How Branson is Winning the Tourist Wars

The city of country music and tour buses is undergoing a personality change. Eight Branson leaders—including Craig Wescott, Jeff Seifried and Mayor Karen Best—discuss what's next for our region's tourist mecca. Branson’s next act is here.

By Ettie Berneking

May 2018

The Track Family Fun Park and the Branson, Missouri Skyline
Photo courtesy Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVBState-of-the-art attractions, infrastructure upgrades and novel branding tactics are casting a new—and cooler—light on 417-land’s tourist mecca.

Surrounded by 177 acres of forested mountainside, Jeff Johnson is immersed in one of the few slivers of Branson not illuminated by neon and headlights.

Here, you’re boxed in by papery river birch and dogwood trees, which make it easy to slip back in time to when the thick forest and oddly mysterious beauty of the Ozark Mountains drew people to Branson. Located on the outskirts of town, Johnson is in the middle of Branson’s original tourist attraction. There are no bright lights, no guitars, no piped-in music, no dinner theatre. Just trees, nature, antique carriages and log cabins.

Welcome to Shepherd of the Hills Homestead Adventure Park. This slice of Ozarks life was here before Silver Dollar City’s roller coasters rose out of the rocky hillside. It was here before Johnny Morris’s pristine golf courses netted national attention. It was here before the Mabe and Presley families turned a 5-mile stretch of Highway 76 into the Live Music Capital of the Universe. And now, it’s part of Branson’s history that’s fighting to survive.

Since it first celebrated the title of township in 1912, Branson has undergone numerous transformations from a prime fishing and outdoor retreat to a hub for country music and live theatre. But its most recent shift has some wondering if Branson is at risk of losing its roots. Johnson, the newest owner of the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead Adventure Park, is one of those concerned. “The history of this area is getting lost,” he says. “And our history is important. A lot of people think Branson got started because of country music, but before the rides, before the lights, a shepherd walked these hills.”

Branson By the Numbers

Video courtesy Branson Convention & Visitors Bureau

Past and Present

In 1907, that shepherd was Dad Howitt. Howitt is the main character in Harold Bell Wright’s best-selling novel The Shepherd of the Hills. The book’s web of love, faith, personal discovery and family loyalty unwinds in the sleepy town of Mutton Hollow, a fictional town set in the Ozarks. The simple lifestyle of the backwoods community quickly attracted visitors who were eager to see if the untamed beauty inked out by Wright really did exist in the rugged mountainside. For decades, travelers flocked to the homestead that served as the inspiration for the book. It wasn’t until 1957 that the story of The Shepherd of the  Hills was reworked as a play and performed at the outdoor amphitheater built on the property.

Shepherd of the Hills Homestead Adventure Park in Branson, Missouri
Photo courtesy Shepherd of the Hills Homestead Adventure ParkDating back to the early 1900s, Shepherd of the Hills Homestead Adventure Park was the first tourist attraction in Branson. Jeff Johnson purchased it in 2017 and has added 21st-century amenities.

By this time, Silver Dollar City was starting to take the lead as Branson’s top attraction, and in 1963, the 1880s-themed amusement park was Missouri’s No. 1 tourist destination. The number of visitors venturing to Branson then was nothing compared to the tourism boom the city enjoyed after 60 Minutes crowned the city the Live Music Capital of the Universe in 1991. By the time stars including Loretta Lynn, Andy Williams, Tony Orlando and more were performing in Branson, the city was on its third or fourth tag line. 

The live music was a big draw, and the city’s tourist season began to stretch beyond the summer. But more than two decades later, Branson is once again moving into a new tourism niche. This time, the focus is on sports and the outdoors. Award-winning golf courses now host nationally broadcast tournaments, and zip lines stretch through treetops as new ballparks and waterslides attract a whole new crop of visitors. Overall, tourism numbers are up, but the lingering reputation as a Stetson-studded vacation spot where tour buses cram the streets has been a bit of a stumbling block. “When our season grew, it grew with music shows and country music,” says Craig Wescott, CEO and co-owner of The Track Family Fun Parks. “That was great, but it also painted us into a corner at one point.”

