About 3 months before Ruth and I went to Branson for her cousins’ reunion, an article about it, “Branson…shakes off the dust”, appeared. Written by Alan Solomon for the Chicago Tribune, it reported on the changes about to happen there–improvements on MO Highway 76 to reduce traffic crawl, the departure of Yakov Smirnoff after a 23 year run in his own theater, downtown improvements costing $100 million, etc. Many familiar fixtures will remain–Shoji Tabuchi, the Baldknobbers, a couple of Osmonds. etc. Ruth’s Cousin Marge picked Branson for the gathering because 2016 was the last year for Silver Dollar City’s World Fest, which closed May 1.
Solomon was correct when he said that Branson needed “something of a makeover”. Today’s hot tickets are younger acts with lasers, new songs, energy. Branson began to gain fans in the 1970s and 80s with the growth of the SUV culture, The Shepherd of the Hills, live theaters. Today there are about 100 different shows each week, and Branson is host to about 500 military reunions each year. Other new or coming attractions include a Jack Nicklaus designed par-3 golf course 30 minutes from town in a popular resort complex, new walkways and water features along Lake Taneycomo, an indoor theme park called Fritz’s Adventure. Silver Dollar City, which I remembered as a place celebrating Ozark lifestyles and folk arts and crafts is now still that with a large number of blacksmiths, pottery demonstrations, taffy making, etc. But it’s also now more like a contemporary theme park with thrill rides sporting names like Outlaw Run and Thunderation.
World Fest, which had a 23 year run, was said to be America’s largest international festival. Its richness and cultural diversity was a big surprise to me. The cousins and I moved from theater to theater enjoying Polish folk dancers, African acrobats, Irish musicians, etc. Unless Silver Dollar City reconsiders, it was both my first and last World Fest. I don’t know for sure, but I assume that bringing all those acts from all over the world to Missouri was simply getting too expensive. Too bad.
Branson has certainly expanded beyond busy MO 76 since I last visited. Years ago, it was not unusual to spend a few days there and not have a memorable meal. This time we went off-highway and dined in a truly fine restaurant, Florentina’s. Another new attraction reported by Solomon sounds both original and intriguing–Ballparks of America. This will be a complex of replica ballparks hosting summer youth tournaments. Soon, it seems, visitors to Branson will be sharing MO Highway 76 with more teenagers and fewer veterans.