(Want to see the pictures first? Go here!)
I admit that being a lifelong Memphian with a fine history of exploring the Mid-South region, when thinking of hot and hip vacation spots in the area, it never occurred to me to go to Branson, Missouri. In my young and super cool mind, it was a place for geezers to watch old-timey country western shows, and even though I watched "Hee Haw," I wasn't sure it was worth spending a week there.
Yes, Branson is a place where old folks go to see old-timey country western shows. But wait, there's more! It turns out that I married into a family that has made many trips to the little town in the Ozarks, and indeed there is plenty to offer, including a variety of shows playing in 50 theaters, family activities including almost as many miniature golf courses, shopping, restaurant chains out the wazoo and in that outdoorsy place it appeared many enjoyed the surrounding lakes for boating, fishing and whatever people do outside while I'm inside in the A/C in the summer.
THURSDAY, JULY 16
The trip's participants include me and Val, her parents, Glenn and Carol, sister Cheryl and hubby Randy, and her Mammaw. My father-in-law, Cheryl and Randy took one car, and we rented a Buick Lacrosse, which is supposedly a full-size but without leg room in the backseat or trunk space. Other than that, though, it served a purpose and I had enough leg room, driving the whole way there and back, but I like that sort of thing, complete control, speeding along, controlling the radio (er, with Val's permission, of course). Everyone else gets to relax and I only occasionally wandered over to those noisy grooves on the shoulder of the road that always wake me up from a needed nap.
Our cabin at the Thousand Hills Resort in town was both sweet and sour. There was plenty of room, the back porch was screened-in to make for pleasant evenings and mornings outside and the kitchen came with all of the necessary appliances. Also a bonus, the shower upstairs had two big rain showerheads and the downstairs bath had a jacuzzi tub. However, there were only two bathrooms, and one upstairs, so while Cheryl and Randy slept in the loft, they had to share our bathroom and come through our bedroom. Did I mention Cheryl's tiny bladder? Not that I was ever awoken by foot traffic, but Val had to wake up to empty her pregnant bladder frequently also, so she never gets a full night's sleep.
In the morning we had to tiptoe around the late sleepers in the loft or on the couch, but the smells and noises of breakfast usually roused them anyway. Val's mom made full breakfasts of pancakes, sausage, biscuits and bacon, so much so that we were rarely hungry for lunch a few hours later.
After dropping off our bags we had barely enough time to change out of sloppy travel attire before skedaddling to dinner before our first show. A buffet was decided to be quicker than a sit-down dinner, so we headed to the Golden Corral (the world's largest!), which was packed with long lines and resisting the urge to smack people's hands who tried to sneakily reach for food in front of you.
That night we went to the big show of the weekend, the one our Branson fans were looking forward to most, Shoji Tabuchi. If there's one show to see that is headlined by a Japanese violinist who loves country music and still has a thick Jackie Chan-like accent even after 30 years in the States, this is it.
I wasn't sure what to expect, really, certainly not a flashy Vegas show or a professional and elegant Broadway show, just good down home folksy fun with some singing and dancing, and that's what you get. That, plus a pair of the best restrooms in the nation. The men's room has a billiard table, black onyx sinks, the women's' room, I'm told, is full of flowers and jeweled chandeliers. For real.
The show is more of a variety show, full of props and lighting (blacklights and neon are featured), surreal sometimes like the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics. I did not photograph the Hawaiian belly dancers for my own safety as a married man with a wife whose belly is ballooning.
The Shoj plays the violin for most of the numbers, backed up by an orchestra and a troupe of entertainers who look and act like every Glee Club or theater major in your high school who was just a little too eager to perform on stage. They're now all in Branson, the whole of 'em. At first I wasn't sure what to think, since they aren't really great dancers, but you have to take the show as a whole. The entertainers have a lot of hard work to do throughout the whole show, through a good 12 costume changes, learning how to twirl a rope for a cowboy number, square dance, play Japanese drums (my favorite part) and before the show they come out and have a fun Mardi Gras bit with giant puppets and run all around the crowd to pump up the audience.
The show, his 20th anniversary in Branson, is a montage of music styles, starting with Big Band, early rock and roll, country, his homeland and then a Broadway tribute. In between he'll talk with the audience, telling jokes that are both funny and corny, at least from what I could understand through his accent.