Branson's Many Booms

Harold Bell Wright, author of best-selling novel The Shepherd of the Hills

1907: The popular novel The Shepherd of the Hills is published, and visitors flock to the humble homestead that served as the inspiration for the book.

Old photo of Marvel Cave in Branson, Missouri

1950: The Herschend family purchases Marvel Cave and takes over tours. Some 8,000 visitors ventured into the cave each year.

Table Rock Lake at Sunset

1958: Table Rock Lake is created, and the Ozarks’ smattering of lakes and rivers becomes an even more popular fishing destination.

Old Map Illustration of 1880's-themed amusement park, Silver Dollar City.

1960: The Herschends unveil their new 1880s-themed amusement park, Silver Dollar City. The family builds the park’s first ride in 1962 and launches the annual crafts festival in 1963.

The Presley Family's first live music theatre in Branson Missouri.

1967: The Presley family builds the first live music theater in Branson. Today, the city is home to more than 140 shows.

60 Minutes story that dubbed Branson the Live Music Capital of the Universe.

1991: 60 Minutes runs a story on Branson and dubs the city the Live Music Capital of the Universe.

Top of the Rock golf course in Ridgedale outside of Branson, Missouri.

2014: Top of the Rock reopens, and Branson begins building new outdoor attractions to showcase the natural beauty of the Ozarks.

Christmas tree at Silver Dollar City's Christmas festival.

2015: Branson markets itself as America’s Christmas Tree City and sees its winter tourism numbers increase.

A young pitcher in a game at Ball Parks of America in Branson, Missouri.

2018: Branson focuses on rounding out its attractions with outdoor amenities, live shows and athletic competitions.

Wescott grew up in Branson. His dad was the one who started the family business in 1981. Back then, the tourist season was a snappy four-month run. “If your doors were open before mid-May or after mid-September, it was a waste,” Wescott says. “The tourist attractions were all family-focused with a handful of music shows.” Today, Branson is much more than country music, and its tourist season has inched closer and closer to year-round. It’s been a 30-year collaboration between city officials, the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB and the city’s business community, but it’s finally paying off.

In fact, 2016 was a banner year for Branson. An estimated 9 million people visited the city—and not just for country music. Newer attractions including golf, baseball and indoor water parks helped boost the city’s tourism numbers, but that doesn’t mean Branson’s work is done and it can shed its down-home reputation. “We’re still learning that people don’t realize we have more than music shows,” Wescott says. “The shows are still important to the market, but they’re changing too.”

What’s also changing—even if it’s at a glacial pace—is the average age of tourists sojourning in the Ozarks. For many years, Branson’s visitors ranged in age from 56 to 75-plus. In the past few years, there’s been a drop in the 75-plus crowd as the city has shifted attention to courting a slightly younger demographic. “It’s about family attractions with an outdoor focus,” Wescott says. “That ranges from the lakes to the new golf courses.” With thousands of hotel rooms plus attractions for all ages, Branson sees itself primed to be a new destination for athletic competitions, business conferences and national association meetings. In 2015, Branson made a big leap in that arena when it hosted the Student & Youth Travel Association, a national organization of tourist operators, travel agencies and students who work to “provide travel experiences for students and youth in order to enhance their social, cultural and educational growth,” according to the organization’s website. In previous years, the group has headed to New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto and Albuquerque, New Mexico, for its annual conference. But in 2015, attendees found themselves in Branson, Missouri. 

There’s no doubt that the Christian minister who wrote the book about faith, redemption, love and romance left a lasting impression on Branson, and it’s a big driver behind the way the city is today.

—Jeff Johnson, Owner of Shepherd of the Hills Homestead Adventure Park

“Some of them came here kicking and screaming,” Wescott says. “But they loved it. They now bring their families back.” Wescott was one of Branson’s many business owners who hosted the event in hopes of demonstrating the area’s appeal as a student destination. During the conference, he met a man from Kansas City who had never been to Branson. Why? “He said he’d never been here because he’s not into country music,” Wescott says. For some business owners in the area, that might be a maddening answer, but Wescott just laughs. He has heard that reasoning a thousand times. “All people have ever heard is this is the old person, country music capital,” he says, and he understands why Branson has that reputation. In the ’80s and ’90s, that description wasn’t far off. “That was when we saw the addition and growth of the music scene,” Wescott explains. “And that brought another customer… the kind on buses that saw three shows a day.”

