The Friday report: Where America plays
Ryan Summerlin November 15, 2012
In the 1990s, Las Vegas squandered mountains of silver dollars trying to lure families with children. They built juvenile theme parks and kid-friendly sections to the casinos where toddlers could have fun and learn to double-down when the dealer drew a 10. The casinos promoted a clear moral vision of vast hoards of gambling addicts, followed by their children’s children.
But it didn’t work. All families did was clog up the cheap buffets and hog the deck chairs after Marco Polo’ing away all the bikini-clad hookers. It should also be said that families found swarthy-looking gentlemen handing out porn on the street corners, a bit off-putting. Wives frowned upon finding a third of the phone books dedicated to escorts, apparently not appreciating the thought of their husbands out there escorting around like an alley cat.
How things changed in a decade. In 2004, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority branded the phrase, “What happens here, stays here” and families became the crucifix in the vampire movie once again. Sin City breathed a sigh of relief, popped all the balloons, tore out all the squirt-gun racing games and hookers flooded back to the hotel swimming pools. At least, I’ve been told that’s a gathering spot.
Close one door and another opens. Branson, Mo., was becoming the premier American museum for the Preservation of the Comb-over. The average Branson tourist was so old that their age was measured in cubits. When Vegas evicted the family and the values, Branson greeted them with open arms and wholesomeness so brightly packaged that you can get six Goo Goo Supremes at the Mel Tillis Theater for five bucks, but you can hardly find a beer without a root in front of it.
Any band that ever picked up a steel guitar has played a theater in Branson. There are over 120 shows running concurrently, many with first performances beginning at 9 a.m. You’ll be forced to pick between the 12 Irish Tenors playing at the King’s Castle, or the Texas Tenors appearing at the Starlite, or the 3 Redneck Tenors at the Americana. See? Something for everybody.
There’s a little slice of slumber just off West 76 Country Boulevard in Branson called the Waltzing Waters where synchronized dancing fountains in soothing pastel colors, twist, twirl and dance to the strains of a Strauss waltz. Eleven minutes after the start of the performance, the audience pitches in with synchronized snoring. They boast eight performances daily, closed on Christmas.
Just a few miles down the road at Fantastic Caverns, an underground river hosts blind cave crickets and huge-eyed tour guides driving Jeeps through an underground world of stalagmites and stalactites. The caverns were discovered in the late 1800s when a farmer’s dog disappeared down a hole. Wriggling in after, the farmer discovered some fantastic caverns.
Wanting to keep the cave a secret, he blasted open two entrances and paved a road through it. Then he hired Buck Owens and The Buckeroos to play nightly. Electric generators powered the lights and amplifiers as the band rocked out underground to standing room crowds lured by the 60-degree temperatures and exotic venue.
The only gambling in Branson is whether or not you will blow up after running laps through the ubiquitous buffet lines. Take your big pants; what happens in Branson stays on your hips.