By Jerry Pierce
The connection that Regina and I feel with Branson and the surrounding Ozark Mountain region of southwest Missouri was reinforced earlier this month during another of our many visits to the area over the past 17 years.
She has some loved ones scattered across that part of the country, and we have often combined family get-togethers with mini-vacations in that tourism mecca. The trips have become even more enjoyable in recent years as our grandkids joined us.
There was a somber time there a while back when her former mother-in-law was laid to rest in a mountainside cemetery. She had grown up in the Ozarks and spent much of her life there and was like a second mother to Regina.
But other memories we have made there have always been good. That region keeps reinventing itself, and we have enjoyed every phase of the transformation during getaways for just the two of us and other trips with family and friends.
Shows featuring big-name performers like Andy Williams, Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley and Moe Bandy were the main attractions when we first started going to the Branson area together. They packed theaters every night, and tickets were hard to come by.
We crept along in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Highway 76 main street to get to shows and restaurants before we learned to navigate the red, yellow and blue bypass routes designed to speed up travel to theaters and shopping areas.
There was not an empty seat in the house the first time we saw fiddler and singer Shoji Tabuchi, who lived for a while in Bossier City. The last time we went to his show, there were more seats vacant than filled. Most other stars have left or passed on.
But visitors to Branson, nearby Big Cedar Lodge and other sites in the area have increased even as celebrity theaters and shows by well-known performers have diminished. Countless thousands of tourists still pour into the town that has just 10,000 residents.
We have been to Big Cedar when the rolling hills of the resort were covered with snow that reflected Christmas lights on all the buildings and bonfires along the lakeside. And we baked by the pool on sunny days and sweated at summer fireworks shows at night.
After we had been going to Big Cedar for several years, a new mountaintop golf course was created at the resort. It was designed by Jack Nicklaus and called Top of the Rock. We were there the weekend it opened with a big celebrity golf tournament.
As Regina and I were having dinner in one of the resort’s restaurants, Nicklaus came in on his way to a private room and stopped at our table to chat a minute. My son is a big golf fan and was impressed by the photo I sent him of Nicklaus and Regina.
We went to the tournament the next day and saw Gary Player and other golf greats and had lunch in a restaurant called Arnie’s Barn. It was removed from Arnold Palmer’s farm in Pennsylvania and reassembled at the new golf course.
There was a new attraction at Big Cedar when we were there this month with the grandchildren. It was a gigantic facility called Fun Mountain where we bowled and watched them ride bumper cars and play arcade games. It was part of the transformation in the Ozarks. On a visit last year, we went with the kids to a new attraction called Dogwood Canyon. There were streams, waterfalls, bike trails and wildlife exhibits. It was closed during our trip this year because of floods but will be reopened.
At Branson Landing where we stayed, there were train rides for the kids and synchronized water, fire and music shows at fountains along Lake Taneycomo. From our Hilton Hotel balconies, we saw folks of all ages taking in concerts and riding the zip lines.
Our grandkids were mesmerized, as usual, by the magnificent horses, trick riding, aerial performances, pyrotechnics and lighting displays at the Dixie Stampede variety show.
They squealed on roller coasters, spinning teacups and flying ships at Silver Dollar City, where we watched good music shows and had fresh-squeezed lemonade and cinnamon rolls the size of catcher’s mitts.
We have been caught in a couple of tourist traps over the years and never went back. But we keep returning to Branson and Big Cedar and the Ozarks where tourism thrives because the experiences of visitors are enjoyable and ever-changing.
Our recollections of so many good times in the Ozarks over the years will be enriched and expanded by more warm memories of this year’s trip with the granddaughters.