But that generation is now fading from the tourist crowds. In order to stay relevant and keep tourism up, Branson has to attract a younger crowd that wants to visit the city year-round. This makes some business owners and residents uneasy. No one wants Branson to become the Vegas of the Midwest. For many people, part of Branson’s charm is its family-friendly atmosphere where wholesome fun meets outdoor attractions and PG entertainment. For those who are worried that the city is now focused on bringing in a younger audience, Jeff Seifried, president and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB, is here to alleviate those worries. 

“I think there’s a perception that we’re trying to attract a bunch of millennials,” he says. “That’s never been the case.” But if he’s not after millennials, Seifried is also not focused on bringing in senior citizens. So what type of “younger” demographic is the business community and CVB targeting? It’s mostly families. “We serve multiple generations,” Seifried says. “Summertime is really driven by the family experience, and the shoulder seasons [are] when adult couples fill in the void.” That means Seifried and the Chamber are focused on entertainment for all ages, and as the city’s tourism season grows beyond summer, businesses are looking for ways to fill in the shoulder seasons in the fall and spring when tourism dips. Already, that effort is paying off. What used to be a five-month tourism season is now a 10-month run.

Making Modern Updates in Branson

Video courtesy The Track Family Fun Parks

The Changing Playbook

To accommodate the longer season, businesses and the 146 shows around Branson have had to make changes. At attractions such as The Track Family Fun Parks, that meant investing in new attractions and consolidating locations. “We were at a point where my dad had built up to five locations all here in Branson,” Wescott says. “They were as little as half a mile apart. That sounds crazy because it wouldn’t make sense in a lot of cities, but in Branson, it was about having X amount of locations to serve a set number of hotel rooms.”

When Wescott took over the family business in 2001, he and his business partners decided to give the parks a breath of fresh air. They set to work building the first three-story go-kart track and shrunk the number of locations from five to three. All three locations now have a high-rise go-kart track. “For our industry, this was one of the newest things,” Wescott says. “It’s on a wooden surface, so it makes you feel like you’re on a wooden roller coaster.” Hugging Highway 76, the high-rise tracks send visitors careening over the line of traffic snaking by below. The new attraction worked. Wescott saw attendance nearly double the year after the track was built. Based on gate admission, he estimates the number of riders jumped from 150,000 to 300,000. Then in 2016, The Track Family Fun Parks gave its curb appeal another big bump.

Craig Wescott, CEO and Co-owner of The Track Family Fun Parks in Branson Missouri
Photo by Brandon Alms

“The focus is back on more family attractions, but it’s different than 30 years ago. Now that focus includes more outdoor attractions.”—Craig Wescott, CEO and Co-owner of The Track Family Fun Parks

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Multi-story wooden go-kart tracks at The Track Family Fun Parks in Branson, Missouri.
Photo courtesy Clear Entertainment & Marketing Group

Multi-story wooden go-kart tracks modernize The Track Family Fun Parks. The year after the first one was completed, attendance doubled.

Towering above the iconic strip, the red and white Branson Ferris Wheel fights for airspace with the larger-than-life Big Foot, which holds the title of tallest structure in Branson. “Branson was perfect for this,” Wescott says of the wheel. “It looks beautiful with the scenery and the traffic from Highway 76 going by.” When the idea to add a Ferris wheel was first floated, it seemed an unlikely accomplishment. A new wheel can cost between $10 and $25 million, but then Wescott got word about a vintage Ferris wheel. “It’s 20 years old,” he says. “But we got what money can’t buy. We got a piece of history.” 