During intermission they wouldn't let my father-in-law get an autograph while Shoji talked with others in the audience. I suggested we kidnap him after the show. They get away with it in the movies, am I right? Everyone else, however, wanted to get back to the cabin that night instead of going to the pokey in a paddy wagon, or whatever the fuzz does in Branson. (Maybe they have a place to tie your horse?)
This is the most popular show, so much that I'm pretty sure I even saw a black guy, and he was there on his own accord (meaning, not part of a baseball or basketball team in town for a tournament). I know! Diversity rules!
Seeing as how we didn't have any time to relax between checking in and heading out for the evening's entertainment, we still had to go to Wal-Mart for provisions. Trying to get there at 9:30, as all 50 of the theaters in town were letting out? Bad idea.
After it took an hour just to get to the Wal-Mart a few miles away, every trip from then on was designed to avoid the main drag, Highway 76, through Branson. There are few outlets and constant traffic, so it's jam after jam all day long. It was a parking lot, only with less room to move and a better chance of bumping into pedestrians walking next to traffic distracted by giant cones of custard.
Back in the cabin that evening, one of the highlights of the trip had nothing to do with Branson and everything to do with the joys of Val being pregnant. While reading to Cooper via Val's tummy I was able to feel him move for the first time. It was a bit unexpected how obvious it feels to have a tiny foot poke her skin from the inside. I mean, not that I expected to feel like rumbly tummy after Taco Bell or look like "Alien" with the thing coming out of the stomach, but it's cool nonetheless.
Friday was a day for Val and I to explore Branson for ourselves, enjoying the almost-fall-like temperatures and abusing the engine of the rental car, speeding up and down the hilly roads like riding a roller coaster. With the roads outside of Hwy. 76 given names on the tourist maps like Blue Route and Red Route and Yellow Route, it's like an amusement park. And yes, there is funnel cake. From maps you can't get a sense of just how hilly the city is, and we'd love to come back for Christmas shows but if it's icy or snowy that would be next to impossible.
We started out at Branson Landing downtown by Lake Taneycomo, walking the boardwalk, strolling down the shops, eating lunch at Bar Louie's on the patio over the water.
We decided to go swimming for a little while, but the outdoor pool for the cabins is teeny tiny and it was full of tykes. The resort has an agreement that we can swim indoor in a hotel down the street as well, so we tried that instead. Which was fine, except for the obnoxious teens (one buy and two girls, equally hopped up on hormones). They were comparing cannonballs, racing back and forth, and even when I would stretch out from Val to establish our own space they would knock into me with nary an "excuse me." Please tell me I had more respect as a kid. Now I know why our old recreation club had a ten-minute "adult swim." Not to let the kids rest, but to let the adults have the pool to themselves without getting kicked or splashed constantly. Am I told old to be grumbling about "those young'uns and their rock 'n roll music"?
That evening we dropped off Val's parents and Mammaw to see Noah The Musical, which sounded cool, what with all the animals running down the aisles. We were enjoying time to ourselves too much, though, so we set off again.
I have to remember that when Val says she's getting hungry, it means that she is hungry, right then, and needs food immediately, and if she says she can feel her bladder getting full, it means she needs to go to the bathroom right then, immediately. I am of the mindset that when I say I'm getting hungry or have to go to the little boys' room that I have a good hour or two before I really care, but I'm not pregnant, and Val rarely says what she means because I should be able to figure out what she's saying if I really love her, so I'm not only learning to be a mind-reader as a husband, now I'm having to be a mind-reader as a husband to a pregnant wife!
So anyway, I finally settled on Shogun for dinner, which became quickly obvious that it is not affiliated with the Hibachi restaurant of the same name near us. It was a Japanese steak house, sure, but not nearly as clean or organized, and the food was questionable in preparation and taste. The rice was actually crispy. And I ordered a second helping ahead of time but barely got any extra, so I know of what I speak. The cook served all of us who ordered steak at the same time, even though I ordered mine well-done, the guy to Val's right ordered his medium, and the couple to my left both ordered theirs medium-rare! You can guess that mine was not pretty in pink. Admittedly, a so-so meal at a Hibachi restaurant is better than meals at most any other chain, so I can't say that I didn't shovel my food down my throat as fast as possible.
