History of Tourism in Branson
Tourists have been flocking to Ozark Mountain Country for well over a century. The beautiful landscape, outdoor activities and hospitality of the region are what initially enticed people to visit the Branson area.
Over the years, Branson and the surrounding communities have continued to evolve, offering more and more entertainment and recreational opportunities that allow visitors to experience beautiful Ozark Mountain Country in a fresh, new way every time they visit. This brief history of tourism in Branson will reveal the town’s ability to both preserve its roots and continually adapt to the future, ensuring that tourism in Ozark Mountain Country will be alive and well for years to come.
1894 - Marvel Cave Opens to Tourists
Marvel Cave was first discovered around 1500 AD by the Osage Indians. In 1541, it was explored by the Spanish, who were looking for the fountain of youth (but they didn’t find it!), and in 1869 by St. Louis miners looking for lead ore, and then marble (but they didn’t find them either!).
Canadian mining expert William Henry Lynch heard about Marvel Cave, purchased it and moved to the Ozarks with his two daughters to open what would become the first Ozarks tourist attraction. Marvel Cave opened to visitors in 1894 and operated for over 50 years.
In 1950 the cave was leased by the Herschend family who made vast improvements to the accessibility of the cave for tourists. By 1960 the Herschend family had built an 1880s Ozark Mountain Village around the entrance to Marvel Cave, the beginnings of Silver Dollar City (more about that later!).
1907 – Shepherd of the Hills Puts the Ozarks on the Map
In 1898 minister Harold Bell Wright relocated to the Ozarks from Kansas and settled in at the homestead of John and Anna Ross. So impacted by his new home, Wright wrote and published his novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, in 1907 as a tribute to the beauty and people of the Ozarks. The book’s success was immediate, with millions of copies sold.
Tourism to the area spiked for over 10 years after the book’s publication, with many visitors inquiring about where to find “Old Matt’s Cabin,” which is what Wright called the Ross homestead in the novel. Other businesses capitalized on the success of the novel, opening businesses named after characters in the book, such as The Sammy Lane Resort.
Around 1923 Lizzie McDaniel bought the Ross homestead and opened it as a museum. McDaniel was also the first to host reenactments of the story of Shepherd of the Hills on the lawn of the homestead.
1910s – Rockaway Beach Becomes a Vacation Hot Spot
The Ozark Beach Dam near Forsyth was built in 1913, producing Lake Taneycomo, which encouraged the growth of the resort community, Rockaway Beach. The number of permanent residents began to grow, followed by an influx of tourists eager to enjoy boating, fishing and swimming in the warm lake. Many of these new tourists arrived via the White River Line Railway depot in nearby Hollister, Missouri, and then took a boat down Lake Taneycomo to Rockaway Beach.
Soon Rockaway Beach become one of the premier tourist destinations in Missouri, including visits from movie stars and U.S. presidents. Local legend says that Al Capone, the famous Chicago gangster, vacationed in the resort community but also had a hideout nearby!
Rockaway Beach flourished for many years until the construction of Table Rock Dam in 1959, which created Table Rock Lake (now nationally known for its bass fishing) but also turned the warm waters of Lake Taneycomo much cooler. With its lake no longer comfortable for swimming, Rockaway lost its wide appeal as a tourist destination. However, over the last decade, Rockaway has reinvented itself as a quaint lakeside community with some of the best trout fishing in America just steps away.
1959 / 1960s – Live Music Makes Its Mark in Branson
Branson’s reputation as the place for live entertainment was birthed in 1959 by the Mabe brothers, who called themselves the Baldknobbers. The trio’s combination of country hits and comedy become the winning formula for thecountry music variety show genre in Branson that is still utilized in several successful shows today. In 1969 the Baldknobbers moved from their location along Lake Taneycomo to their own theater on W 76 Country Blvd.
In 1960 the Trimble family, who had purchased the Shepherd of the Hills homestead in 1946, created the Old Mill Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater where they staged a full-scale production of Harold Bell Wright's 1907 novel, The Shepherd of the Hills. The production of this timeless story still appeals to second- and third-generation audiences today.
Silver Dollar City also opened its doors in 1960, offering an 1880s steam train ride, demonstrating craftsmen, themed shops and music—all in addition to Marvel Cave, which was the centerpiece of the “City.” By 1963 Silver Dollar City was Missouri’s top tourist attraction, and in 1967, the entire nation took notice of the theme park when “Beverly Hillbillies,” the popular T.V. show, filmed several episodes on park.
In 1963 another local musical family, the Presleys, began playing their shows in the Underground Theatre just west of Branson. In 1967 they built the first live music theatre on Highway 76, which was then on an isolated two-line road west of Branson but is now in the heart of the Entertainment District. Today, four generations of Presleys fill the stage and deliver the same great entertainment that has captivated audiences for decades.