The Ferris wheel Wescott unearthed is the same one that stood on Chicago’s Navy Pier from 1995 to 2015. And at $4 million, it was much more palatable of an investment. It took 26 semi-trucks four days to haul the deconstructed wheel from Chicago to Branson, but it was worth the trip. Its history and nostalgia have been big selling points for the park. “We have since hosted many visitors from Chicago, some who had never ridden the Ferris wheel when it was in their own backyard,” Wescott says. The wheel enamors a 3-year-old just as much as it enthralls a 100-year-old visitor named Alice who hopped on the wheel out of a sense of nostalgia. 

Even with the glamorous Ferris wheel twirling overhead, Wescott’s not blind to the fact that his parks are not what draw visitors to Branson. “People aren’t going to come to Branson to ride our go-karts,” he says. “But we can still be high on that to-do list when they do get here.” The key to success, as Wescott sees it, is continuing to balance the charm and history of the Ozarks with new technologies and entertainment. It’s the same business plan Silver Dollar City has had in place since it first opened in 1960.

Silver Dollar City Time Traveler roller coaster
Photo courtesy Silver Dollar CitySilver Dollar City, the 1880s-themed amusement park, invests millions of dollars in record-breaking modern roller coasters, such as Time Traveler, which opened in March.

“We’ve always had a balance,” says Brad Thomas, president of Silver Dollar City Attractions. That balance is a special spice where the key ingredient is family fun. Among the shows, the cooking classes, the restaurants, the rides, the coasters, the crafts, the cave and the festivals, SDC has thought of everyone. There are thrills for the adrenaline junkies and blacksmiths and potters for the history buffs. Like Branson, Silver Dollar City has embraced its history, but it’s also constantly upgrading its attractions.

Back in 1962, the park’s very first ride featured authentic stagecoaches pulled by teams of horses. The first coaster didn’t arrive until 1972, when Fire in the Hole took the park in a slightly new direction. But even with roller coasters creeping out of the rocky terrain, the park managed to retain its 1880s atmosphere. Each new ride and show has to reflect the character of the 19th century coal mining town that serves as the inspiration for the park. It might be old-fashioned in style, but the park has invested millions of dollars in new technology. 

In 2013, Silver Dollar City sunk $10 million in Outlaw Run, but it was well worth the hefty price tag. The wooden roller coaster quickly made headlines across the country as it was added to the Guinness World Records as the steepest wooden roller coaster. News outlets including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Fox News, Travel Channel, USA Today and NBC News applauded the ambitious and thrilling ride. One seasoned coaster rider for The New York Times described first seeing the wooden coaster as a “revelation” in a 2014 article. “The Silver Dollar City theme park is tucked so deep into the Ozark Mountains that its rides aren’t visible from the parking lot,” he wrote, later adding: “Then comes the ride’s most magical moment: A double barrel roll weaves you through wood and trees that spin before your eyes.”

That’s one of the big secrets to success. If you’re not improving, you’re falling behind.

—Ann McDowell, Executive Director of Project Branson

For as much press and national attention as Outlaw Run has brought Silver Dollar City, there’s a good chance the newest roller coaster, which opened in March, will blow Outlaw Run out of the water. Priced at $26 million, Time Traveler is the park’s largest investment. With top speeds of 50.3 mph, three inversions, a vertical loop that tops out at 95 feet, plus a 10-story, 90-degree drop, Time Traveler is being called the world’s fastest, steepest and tallest complete-circuit spinning roller coaster. There’s nothing old-fashioned about this ride. It thrills, terrifies and mystifies all at once.

Like the city of Branson, the average visitor at Silver Dollar City doesn’t fit just one demographic. There are families, school groups, empty nesters, retired couples and church groups. Staying relevant and exciting means meeting the needs and wishes of each of those visitors, and Silver Dollar City has artfully struck that balance since the park opened in 1960. Today, more than 2 million people visit the amusement park each year. That puts SDC closely in line with the St. Louis Arch. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Arch attracted 2.3 million visitors in 2013. Part of the park’s success has been its willingness to embrace its Ozarks history and character. That same approach has been a hole in one for Johnny Morris’s outdoorsy empire at Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock.

The Arnold Palmer Driving Range at Top of the Rock capitalizes on the natural features of the Ozarks and provides golfers with beautiful views of Table Rock Lake.
Photo courtesy Big Cedar LodgeThe Arnold Palmer Driving Range at Top of the Rock capitalizes on the natural features of the Ozarks and provides golfers with beautiful views of Table Rock Lake.

