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Discover Magical Family Fun in Branson, Missouri

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By Candyce H. Stapen

Sometime between the world's tallest looping coaster and The Haygoods' laser, fire and musical extravaganza, we realized that Branson, Missouri, wasn't just for retirees. It's a top place for fun and affordable family entertainment. And who isn't looking for affordability these days? Most shows and museums cost less than comparable East or West Coast experiences.

A Branson weekend full of surprises changed us from skeptics to fans. And did we mention the Titanic Museum or the white bison?

At Silver Dollar City, the award-winning theme park and anchor for nearby Branson, intrepid teens and adults tackle Time Traveler, touted as the world's fastest, tallest and steepest spinning coaster. It plunges screamers 10 stories at speeds up to 50.3 miles per hour. We tested out the new version of Fire in the Hole, a 32,000-square-foot indoor family coaster. It winds riders by "flaming" buildings before dipping a fun but manageable three levels in the dark. Even my coaster-phobic husband loved it.

Congress designated Silver Dollar City as "The Home of American Craftsmanship" because the park, themed to the 1880s, features scores of artisans who demonstrate 19th century crafts and sell their wares. We especially liked the glass blowers, potters and furniture-makers.

Branson brags that the city hosts more than 100 unique shows each year. The Haygoods, a musical extravaganza performed by five brothers and one sister, proved so good that we'd come back to Branson to see the show again, and we live in Washington, D.C., where there's no shortage of entertainment.

 

A dynamic display of theatrics and musical talent, The Haygoods opens with Michael entering the theater, playing guitar upside down on a zipline. The multitalented group masters 20 instruments, including guitar, violin, piano, harp, bass, mandolin and drums, while singing country, rock and pop songs by Rascal Flatts, Queen, The Temptations, Steppenwolf, The Beatles and others. Holograms, drones, lasers, jet packs and a digital screen flashing vistas of mountains, pastures and dazzling lights energize the sets. It's no wonder that The Haygoods reigns as Branson's most popular show. Be sure to book tickets well in advance.

Two more surprises: the Titanic Museum and the Aquarium on the Boardwalk. The Titanic Museum, one of only two such facilities currently in the United States, thoughtfully tells the stories of the passengers and crew on the doomed voyage through personal histories and period artifacts, many recovered from the wreckage. A re-created model of the front of the ship is part of the building. Upon entering, we received a boarding pass with the name and background of an actual passenger whose fate we discovered later. Ascending the replica of the elaborately paneled grand staircase reminded us that the RMS Titanic, which left Southampton on its maiden voyage, April 10, 1912, sailed as the era's most luxurious ship, pampering first-class passengers with suites, musicians, fine china and a kennel for their dogs.

Walking onto an outside deck, we felt the cold Atlantic air (the reality was even colder) of that fateful night. We learned one reason the lifeboats left half-empty: Without a lifeboat drill, passengers didn't realize they were to sit back-to-back on the benches. After colliding with an iceberg on the evening of April 15, 1912, the ship carrying 2,240 passengers and crew sank. More than 1,500 passengers and crew died. Of the 135 children aboard under 16 years old and younger, 67 survived. So too did "my passenger," Helen Candee, a 53-year-old magazine columnist rescued by lifeboat six. The well-done, poignant museum, appropriate for older grade-schoolers and teens, tells its tales well.

The child-friendly Aquarium on the Boardwalk, crowned with a 55-foot octopus sculpture whose tentacles engulf the building, offers a good place to regroup and relax by watching fish to a background of soothing classical music. A large reef tank showcases blue, green and orange fish, one of whom -- a 140-pound Maori wrasse, part of a friendly species -- seemed to follow us around his curving tank. Just like kids, we marveled at the fluorescing corals, seahorses, and the large rays and sharks swimming next to and above us as we walked into a see-through tunnel.

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