Back in the late nineties, I didn’t consider Branson, Missouri a traditional family-friendly destination. My Grandma Rosemary and I road-tripped from Pensacola, Florida to Denver, Colorado. The only stop my grandmother insisted on making was Branson, Missouri. She had heard it was a fun town like Las Vegas only without the casinos. She was right. The town was full of neon lights and advertisements for shows and entertainment. Our stay was short but memorable, especially the thick traffic and steep hills. Fast forward twenty-something years and as my family of five searched for a family-friendly trip, Branson came to mind. A quick internet search revealed that the town had a new market – families. Like Las Vegas for kids.
Branson Road Trip
We packed up the car and took our first trip in March 2018. The nine-hour drive makes for a decent road trip from Minneapolis-St. Paul and can include a stop at Arthur Bryant’s famous BBQ joint in Kansas City. That trip was drizzly every day but coming from Minnesota the spring temperatures were welcomed. We stayed at Marriott Willow Ridge Vacation Club in a two-bedroom villa. The highlight was a day at Silverdollar City, a theme park that was on my childhood wish list. We also took the kids to the Hollywood Wax Museum, Castle of Chaos, Hannah’s Maze of Mirrors, and Fritz Adventure all of which kept the kids active and engaged.
This year our clan decided to duplicate the trip and now that our youngest is six we thought it might be even better. The sunny weather and packed town reminded me more of my first visit in 1997. Cars from dozens of states would make for a thriving game of license plate bingo. With social distancing still in place, sidewalks sizzled with lines of masked tourists outside attractions, stores, and restaurants. Despite the crowds, maybe it was good luck, we didn’t face any long waits for food or attractions. Below are some of the family-friendly Branson attractions and restaurants we recently experienced.
Our first stop Branson Landing is situated alongside Lake Taneycomo and is home to shops, restaurants, hotels, and even rides. It hasn’t changed much in three years.
Shop: There is truly something for everyone’s taste at the landing. Think outdoor mall. There’s the Smith’s Moonshine Distillery with moonshine tastings and jams, sauces, and dry rubs for sale. Pink and H&M caught our teens’ attention while the taxidermy and massive fish tank at Bass Pro Shops White River Outpost entranced our youngest.
Eat: There are plenty of family-friendly restaurant choices at Branson Landing. We opted for Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen on day one. If you go, go hungry. Meals are served family-style and all you can eat. If you’ve ever dined at a Paula Deen restaurant you know that the rich Southern dishes include fried chicken, creamed corn, and fried okra. Oh, and Paula’s classic Ooey Gooey Butter Cake.
Play: Of all of the entertainment at the landing, there is one ride that attracts the most attention. Parakeet Pete’s waterfront zipline takes riders backward up and across the lake for a thrill back down again. The ride gathers crowds to watch as people of all ages screech as they fly down the zipline.
One of the most family-friendly restaurants is Mel’s Hard Luck Diner (2800 W 76 Country Blvd, Branson, MO 65616). When you first walk in the door you might assume it’s the typical diner and malt shop with red and black checkered floors, red booths, and headshots of famous performers decorating the turquoise walls. But the real entertainment is the talented servers who break into song regularly. And they are outstanding. The signing servers are real performers with their own recordings that you can purchase in the gift shop. Don’t forget to order a malt.
The first thing eye-catching thing about Pasghettis Italian Restaurant (3129 West State Highway 76 Branson, MO 65616) is the giant meatball and fork in front of the building. At first glance, the interior is reminiscent of a typical tourist restaurant with themed rooms and faux Italian street dining, and bulbed lights strung overhead. On the second floor are a mini Ferris wheel (closed when we visited) and an arcade for the kids. This family-friendly Branson restaurant and attraction reminded me of Disney World with lots of kids and weary parents. The food was surprisingly good and the service was speedy. Portions are just right, as we didn’t bring any leftovers to the hotel.
In Branson, you don’t have to visit a theme park for ride thrills. Scattered throughout town are pretty much any type of ride you desire. The most eye-catching in the evening is the 150-feet-tall Branson Ferris Wheel with LED lights that can be seen from all the land. Here’s a fun fact: It is the former Chicago Navy Pier Ferris Wheel (1995 to 2015).
The Branson Coaster is my family’s favorite. The ride takes thrill-seekers on a long adventure up and down and up and down the side of a hill on a half-mile track.
The Fly Ride at Beyond the Lens is a virtual, sensory experience takes guest soaring thousands of feet over various United States locations including Niagara Falls, New York City, Las Vegas, Kauai, and many others. It’s like FlyOver at Mall of America. Riders are suspended in a roller coaster-style seat, feet dangling. The seat dips, sways, and moves along with each scene giving the sensation you are soaring. My six-year-old kept asking if we were really flying over the land. The scents of evergreens trees and light mist surprise riders making the experience feel like you are truly experiencing the beautiful land we call home.
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