Deep in the heart of the Ozark Mountains in neighboring Ridgedale, Big Cedar is something of a love letter from Johnny Morris to the region’s natural landscape and pristine waterways. While other business tycoons were investing in resorts and spas in sunny California, New Mexico, Arizona and Massachusetts, Morris was deepening his roots throughout the Ozarks. Instead of palm trees and sandy beaches, Morris attracted visitors with the allure of dense forest, gurgling streams and views of sprawling lakes.

And much like Morris’s true claim to fame—Bass Pro Shops—Big Cedar embraces the Ozark environment in an unrelenting bear hug. Mounted fish and taxidermic deer busts are never far from sight, and private log cabins peek through the thick woods. But the truth is, there’s nothing really rustic about Big Cedar. Every detail and accommodation has been carefully considered. The spa and resort is a woodsy oasis where you can enjoy a high-priced massage and facial followed by an elegant meal and stellar views of Table Rock Lake.

That blend of indulgence and pastoral beauty is why Big Cedar was ranked the No. 3 Top Resort in the Midwest by Conde Nast Traveler in the publication’s Reader Choice Awards for 2017. That is just a drop in the resort’s steady stream of glowing reviews and press coverage. Travel + Leisure named Big Cedar one of the world’s best family hotels along with household names including Ritz-Carlton, Disney and Four Seasons. Southern Living added the Ozarks retreat to its list of Top 10 Resorts in the Country, and The Wall Street Journal called it the Best of the Best

Similar reviews are likely to follow for Top of the Rock Lodge, a 100-plus room resort that Morris announced this April. The Lodge will sit near the site of a sinkhole that opened at Top of the Rock in 2015. Crews excavating the area unearthed 200-foot canyons and impressive limestone formations—dubbed The Cathedral of Nature by Morris—that will serve as the resort’s focal point. Each room will overlook The Cathedral and Table Rock Lake, and if that’s not enough, guests can take a dip in the infinity pool that seemingly floats above the canyons below. Construction is set to start this summer, though Morris has not announced an opening date.

The tourist in this region is ever changing, but we always find innovative ways to connect them with those things that make us all love the Ozarks.

—Debbie Bennett, Vice President of Hospitality for Bass Pro Shops with Big Cedar Lodge

For nearly 30 years, Morris has focused on providing visitors with pristine fishing and hiking and an immersion into wilderness that is hard to beat. His latest venture, golf, has proven to be equally successful. Already, Morris has built three pristine golf courses on Big Cedar’s property. His Top of the Rock course had golfing pros and enthusiasts drooling. Golf Magazine wrote, “Hole for hole, Top of the Rock is the most memorable par-3 layout in the country.” For many natives, this sprawling golf course and recreational destination with its bird’s-eye view of the blue water below is the area’s crown jewel. And for good reason. Top of the Rock highlights the Ozarks’ natural beauty with all the pomp and circumstance it deserves, including a bagpipe serenade at sunset and an underground bar built into the side of a cave. You can hop on a golf cart, tour through the property’s cavernous underworld and crack open a Bud Light while you marvel at the wonders around you.

It’s hard to track just how beneficial the golf courses have already been for Branson. But even without years of hard data and metrics, it’s clear Top of the Rock has brought the city back into the national spotlight. One of the most obvious indicators is Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Tournament at Big Cedar Lodge, which Morris has hosted since 2014. The celebrity-studded event, played on the Top of the Rock and Buffalo Ridge Springs golf courses, was broadcast to more than 300 million homes in more than 200 countries in 2016 and 2017. Top of the Rock was the first par-3 course to stage a PGA-sanctioned event, and the meandering green dug into the hilly mountainside took Morris and golf legends Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer nearly eight years to design and build. 

