BRANSON, Mo. — In its early years, the little southwest Missouri town of Branson mainly served as a gathering place for fishermen.
Then Marvel Cave — and its tours 500 feet below ground — emerged as a tourist attraction.
That spawned the creation of Silver Dollar City, one of the largest theme parks in the country.
Silver Dollar City, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, in turn stimulated more tourist activity — initially country music venues. The Baldknobbers started entertaining the fishermen on the lakefront in 1959, and now second and third generations of that Mabe family are doing the same thing.
For a town of 6,000 full-time residents, Branson has come a long, long way in the last few years. It boasts a wide variety of tourist activities in close proximity, making it a quick and easy spring break getaway for the family — particularly if someone in the family likes to golf.
Missouri residents call this high-energy community in the heart of the Ozark Mountains the “Las Vegas of the Midwest.” The Oscar-nominated movie “Winter’s Bone” was filmed here.
Some 8.2 million tourists swung by last year, thanks in part to its family-friendly economical options and its location. One-third of the U.S. population is less than a day’s drive away. It’s about an eight-hour road trip from Chicago, or you can fly into one of two nearby airports.
Branson became known for its country music, but its 49 live theaters offer a wide range of entertainment. I especially liked the tribute shows that honored the likes of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, the Blues Brothers, Toby Keith, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley.
Shoji Tabuchi has been a Branson fixture for 22 years, putting on a family-style show in a theater that bears his name. Andy Williams, the legendary crooner, has his own Moon River Theater in Branson, too.
I enjoyed a highly entertaining evening in the Hamner Barber Theater, the showcase for magician Dave Hamner and his long-time partner, ventriloquist Jim Barber. And Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff is still good for plenty of laughs.
Branson also has cruises and fishing along three lakes: Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shoals. And you can hop aboard a replica of the doomed Titanic (billed as the world’s largest museum attraction) for a close-up look at the famous maritime disaster.
Other Branson museums are centered on antique toys, dolls, autos, dinosaurs, butterflies and war veterans. Five water parks will keep the kids entertained, and three outlet malls are nearby.
Visitors can get a taste of the old Branson at the Branson Cafe, a charming dining spot that has been around for 101 years — 82 in the same Main Street location. Less than a block away you’ll find the much newer Branson Landing, a waterfront shopping area. It’s made up of more than 100 upscale boutiques and restaurants flanked by the big Belk’s department store and a huge Bass Pro Shop. Bass is headquartered in nearby Springfield, Mo., where there’s a bigger outlet that’s worth a visit even if you’re not a hunter or fisherman.
In the last few years, Branson has emerged as a golf destination. The general area includes 13 courses that can accommodate all types of players.
Among the eight courses marketed together online at golfbranson.com is Murder Rock. It’s a difficult layout, and PGA Tour player John Daly had a role in its creation. Other options include Branson Creek, designed by Tom Fazio; the spiffy Payne Stewart Golf Club, built in honor of the late two-time U.S. Open champion and local resident who died in a 1999 plane crash, and LedgeStone, which may be the most beautiful of the lot with its sweeping views. The funky but fun Thousand Hills, a Bob Cupp design that features nine par-3s, eight par-4s and one par-5, is worth a visit, too.
A new golf facility, Top of the Rock, is expected to open this summer. It’s supposed to offer a nine-hole course designed by Jack Nicklaus, a practice range from Arnold Palmer and a putting course by Tom Watson.
A track for NASCAR racing also is in the planning stages — another sign that Branson isn’t finished broadening its horizons.
Len Ziehm is a local free-lance writer.