., which is putting the finishing touches on the Payne Stewart Golf Club, a tribute to his friend.

“Each hole of the course tells a story about Payne’s experience on the tour,” Allen said. “The golf course is $27 million, with five sets of tees from 7,400 yards. We can host national events, everything from Tiger to little tigers.”

He led the way through the clubhouse, which has dark wood paneling, an outdoor pool and an area that will display memorabilia, including trophies won by Stewart and pairs of his signature gold-toe golf shoes. Everything in the clubhouse will be linen, crystal and silver — “no paper plates and Styrofoam cups,” Allen said. “It’s all going to be tip-top, Payne would be proud.”

The public golf course will be the 12th in the Branson area — joining John Daly’s Murder Rock as the latest additions — and cements Branson’s role as a golf destination.

Add the upscale shopping at the new Branson Landing, the growing retirement and second-home community, and the recently opened convention center and second Hilton Hotel, and it’s easy to see why Branson’s backers say it has turned the corner in attracting the boomers needed to fill the vacancies left by fading World War II-era veterans and their spouses.

While the housing industry in other parts of the United States is ailing, Branson’s market is holding its own during the national slowdown, said C. Craig Richards, president of Ozark Mountain Bank. “There’s a lot of interest from people outside the area who see real estate in Branson as a good buy,” Richards said. “The cost of construction is lower, as is the cost of land. People from California or Florida can sell their home there and buy three or four times the home for the money in Branson. We’ve got a good school system, good health service. That attracts people who are retirees but also families who want to get away from the big city. There’s a strong feeling of family values in the area, probably tied to strong Christian beliefs.”

The only downside, for Richards, is increased competition. “We’ve had five new banks in the last 10 years,” he said. “They see the same numbers we do as far as commercial development and new home sales. In 1998, there were two homes that sold for over $350,000. Last year, there were more than 30.”

And don’t forget the new full-size airport scheduled to open next spring, said Dan Lennon, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. “As soon as you get outside an eight-hour drive to Branson, some people perceive it’s difficult to give up a day to get here,” Lennon said. “With the new airport, it starts to be more practical for people to fly in. With those further out markets, Branson becomes a weekend getaway.”

Branson’s annual visitation grew 5.2 percent to 8.39 million last year, Lennon said. Over the last two years, total growth was 14 percent while the rest of the national tourism market was seeing 2 percent annual increases. How those numbers will shake out this year, in the face of high fuel prices and a sluggish economy, was an unknown, he added. Lennon emphasized that the culture that Branson was known for is alive and well. You can still find cornpone humor at the Presleys and Baldknobbers shows, motels still offer “2 for $32.95” in the off-season, go-kart tracks and water slides still line Highway 76, and traffic this summer will crawl as the commercial strip fills with gawkers.

But now you can shop for fancy undies at the Victoria’s Secret at Branson Landing, or try out a new boat at the Bass Pro Shop dock on Lake Taneycomo. “The thing that brought the people in the 60s and 70s — the Ozark Mountain experience — that still happens, we’ve just added these higher amenities,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, you’d have the Lawrence Welks. With the boomers, you have Dick Clark, the Acrobats of China, the Liverpool Legends.”

The best known side of the town, the live music shows, also has a new player this season. The $65 million Sight and Sound Theater Branson will open May 24 with a stage area of 26,550 square feet, the equivalent of more that five basketball courts. The stage, largest in North America, is 300 feet long and wraps around three sides of the 2,085 seats, giving the audience the feeling of being inside an ark, with all the animals, for a production of “Noah — The Musical.”

Sight & Sound Theatres is the nation’s largest professional Christian theater company. Its headquarters theater in Lancaster County, Pa., is one of the most-attended live theaters on the East Coast with an annual audience of more than 800,000. Founded in 1976 by Glenn and Shirley Eshelman, the company produces epic biblical stories. Some 100 live animals, 200 “animatronic” animals and 45 human actors will be used in Branson to tell the story of the journey of Noah and his family.

“It’s sometimes called Christian Broadway in Pennsylvania,” said Joan Chowning, who ushered me into the theater where trainers were working with the live animals. “The employees all profess to be Christians. But we welcome the unchurched, as well as the churched, at our theaters.”

Admission for both is $49 an adult, $25 for a teen and $15 for children.

As Allen, the golf pro, mentioned, Silver Dollar City has been around since the beginning. But it also continues to evolve, from a re-created Ozark mining town built above Marvel Cave and featuring arts and crafts, to a quality theme park in a landscaped setting with rides and a full schedule of live entertainment.

The biggest new attraction this season is at Silver Dollar City’s sister park, Celebration City, where Roaring Falls, a $2 million water adventure, makes its debut this spring. General manager John Fitzgibbons gave a blow-by-blow description of the new ride: “Twenty passengers go up five stories in a boat, which falls in a 55-degree drop, ending with a splash that gets everybody in the boat, and everybody on the land nearby, wet. It has an Amazon theme, with crocodiles and hippos and fossilized rocks. There’ll be fog and a mister going, and Amazon noises.”

Celebration City, which is entering its sixth season, now has some 30 rides and attractions, including three roller coasters and a Ferris wheel. The park closes each evening with “Ignite the Night,” which uses three projectors to display images on a water curtain, along with lasers and fireworks and music.

“We have a 50-foot Elvis walking on water and singing,” Fitzgibbons said. “There’s a dance party on the Great Lawn. We get kids, parents and grandparents up and dancing.”

Silver Dollar City, which is a short ride away from Celebration City, also has a full schedule of events with World-Fest, April 3-May 4; Bluegrass & BBQ, May 10-June 1; National Kids Fest, June 7-Aug. 10; Southern Gospel Picnic, Aug. 28-Sept. 7; National Harvest Festival, Sept. 11-Oct. 25; and An Old Time Christmas, Nov. 1-Dec. 30.

Lisa Rau, spokeswoman for Silver Dollar City, said the park uses continuing feedback from customers to update attractions and facilities. “The bottom line is: We are not the boss, the guests are the boss and mostly Mom,” Rauh said. “Roaring Falls is exactly what they wanted. A big, get wet, whole family, thrill ride.”

Information courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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