Morris hasn’t stopped there. In 2017, he unveiled Mountain Top, a 13-hole course designed by Gary Player. And Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, two of golfing’s best and brightest, are designing a new course—Ozarks National—within Big Cedar’s impressive acreage. The new fairway is scheduled to debut this year, but the most surprising hole in one for Morris might be his upcoming collaboration with golf giant Tiger Woods. The pro stopped by the 2017 Legends of Golf Tournament and announced plans to build his first-ever public access course in Branson. The 7,324-yard, par-72 course will be named Payne’s Valley in honor of Missouri golf legend Payne Stewart. If everything goes as planned, the new course will join the Big Cedar family in 2019.

“The international attention that Branson and southwest Missouri has received from the investment of Johnny Morris… Impressive is not even the right word,” Seifried says. “We have been able to leverage those very unique opportunities just south of Branson to help put Branson on the map in ways it wasn’t before. It’s hard to calculate the impact those investments will have on [the city] at this point, but it’s more than significant.”

The Sports Impact in Branson

Video courtesy Branson Convention & Visitors Bureau

A Balancing Act

Investments in new rides and attractions such as Top of the Rock and Time Traveler don’t just boost the annual tourism numbers. They help stretch the city’s tourism season into a year-round run. It’s a goal the city and the business community have been working toward for the past 30 years. With tourism growing, Seifried is optimistic that Branson will become a year-round destination in the next five years. The city has already seen its efforts to boost the Christmas season pay off. In fact, what used to be a shoulder season is now the city’s second busiest time of the year.

While Branson never fully shut down for the winter even in its early years, visitors usually lagged starting in November. With the drop in attendance, many shows and attractions took a holiday break until the return of warmer weather. Eventually, the Chamber and the business community decided to dust off the snow and find a way to extend its tourism industry well into winter. With their attention largely zeroed in on Christmas, the city formed the Branson Christmas Coalition four years ago with Pete Herschend, co-founder and co-owner of Herschend Family Entertainment, leading the pack. 

Silver Dollar City Christmas festival in Branson, Missouri.
Photo courtesy Silver Dollar CitySilver Dollar City has ramped up its annual Christmas festival. In 2017, the park added 6.5 million lights and broke its Christmas season record with more than 500,000 guests.

“The sole mission was to increase visitation during the Christmas season,” Seifried says. “We were already known for our Christmas shows, but we were looking for another hook for visitors to get them to see and experience our attractions.” To do that, Branson took a lesson from the boom it enjoyed in the ’90s and crowned itself America’s Christmas Tree City. More than 150 glimmering Christmas trees now get set up around the city, and visitors can plot a route to see them all by using the online Christmas Tree Trail Map.

“We’re trying to create that strong family tradition of coming to Branson and experiencing the wholesomeness of Christmas,” Seifried says. “Along with the uniqueness of seeing some amazing Christmas trees, you can also partake in shows and attractions.” Plugging in a few strands of lights and hanging up ornaments might sound simple, but it’s working. Branson and Silver Dollar City celebrated their best Christmas season in 2016. Then Silver Dollar City broke its own record in 2017 as more than 500,000 visitors came for its annual Christmas festival.

Spring and fall are also enjoying bumps in visitor numbers as shows open earlier and attractions provide more indoor entertainment. The real potential, as Seifried sees it, lies in sports. “Branson has the unique ability to provide a whole array of family offerings and activities for those traveling sports families,” he says. “That’s something that’s definitely unique as far as our competitive set as a city goes.”

Already, Branson is discussing building an indoor facility that could accommodate multiple sports throughout the year, and the new Ballparks of America is another big player in this initiative. The park opened in 2016 and features five baseball diamonds, each replicating a famous American ball park. Busch Stadium, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Fenway Park in Boston, Detroit’s Comerica Park and the famous Ebbets Field in Brooklyn all made the cut. Each diamond features a few iconic trademarks. Wrigley Field has shoots of ivy creeping up the outfield wall, and the replica of Fenway Park has its own Green Monster. 

Branson’s Ballparks of America has hosted teams from around the world
Photo courtesy Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB

Branson’s Ballparks of America has hosted teams from around the world for the Cal Ripken Major 70 Babe Ruth World Series.

