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Branson’s thrills and spills

Courtesy Branson Lakes Area CVB

You wouldn’t know by looking at Branson, Missouri, today, but it all started with a lake.

The town of Branson incorporated in 1912, and tourism business began to boom soon after, when the building of the Ozark Beach Dam formed Lake Taneycomo. The lake became a hot spot for outdoor and swimming enthusiasts. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, entertainers began setting up shows to entertain lake vacationers at night. The shows proved popular, and the balance of the 20th century saw Branson explode into an entertainment hot spot.

Today, this Ozark town consistently tops travelers’ lists of their favorite American tourism destinations. Visitors go there to see some of the more than 120 music and variety shows that play on Branson stages. But they also enjoy more than 60 nonshow attractions in the area, many of which still revolve around the lakes and the beauty of the Ozark Mountains.

For church groups, Branson holds a special appeal, as all of its attractions and activities are clean and friendly. The area won accolades from NTA in 2011 when member tour operators voted Branson one of their four favorite faith-based destinations.

“It’s truly a group effort,” said Lenni Neimeyer, director of leisure group sales at the Branson Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They identified the CVB to receive the award, but we’re a faith-based destination because of all the family-friendly entertainment and attractions here.”

Lakeside Landing
Today, much of the outdoor activity in town still takes place around Branson’s lakes. Lake Taneycomo, the body of water that started it all, is the site of numerous attractions, including the historic Branson Scenic Railway.

“The railway is a pretty fabulous attraction that has been running for a really long time,” Neimeyer said. “It’s a 1940s railcar that goes down into Arkansas, right along the shores of Lake Taneycomo. It’s about an hour-and-a-half excursion, and it’s a really neat experience.”

The 40-mile roundtrip ride takes passengers through a number of tunnels and over bridges and trestles of the Ozark foothills. On Saturdays from May through December, groups can take dinner train excursions with the railway; November and December bring special Polar Express rides. The train operates out of a 1905 depot building, located just one block from the lakeshore.

Groups visiting Lake Taneycomo will want to spend some time at Branson Landing, a $420 million dining, retail and entertainment development along the water. The landing has 90 retail and specialty food shops, including a Bass Pro Shops store, 10 restaurants, and a hotel.

In addition to all of the places to spend money, visitors to the Landing will find a variety of entertaining features and programs. One of the signature attractions is a series of large water fountains in the middle of the complex that are choreographed with music to create shows at the top of every hour.

The development is also the home base of Branson Landing Cruises, a company that operates yacht and paddle-wheeler cruises on the lake.

Tours at Table Rock
In addition to Lake Taneycomo, Table Rock Lake provides additional opportunities for recreation and sightseeing in the Branson area. There are plenty of opportunities for boating, canoeing and kayaking on Table Rock Lake; many groups choose to explore the lake aboard the Branson Ducks, a fleet of amphibious tour vehicles that take visitors exploring both on land and in the water. Now, a new tour option gives groups an up-close look at Table Rock Dam.

“After Sept. 11, the dam closed down, and you couldn’t take tours there anymore,” Neimeyer said. “New they’ve opened it up again. You can actually get on a Duck, come over across the bridge and then go underneath and tour Table Rock Dam. It’s an interesting part of a leisure or educational trip to Branson.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Table Rock Dam and the accompanying powerhouse between 1954 and 1958 . Tours at the dam take visitors down to see where massive machines use water pressure to create hydroelectric power.

Groups will also want to stop at the Dewey Short Visitor center, scheduled to open in early 2012. The center will feature museum exhibits, educational programs, and walking and biking trails, as well as great views of the lake.

“The visitors center is going to be an amazing thing,” Neimeyer said. “The lake is going to be part of the exhibition. Groups can come in and see a film about the building of the dam and the lake.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.