Adventure rides, rock music seeping into tourist town

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BRANSON, MISSOURI — Long lines of tour buses packed with World War II veterans heading to see Roy Clark or Charley Pride have left, replaced by families in cars heading to roller coasters and other youth-friendly attractions in Branson, Missouri.

The tourism mecca of the Midwest is changing as demographics and tastes change, or as older artists retire or pass away.

“Live entertainment, family fun and outdoor adventure are the three pillars of our brand,” said Annie Sowell, Media Relations Manager for the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. from the Branson/Lakes area.

“We have beautiful terrain, absolutely beautiful views, we have three incredible lakes that people can enjoy for recreation or sport, so we really have a lot of opportunities for outdoor adventures,” she said. declared.

There are still tour buses, but the vets on them are more likely from the Vietnam War or Cold War era, and young families arriving by coach have been the trend for some time. And some of the hotels that were built during the boom era of the 1980s, as well as several long-running theaters, have recently been demolished while new family attractions are springing up.

This isn’t the first time the tourism industry has changed in Branson. It probably won’t be the last.

The area’s first “tourists” came for Marvel Cave, now the site of Silver Dollar City. The first major influx of tourists to the city came after the publication of Harold Bell Wright’s 1907 novel “Shepherd of the Hills”.

The first visitors had nothing to do but walk around. The city and the region are adapting.

Then came the advent of float fishing trips in the 1930s, which changed with the construction of the Table Rock Dam. This has created two distinct types of fishing: bass, crappie, and catfish in Table Rock Lake above the dam, and trout fishing downstream in Lake Tanycomo, which has become a dam lake. ‘Cold water.

The founding of Silver Dollar City created another change. Then came the country music boom of the early 1980s, and millions of visitors with it. A number of artists, including the Presleys and the Baldknobbers, had been in Branson since the 1960s. But the music boom brought big names to town.

Since then, shows and attractions have followed one another. Recessions, the 2012 Leap Day tornado and COVID have left their marks.

As artists come and go, so do show styles. Although country music shows still dominate, more rock n’ roll oriented shows fill the halls.

‘Legends of Liverpool’, a Beatles tribute show, was in its own venue which was recently demolished. Today, they headline the Moon River Theatre, once home to Andy Williams and nostalgic shows from the 50s and 60s.

Nearby, “Anthems of Rock” puts on a lively show with 70s and 80s power rock playing.

“We want to offer something for everyone,” Sowell said. “With our visitor profile continuing to be a younger and younger demographic, we really want to offer things to those adults who grew up rocking as teenagers and passing it on to their families. That’s why we’ve branched out of the country, but we’re staying true to our roots.

A number of new entertainment venues have also been added, including the Aquarium on the Boardwalk, a $51 million saltwater aquarium located in the former Grand Palace.

Outdoor adventures have multiplied, from jeep tours to several roller coasters.

Pink Jeep Adventures offers two- and three-hour on- and off-road tours in custom-built jeeps.

“We do off-road tours and try to educate our guests about local history, flora, anything to do with the Ozarks,” said general manager Gerald Jenkins.

Tours include historic tours on public roads, then travel to private property for off-road adventures, including a mountaintop stop with a spectacular view of Table Rock Lake.

The business opened last March.

“It’s been good,” he said. “The more people who come on our tours, the more word spreads.”

The company also has a history. It started years ago in Sedona, Arizona.

“He was a property developer who bought an old Jeep so he could take people to where the property was, and after a while he found that more people were taking the jeep tours for the off-road experience than to see the real estate, so he decided he was in the jeep tour business.

The founder and his wife then visited the Royal Hawaiian Resort which has a “pink” design, and his wife said they should paint the Jeeps pink.

“It’s been that way ever since,” Jenkins said.

Since 2018, the company has been part of Herschend Family Entertainment, the parent company of Silver Dollar City.

Opening earlier this year was Totally Rad eBikes which rents hybrid electric bikes. The bikes have pedals but are mostly electric.

“We just opened a few months ago,” said Chris Canote, one of the companies’ partners. “We think it’s the best way to see Branson up close and personal like you can’t in a vehicle.”

He advises people to pedal up hills to save energy, adding that one charge is usually enough for around 30 miles. The company is trying to plot different routes, but so far the most popular remains 76 Country Boulevard to downtown Branson and Lake Tanycomo.

“It’s so beautiful here. Along the way there are so many great mom and pop shops, and lots of great restaurants,” he said.

He noted that they also have flat parking in the back for practice.

“If you can ride a bike, you can ride an e-bike,” he said.

It’s not all just rebranding. There is a lot of construction going on in Branson which in many cases requires demolitions.

A number of the larger motels along 76 Country Boulevard closed and were demolished. This year the Jim Stafford Theater and the Legends of Liverpool Theater were demolished.

Sowell noted that some hotels had become “run down” while others didn’t fit today’s demographics. Many had been built in the 1980s for bus traffic.

Sowell said bus traffic remains “vital” for the region, but is no longer the driving force it once was. She also said there’s been a trend to focus on attractions along the 76 Country Strip, with hotels located away from the main thoroughfare.

“We’re heading towards that,” she said.

However, topography is important. Due to the slopes and hills, developers must be very aware of the landscape.

“We have a lot of investors who are very intentionally looking for the right places for the right attractions,” she said.

So far this year, Branson has had “the busiest year ever,” Sowell said.

However, it was difficult to predict. On the one hand, there is a pent-up urge to travel and go on vacation due to COVID, but there are also economic concerns.

“Families like to travel by car and like to be in control of how they plan to spend their trip,” she added. “So I don’t think we have to worry too much about people wanting to come to Branson.”

The busiest time for Branson is the summer, when many people come specifically for the fall and Christmas. After Christmas, guest visits slow down considerably, although some hotels, shows and attractions remain open. Sowell said that was something they were also looking to change.

“As for new management, we’re really trying to become a 12-month destination,” she said. “We really want to provide experiences that people can enjoy any time of the year, and people from all demographics, from all family dynamics.”

Traditionally, Branson and surrounding areas were a summer destination. Brad Thomas, president of Silver Dollar City, noted that its popular Harvest Festival was started in the early 1960s as a way to extend the tourist season after Labor Day. The area’s “Old Time Christmas” promotions began in the early 1990s as a way to expand tourism into the months of November and December.

“I learned to never think that we would ever do something,” Thomas said. “For us as an outdoor experience, 30 years ago there were people who thought Christmas would never really become a big deal, but Christmas is an important time of year for us.

“With good planning and good marketing, there could definitely be visitors visiting us in January and February for certain things,” he said.

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