New York City and Walt Disney World may be at the top of everyone's nice list this holiday season, but the historic town of Branson, Mo. is also delivering Christmas cheer — and in high doses. Welcoming more than 10 million visitors per year, it's estimated that around 20% of them visit in the months of November and December alone. Tucked away in the Ozark Mountains, the tourist destination of just 12,000 residents is quite possibly (and literally) the brightest hidden gem.
As a lifelong travel junkie with an affinity for theme parks, I first learned of the small town because of its award-winning theme park, Silver Dollar City. While the temperate summers may be a perfect time to visit this roller coaster mecca, the holidays are where it truly sleighs — and the festivities stretch well beyond the theme park.
I recently made the trip to the affordable Midwest location to see what all the festive fuss was about. The celebration spans town-wide with thousands of trees and millions of lights, and I couldn't wait to experience my pending fruitcake coma. I loved every minute of the candy cane-laden adventure. It was visually beautiful, oh-so-delicious and put a smile on my resting Grinch face.
Planning your own trip to the Ozarks for the holidays? These are the four Christmas activities in Branson, Mo. that really got me into the Christmas spirit.
Silver Dollar City's An Old Time Christmas
The root of all things holidays in Branson goes back to the Herschend family, the visionaries behind the city's biggest attraction, Silver Dollar City (SDC) theme park. Inspired by a large-scale light display in Wheeling, W. Va., the park owners desired to create something that would make the tourist season last beyond the traditional Memorial Day to Labor Day time period. SDC's holiday events officially kicked off in the ’80s and have grown bigger and better each year.
Making seasons bright gets a whole new meaning here, as over 6.5 million lights envelop the award-winning Midwest park, with over 1.5 million additional lights used in a display in Branson's downtown area. There are over 1,000 decorated trees inside the theme park, including an eight-story tree in its town square that illuminates with colors and lights synchronized to music. The event is rounded out with several live stage productions, a parade and plenty of holiday-themed bites and sips that had me singing oh, what yum.
My favorite part hands down were the park's culinary offerings, including an annual traditional holiday buffet with all my childhood favorites, from hickory smoked turkey to green bean casserole. It's clear the park taps into all five senses when beckoning guests back to make fond holiday memories.
Food kiosks are set up throughout the park offering up a holiday-fueled food festival. Further adding merry sentiments, the park encourages its employees to submit their own family recipes for possible festival menu inclusion.
Live stage productions
For decades, Branson has been known as the Live Entertainment Capital of the World, with dozens of theaters and, at any given moment, over 100 live shows running. During the holidays, these productions are full-blown spectacles with high quality costumes and special effects like real snow.
One of the biggest productions, Miracle of Christmas at Branson's Sight and Sound theater, is a Broadway-style musical that tells the Biblical story of Christmas. Epic in nature, the show takes place on a 26,000 square foot stage that features a 300-foot wrap-around platform for performers. This unique vantage point offers optimum viewing for 2,000 guests to witness the state-of-the-art production that utilizes pyrotechnic engineering. Talent is sourced from major cities and the level of excellence and quality was seriously impressive.
I also loved the Showboat Branson Belle, a "Christmas cruise" dinner show on beautiful Table Rock Lake that featured a performance of Christmas musical favorites with a live band and vocalists. Surprisingly, the food wowed me, like a super-tender and flavorful 21-day dry-aged angus ribeye. The entire experience, which takes place aboard a turn-of-the century-inspired paddlewheel boat, evoked a feeling of yesteryear and nostalgia that aligned effortlessly with the holiday spirit.
America's Christmas Tree City
Who's in charge of keeping the merriment and cheer intact all season long? It's not Santa himself or his mischievous elves — it's a town Christmas coalition that acts as a sort of holiday cheerleader for the local businesses. Their goal? To get businesses town-wide on board to display large themed Christmas trees ... and the result of their hard work makes Branson America's Christmas Tree City.
On my drive through town, it was evident that this initiative is a glowing success. Stunning light displays adorned nearly every business, with many having large uniquely-themed Christmas trees as their centerpiece. And, there were over 700 trees in total along the tour. My favorites included shopping, dining and entertainment area Branson Landing's offering, which comes to life daily through bright LEDs and holiday music favorites (Cue: Mariah Carey). Inside the Branson Convention Center, three unique trees were designed using hundreds of vintage bottles just steps away from a festive lounge.
A giant gingerbread house display
Branson's premier lakeside resort takes a uniquely delicious spin to the holidays. The culinary team at Chateau on the Lake spends hundreds of hours (and uses over 300 pounds of powdered sugar) creating the hotel's gingerbread village, an annual event that draws in crowds for a peak at this chocolatey marvel. The creation is completely edible and stands at almost three feet tall.
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