Jeff Seifried, President and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB
Photo by Brandon Alms

“Our marketing has changed to showcase the full array of offerings in Branson. We want to attract not only the returning visitor, but also a new visitor.”—Jeff Seifried, President and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB

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Ballparks of America has been a huge hit for Branson. It has hosted the Cal Ripken Major 70 Babe Ruth World Series the past four years, not to mention the grand welcome it provided for the Youth Baseball Network (YBN) National Championship in 2017. YBN works with organizations across the country to promote youth baseball, and Gil Vieira, YBN founder and CEO, has been quoted saying he would like to make Branson the “new capital of youth baseball.” Ballparks of America made another big announcement this year when it teamed up with USA Softball Missouri to host its first fast-pitch tournament. “Ballparks of America is really bringing in new clientele,” says Branson Mayor Karen Best. “The Cal Ripken series brought in 60 U.S. teams and eight international teams.” Aspiring ballplayers from Japan, Canada and the Dominican Republic rolled into Branson, likely for the very first time.

Other new projects are already underway with hopes of attracting a whole new demographic of tourists. Indoor water parks have been installed, and a gondola project, backed by Osage Beach–based American Gondola Inc., that would shuttle visitors through the air along Highway 76 has slowly made progress. Regardless of what projects come next, Best knows the only constant is change. “You’re constantly moving,” she says. “You’re either moving forward or backward, and you have to be cognizant of which direction you want to head.” When she hears concerns about Branson losing its roots, Best understands. She misses the bumper crop of craftsmen and arts shops that used to line the strip, but she also understands the necessity of evolving with the times. 

“There’s a balance between preserving what’s made us who we are, our past, and what we need in the future,” she says. “I miss the crafters around town, but how many people do you know going into glass blowing and quilting? There’s just not a demand for it.” Instead, visitors and locals are requesting more pedestrian-friendly walkways and green spaces. To meet those requests, the city has been working to beautify and improve the jampacked strip along Highway 76 by adding in sidewalks, crosswalks, streetlights and landscaping. The bulky power lines along the strip will be buried underground to protect them from storm damage and improve the skyline. 

Karen Best, Branson Mayor
Photo by Brandon Alms“For us, holding onto the past is so important, so creating that balance is sometimes difficult, but we don’t give up on it.”—Karen Best, Branson Mayor Purchase Photo

It’s an ambitious project, but it has the support of the local business community, including Project Branson, a coalition of Branson entrepreneurs and savvy business minds, including Brad Thomas at SDC, Craig Wescott at The Track Family Fun Parks and Ann McDowell, the group’s executive director. “Don’t kid yourself,” McDowell says. “This is no easy feat. It’s really ambitious and complicated.” But she believes it’s also an important improvement if the city wants to continue attracting families and younger audiences. “We feel the next generation doesn’t want to drive a block and stop and park,” she says. “They want more walkable, bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly spaces.” In April 2017, Project Branson reported the city had spent $13 million on the revitalization of Highway 76. That June, city officials put the project on hold due to lack of funding. In total, the project is slated to take eight years and cost $80 million. “If you’re not improving, you’re falling behind,” McDowell says. “We’ve got to continue a good relationship between public and private, and that evolution has to be open to change and not be scared of it.”

But that doesn’t mean McDowell and business leaders like Seifried and Wescott are brushing aside Branson’s history. It just means they’re folding new technologies and popular industries into the mix. The selfie stations outside the Hollywood Wax Museum, the colorful Branson mural at the corner of Main and Sycamore streets and the popular downtown trolley are all recent additions that balance the city’s historic appeal with its need to modernize. “For us, holding onto the past is so important,” Best says. “Creating that balance is sometimes difficult, but we don’t give up on it.”

That’s what we always hear: If Branson doesn’t keep up with the times, it will die. But as long as you have a quality product, you’ll be just fine.

