In the heart of the Ozarks amid quietly rolling hills, hidden caves and rumors of Jesse James’ gold, there’s a neon zip line that leads straight to Jesus. Stretching edge-to-edge across Lake Taneycomo in downtown Branson, Mo., Parakeet Pete’s Waterfront Zipline took us lightening-speed to Mt. Branson and the Adoration Nativity this past December. It’s a postcard-worthy view even without the twinkling of Christmas lights along historic US 65. Branson’s first theatre and show debuted here nearly 50 years ago. Remnants of this bygone era linger throughout the Historic District—from Victorian lampposts and an old-fashioned trolley to the old-time goods in Dick’s 5 & 10. Street-side signs beckoning, “Warm Blackberry Cobbler Served Here,” certainly lured us in. Of course, there’s much more than picturesque views and whiffs of nostalgia in these hills.
“Along with being stunned by the beauty of the Ozark Mountains, first-time planners are always surprised to find out about the quality of hotels and venues that are available here,” says Deborah Cohen, CMP, director of meeting and convention sales for the Branson CVB.
Two Hiltons top off the city’s 4-star downtown hotel inventory, but when it comes to leaving a lasting impression, it’s the hundreds of attractions—from behind-the-scenes tours of live shows to eco-thrills on the Tri-lakes and hands-on workshops in local distilleries—that most write home about. It’s a small city with big character, or as Cohen and her team attest, “we’re #Notyourgrandmasbranson.”
A Thrilling Landing
Tammy Wynette echoes through the Branson Convention Center, connecting modern, light-filled corridors to the city’s country music traditions. We’re told the center is considered the crown jewel of Branson Landing, a $490 million dining, entertainment and retail hub spanning 95 acres along Lake Taneycomo. Ushering the area’s outdoor ambiance indoors are warm woods, sunset hues and natural light—(we’d be remiss not to include the “birds” programmable ballroom lighting in this assessment, which pay homage to a major migratory bird path that hovers above the city) with views of Parakeet Pete’s Steampunk Balloon and Bellagio-inspired fountains in tow.
These little details, along with being connected to the 12-story Hilton Branson Convention Center hotel and the 220,000 sf of combined meeting space this affords, have helped make Branson a popular choice for mid-sized national association meetings.
Outside the downtown core, meeting options are also abundant—ranging from the recently renovated Radisson Hotel Branson, just minutes from bookable world-class museums and a 40-mile heritage tour aboard the Branson Scenic Railway, to tucked away lakeside resorts. Along Table Rock Lake, the AAA Four Diamond Chateau on the Lake Resort Spa & Convention Center offers groups creative spa and culinary VIP experiences in a relaxing setting, along with a 43,500-sf conference center. During our visit, Executive Chef Doug Knopp’s masterful (and massive) gingerbread villages were on display. Groups can participate in culinary team building sessions that are equally dazzling.
Also along Table Rock, Big Cedar Lodge is a nature-aficionado’s dream—about what you’d expect from the founder of Bass Pro Shops. Johnny Morris’ wilderness resort spans 800 carefully preserved acres with accommodations in lodges, cottages and cabins. A 2 1/2-mile golf cart ride amid waterfalls, covered Amish bridges and rustic beauty (including through a four-story cave and cave bar soon to feature a moonshine still) leads to Top of the Rock, one of Big Cedar Lodge’s latest attractions.
The sweeping views and artistic details of Top of the Rock are bigger than the eyes can hold. The inquisitive minds in your group will need plenty of time to explore the 35,000-sf natural history museum. And there are countless places to meet, such as the 3-story Chapel by the Lake, and our favs, a dining room with a hidden bookcase entry, and a wine cellar with glass doors that open to an infinity pool featuring a replica of the famous “End of the Trail” statue. Still, for as much as Top of the Rock touched our hearts, it was the nightly cabin visits from a cookie concierge back at the lodge that tickled our fancy.
Standing on the landing of an exact replica of the Titanic’s grand staircase, its oak paneling, iron grillwork and ormolu garlands reminiscent of Louis XIV’s court, is an experience that happens in only a few places in the world, one being Branson. It’s one of many historic and beautiful, albeit a bit surreal, places where groups of up to 350 can mix and mingle in the Titanic Museum Attraction.
The museum’s early 20th-century ocean liner façade, in-character stewards, experiential exhibits and more than 400 artifacts—including stateroom replicas, coal shoveling and SOS simulations, and realistic brushes with freezing North Atlantic temps—whisk groups back to the ship’s 1912 maiden voyage. “Titanic” composer James Horner’s world-recognized soundtrack plays backdrop to this very immersive experience; Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley’s violin is the latest not to be missed exhibit, on display through May. Groups are handed boarding passes with the names of actual Titanic passengers upon boarding, inspiring them to walk in their shoes until the final exhibits where they learn of “their” fate.
A colorful Titanic cast and crew can also lead groups through a Clue-like after-hours murder mystery tour. Assuming the identity of a real Titanic passenger, they will search for clues throughout the ship’s galleries to discover who among them killed Officer William Garret; with what and where?
Magic & Moonshine
It’s hard to play it cool when you’re walking the plank toward a 100-foot vertical drop, but groups of all ages, our Branson Zipline & Canopy Tours guide Russ Rosencrans tells us, take the plunge. Many end their zip line canopy tour through Wolf Creek Preserve in this way. We ended with the equally daunting 40-foot drop, before checking out the facility’s numerous outdoor meeting spaces.
Events that need a little magic generally make their way to Silver Dollar City, an 1880s theme park that began with tours through Marvel Cave. Today, groups can delight in authentic 1880s cuisine (including how it was made), craftsmanship demonstrations, musical productions that rival Broadway and, of course, adrenaline-filled thrills in the hills. Silver Dollar City’s “Old Time Christmas,” its 5-story Christmas tree and 5 million lights, consistently elevate the city as a top US Christmas destination. If you’re planning a holiday event, we suggest following this up with a chuckwagon dinner show and drive through Shepherd of the Hills’ Trail of Lights, spanning 160 acres with themed lands and exhibits.
Cohen says heritage experiences such as moonshine distilling in the Ozarks hills are the latest craze to sweep the city. Groups can tour and taste moonshine varieties at the Copper Run Distillery. Kayaking, boating or a cruise across the lake by paddle wheel on the Showboat Branson Belle or tropical afternoon among 1,000 free-flying exotic butterflies at the Butterfly Palace & Rainforest Adventure, where a little nectar goes a long way, are also must-do experiences. It’s a magical moment when one of these beautiful winged creatures lands on you. Still, a dulcimer player, “living angel” and thousands of lush plants were the main landing pads for the butterflies that floated throughout the room.