As the sun was setting over the hills we stopped at one of the ten-per-square-mile miniature golf courses in town. This was surprisingly our first time playing mini golf together. I guess that happens when your courtship is about, oh, six weeks before you get engaged and married, and most of that time is spent staring googly-eyed at one another over your Maggie Moos ice cream. I shot a 42, one-over-par, to Val's 53, which really wasn't bad since it was one of those tougher mini courses full of waterfalls and steep-hilled holes. Oh, who am I kidding. I came, I saw, I kicked her butt! Boo-yah! Who rocks your world, Sweetheart!
Once Noah let out and the audience filed out two-by-two, we all went to B.T. Bones for dinner for them, an appetizer for me and a dessert for Val. In absence of their dogs I finished off my mom-in-law's steak as well. I hope we didn't offend the live singers by requesting a move to the very very back after being seated up front at first. We like to chit-chat. Not that someone singing in a steakhouse should be offended. There was a live singer at the Golden Corral the night before, too. I hope it pays at least a little, because telling everyone how you moved to Branson and "Now I sing at the world's largest Golden Corral for tips" won't exactly earn accolades of "You finally made it!" on your Facebook status page.
Late Friday night/early Saturday morning, we found out that Cheryl had made sure Randy had a good life insurance policy as he took a mysterious tumble at the bottom of the stairs, spraining his ankle and rendering him on the injury list (Ankle-Pushed) for the rest of the day. It didn't prevent him from getting out, though the triathlon was out.
That afternoon we went to the only other show attended as a full group, a tribute to Broadway. Like Shoji two days before the theater was less than half full, but with 100 shows I guess they can't all be sold out.
The entertainers went through about a dozen costume changes and performed ditties from at least that many Broadway shows from the decades, including "Oklahoma," "A Chorus Line" and a couple I've never heard of but did recognize the songs. The lead woman only did one solo from "Les Miserables" ("I Dream a Dream," same as Susan Boyle on "Britain's Got Talent") and they surprisingly did nothing, nada, zip from "Phantom of the Opera."
Again, the performers are just mostly good and fun to watch, but you have to take it as a whole that they have so many different routines to remember and they're out there for almost two straight hours jittering and jiving for our entertainment. Also, apparently these dancers all work for the theater since they also star in the other two shows there, Spirit of the Dance and the Twelve Irish Tenors (I think they really only need eight or nine, but one dozen looks better on paper). We decided that the self-described "international" dance troupe was actually trained in Irish dancing but learned Broadway, not the other way around.
Much of my attention was spent trying not to get caught watching the girl dancers and thus figure out the stereotype of the tall blonde guy, the most recognizable of the 20 or so on stage. It started out as a joke about him standing out and looking like the blonde German in "Die Hard," then he put on a brown wig and looked like superstud nephew Cody's friend Kevin, and then it turned out that he could sing, was the best male dancer and definitely the strongest of them all. Go figure. And all that time I figured him as the TV-movie-of-the-week type as the quarterback who cries to his father, "But I want to dance and sing!"
The key to watching it with an interested eye is with fellow fans of So You Think You Can Dance, trying to match routines with the choreographer you think would have put together such a piece. It's easy to say that Tyce would do all the Broadway numbers, though there were a few tougher pairings that could have easily been Mandy Moore's.
After dinner at Lonestar Steakhouse, my in-laws went back to the same theater to see Spirit Of The Dance, a Riverdance-type show, while Val and I relaxed in the cabin's jacuzzi tub, albeit without the jets on because supposedly that's a no-no for pregnant womenfolk. When Val got out I did turn on the jets for myself for a few minutes, which she said was fine. Was it? I mean, she said it like, "Please, go ahead and do all those things that I can't do, just because you're a guy and can't carry your own child with a need to protect the baby inside, I'm okay with all of it." Seems like a green light to me!
Up at the crack of 7, out the door an hour later, zipping up and down the Ozark hills, forgetting that my mother-in-law and Mammaw were in the backseat as I abused the rental car and whipped around every curve like it was a go-cart at Putt-Putt.
Except for the dead battery that kept Val's mother and grandmother at our house for an unexpected hour, all were back in the comforts of home by 3 o'clock. We enjoyed our local Mexican restaurant for dinner, caught up on a few shows on the DVR, and then it was early to bed, early to rise, Val went back to work and I, alas, had to return the rental early Monday morning.
If I have any final thoughts on the trip, it's that Branson is good clean family fun, with better weather in the summer, entertaining shows that are much cheaper than Vegas or New York, plenty of your favorite foods, plenty of places to stay, all kinds of options to play, and only six hours away. Good times.
(So you didn't cheat and see the pictures first? Then you shall be rewarded here!)