—Gary Presley, one of the original performers of the Presleys’ Country Jubilee

Even Shepherd of the Hills is undergoing its own modernization. Johnson and his business partner, Steve Faria, took over the park in 2017 after the previous owner, Gary Snadon, died in 2013. To draw in larger crowds, Johnson added ATV trails, new zip lines, a ropes course, a petting zoo, a restaurant and a kids’ zone. He updated the impressive lookout tower that has offered visitors one of Branson’s best views for decades, and he rebuilt part of the log cabin that is set on fire during each show. Johnson spent 20 years in banking before reconnecting with Shepherd of the Hills, for which his grandfather was one of the actors in the show. His switch in focus to grounds maintenance and livestock has definitely been a shift, but Johnson is on a mission.

The entire Branson area, including Shepherd of the Hills, Silver Dollar City, Big Cedar Lodge and the many shows lining the strip, is working toward the same goal of growing its tourism industry. Each attraction has its own strategy and game plan, but despite the competition, Branson’s business community has pooled its resources and is working together. “In general, people have a perspective that we can do a lot more together than by ourselves,” Wescott says. Together, the city can modernize, it can increase attractions to fill in shoulder seasons, it can strategize new marketing efforts, and it can evolve once again.

That’s the real success story of Branson. Despite its location, despite its size and despite competition, Branson is thriving and continuing to grab the nation’s attention. It even beat Fiji and Oslo, Norway, on The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2018” list. Branson is number 21 after Seville, Spain; Glasgow, Scotland; and Costa Rica. “When people first came to Branson, it was to fish,” McDowell says. “Then we got the theme park; then in the ’90s it was all about the music shows. That’s why we’ve been able to survive. We’re not afraid of change.” This latest shift and growth is just one more chapter in Branson’s history, and if all goes well, the city will once again strike that balance between modernization and untouched Ozarkian beauty.

Branson Airport
Photo by Branson Airport LLCWith three new airlines coming in, the Branson Airport is ready for takeoff.

Flying High

There was big news at the Branson Airport in 2017. Almost four years after canceling service to Branson, Frontier Airlines announced its return. The low-fare carrier isn’t the only airline adding Branson to its route. Early this year, the Branson Airport announced the return of ViaAir, which services Austin, Texas, and is scheduled to service Branson starting this May. Then in March, the airport unveiled plans to welcome Silver Airways into the fold with nonstop service to Chicago, Houston and New Orleans.

That’s great news for Branson Airport. Since opening in 2009, the privately owned airport has seen its number of passengers steadily decrease. In 2013, the airport served 113,584 enplanements, or passengers boarding flights. Since then, the numbers have taken a nosedive. In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration documented just 1,601 enplanements in Branson. That’s down almost 69 percent from 2015 when the number clocked in at 5,147.

The dip in passengers is why the airport’s two leading commercial airlines—Frontier and Southwest—canceled service to Branson in 2014. But after several years of hard work, the Branson airport has lured Frontier back to the Ozarks. With Via and Silver Airways following suit, the small airport, which has survived thanks to traffic from private airplane service, is understandably optimistic about its future. But with passenger numbers still anemic, it’s not current air traffic that has the airport excited. It’s Branson’s booming tourism industry.

“There are so many new attractions coming on board and new developments in Branson,” says Rachel Wood, the airport’s director of air service development and marketing. “To service those new attractions, we need to get people here.” That means attracting more commercial airlines to Branson. To do that, Wood works closely with Branson’s CVB to pitch data about the city’s growing tourism season to airlines like Frontier and Via. “If we see a lot of people are coming to Springfield from Atlanta, we would focus on airlines that service Atlanta,” she says. 

In the case of Frontier, Wood never stopped communicating with the budget-friendly airline, even after Frontier hit the runway in 2014. As Branson’s tourism numbers continued to rise, Wood made sure Frontier took notice. “[They have] seen that Branson’s visitation numbers are up every year,” she says. “But they also see that Branson’s air service is going down. That probably means [the city] needs more air service. Just think about how many visitors we could have if we had more airlines.”

With three new commercial airlines waiting at the gate, Wood is excited to reach new audiences. Visitors from nearby cities including Houston, Denver and Chicago have always been part of Branson’s tourism base, but with more commercial flights coming in, Wood is crossing her fingers the airport can reach a whole new cache of visitors. “Our plan is to convert visitors that are 300 miles and beyond who wouldn’t choose Branson as a destination because they couldn’t fly here,” she says.