1980s – More to Do, More to See
The live music shows, Silver Dollar City and outdoor recreation continued to draw visitors to the area. But by the 1980s, Branson began to expand its entertainment offerings which, in many cases, extended the amount of time visitors vacationed in the area.
Several entrepreneurs set their sights on providing families the best in summer fun in Branson. The Herschend family expanded beyond Silver Dollar City and opened White Water in 1980 to help families beat the summer heat. Lee Wescott opened the first Track Family Fun Parks facility in 1981 with a single go-kart track. Over the next few years, the operation quickly expanded to five locations that offered a variety of go-kart tracks, bumper boats, bumper cars, mini golf, arcades and kids’ rides.
Gary Snadon, who had purchased The Shepherd of the Hills from the Trimble family in 1985, opened the Inspiration Tower in 1989. At 230 feet tall, this “landmark on the horizon” is the highest point in Southwest Missouri and offers spectacular panoramic views of the Ozark Mountains and Branson community.
1990s – The “60 Minutes” Boom Boosts Branson Nationally
On December 8, 1991, Branson was featured on the popular television program, “60 Minutes” as the “live music capital of the entire universe.” This national exposure initiated an unprecedented era of growth for Branson. The number of theaters, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and attractions rapidly grew, and more and more visitors chose Branson for their vacations.
New major attractions such as the Showboat Branson Belle and Dolly’s Stampede made their debut in the mid-90s. And stars such as Andy Williams, Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley, the Lennon Sisters, the Osmond Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys established residences in Branson, attracting busloads of new visitors throughout the summer and fall.
2000s – New Visitors Discover Branson
Perhaps the most prominent change in Branson during the early 2000s was the opening of Branson Landing, the $420 million waterfront development along Lake Taneycomo near Historic Downtown Branson. In addition to the impressive water spectacular that synchronizes light, sound, music and fire, Branson Landing brought new shopping, restaurants and hotels to the city, and with it, new visitors to the area.
In 2006 the Titanic Museum set sail in Branson. This interactive museum, complete with one of the largest permanent collections of Titanic artifacts and memorabilia, is built to look exactly like the ship itself (though half-scale) and provides visitors an interactive experience. In 2008 construction began on the Sight & Sound Theatre, which features Broadway-style productions of Bible stories. To date, Sight & Sound has presented productions of the stories of Noah, Jonah, Joseph, Moses and Samson, in addition to their Christmas production, Miracle of Christmas.
Also, in the early 2000s, a group of community leaders began to court the student travel market, promoting Branson as the perfect spot for student group travel. The number of student groups traveling to Branson, primarily in the spring, has steadily increased. Branson even hosted the Student & Youth Travel Association’s annual conference in 2015, introducing a new crop of people to the great vacation destination that Branson is.
Today – Ensuring a Bright Future
With now more than 9 million visitors a year, Branson has established itself as a go-to destination with something for everyone, and it continues to evolve.
Silver Dollar City continually invests in the growth of the area by bringing new and exciting attractions to the park. In 2013 they opened Outlaw Run, voted Best New Ride of 2013 worldwide by Amusement Today, which features the world’s first and only double barrel roll on a wooden coaster!
And in 2018, Silver Dollar City opened Time Traveler®, the World’s Fastest, Steepest & Tallest Spinning Coaster, which landed on USA Today’s list of 2018’s Biggest New Coasters. Pumpkin Nights, the park's hit fall festival started in 2019, boasts larger-than-life pumpkin carvings and extended hours.
Over the past few years, Branson has also established itself as a premiere location for sports tournaments and other competitions, such as dance and cheer. In addition, Ballparks of America, opened in 2016, brings baseball teams to Branson from all over the world to play on its 2/3-size replicas of five iconic American baseball stadiums.
Branson’s skyline has also changed in recent years with The Track Family Fun Park’s 2016 addition of the 150-feet-tall Branson Ferris Wheel to W 76 Country Blvd. At night, the Branson Ferris Wheel lights up with 16,000 LED lights, making it hard to miss from almost any vantage point in the city.
In 2017 the skyline changed again with the opening of the Bigfoot Action Tower at Big Foot Fun Park, a 200-feet-tall thrill ride tower that lights up the night sky! And in 2019, The Track Family Fun Parks opened the 160-feet-tall Skyscraper, a massive propeller-arm thrill ride in the heart of the Entertainment District.
In addition, Branson is quickly becoming one of America’s top golf destinations due in large part to Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris’s investment in the area. Within minutes of Morris’s Big Cedar Lodge, the luxury wilderness resort just south of Branson, are five nationally awarded golf courses. In addition to Big Cedar Golf, Branson boasts several other award-winning golf courses, making it one of the best, and most beautiful, golf destinations in the country.
Branson shows no signs of slowing in its commitment to being a vacation destination with something for everyone. As it has for decades, Branson still draws visitors because of its natural beauty, outdoor recreational activities, live music shows and family attractions, but it continues to grow.
With a host of new attractions, shows and restaurants opening every year, Branson tourism definitely has a bright future.