BRANSON, Mo. — Before the Butterfly Palace and wax museum, even before the Titanic, Branson had a cave and a book.
“We just became Ozark Mountain Country in the late '80s. We've been ‘Shepherd of the Hills' country all the way up to the late '80s — the 1880s,” said Keith Thurman, who manages the Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre, one of the tourist town's oldest attractions. “There is so much history involved in this place.”
Marvel Cave became Branson's first family attraction, opening for public tours in 1894 and providing the impetus for Silver Dollar City, founded in 1960.
In 1898, minister Harold Bell Wright traveled from his Kansas home to the mountains on doctor's orders. He stayed at the homestead of John and Anna Ross, whom he renamed Old Matt and Aunt Mollie in his 1907 novel “The Shepherd of the Hills.” An immediate best-seller, it is said to be the fourth most-read book in publishing history.
It also brought visitors flocking to see Old Matt's homestead, which still stands today. In 1960, the Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama began its run, which continues May through October every year. Other seasonal activities include homestead tours, horseback rides and the Sons of the Pioneers Chuckwagon Dinner Show.
The 230-foot Shepherd of the Hills Inspiration Tower offers a stunning panoramic view year round, and from Valentine's Day to New Year's Eve, adults and big kids can get down the quick and thrilling way via the 170-foot, 50 mph Vigilante Extreme ZipRider.
Silver Dollar City also has grown into a vast theme park, though it keeps its historic flair, with potters, blacksmiths, and other master craftsmen practicing their arts daily. For the hale and hearty, the natural wonders of Marvel Cave are still worth exploring. My 2½-year-old adored the carousel and train, while my 6-year-old loved the Fire in the Hole classic roller coaster and the Grandfather's Mansion funhouse.
But for bigger kids and grown-ups, you can't beat the theme park's new record-setting Outlaw Run, which boasts a 162-foot nearly vertical drop, the steepest drop on a wooden roller coaster, as well as the first and only double barrel roll on a wood coaster. Hitting 68 mph at its fastest, it's a speedy and spine-tingling ride worth waiting a few hours to take.
Other Branson attractions:
Showboat Branson Belle: Modeled on an 1830s riverboat, the stately three-level ship serves up two-hour lunch and dinner tours on Table Rock Lake. Comedian/magician Christopher James, six-man vocal group The ShowMen and multi-instrumentalist Janice Martin, who claims the title of the world's only aerial violinist, were fine accompaniments to our three-course meal.
Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede: One of the biggest and best meals in Branson is served up with a heaping side of ostrich, horse and pig races.
Spa Chateau: Overlooking Table Rock Lake, it offers an extensive menu of services. Between your massage and facial, relax in the steam room or dry sauna, or take a soothing dip in the indoor or the outdoor whirlpools.
Titanic Branson: It merges history, science and sentiment into an immersive all-ages tourist hot spot. It's even shaped like the doomed luxury liner, built to half-scale, and contains more than 400 artifacts from the Titanic and her sister ships.
Butterfly Palace & Rainforest Adventure: Nature enthusiasts, photography buffs and little girls will enjoy getting up close to thousands of exotic butterflies. There's also a collection of rain forest critters like geckos, poison dart frogs and skinks.
Hollywood Entertainment Center: Pose for photos with impressive likenesses of the Star Trek crew, Rooster Cogburn or Indiana Jones in the Hollywood Wax Museum and putt your way to fame on the Shoot for the Stars mini golf course. Little ones will be amused by Hannah's Maze of Mirrors, while older kids will relish the “5D adventure” Castle of Chaos.
The Track Family Fun Parks: The four locations combined offer a dizzying array of kiddie rides, laser tag and batting cages, as well as 14 different go-cart tracks.
Branson Landing: Along with more than 100 stores and restaurants, the downtown shopping district boasts a $7.5 million fountain featuring geysers, water cannons and pyrotechnics.