Friday, December 15, 2006

Branson for Christmas

Why would anyone leave the warmth of Florida in December? For the Christmas shows in Branson, MO, of course. This was an organized tour put together by the Good Sam Club. The package included our RV site, seven shows, three tours and all but one dinner. It was an opportunity we simply couldn’t pass up.

We left home on November 30, and drove as far as Ozark, AL. We had planned to stop in the panhandle of Florida, but with the time change in our favor and good timing we decided to just keep going. That night, the cold front came through. We only had a little rain and the temps got cooler, but it wasn’t too bad. Yet.

The next day took us as far as Tupelo, MS, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. We talked about seeing the house, but in the end decided it was just a house and we really didn’t care to go on a tour. So we leisurely packed up the coach and headed on down the road.

Our next stop was in Tunica, MS. Yes, you guessed it, we wanted a little gambling time. We stayed at the Hollywood Casino’s RV Park which was really very nice. And the price was right: free! We stayed 2 nights and it was nice to be stationary for a little while. We played at three different casinos and had fun, but little good luck. And did I mention it was COLD! We were wearing our sweatshirts and coats by now. We drove around to the casinos even though they were all in walking distance for us. Just too cold and windy!

From Tunica, we went to Morrilton, AR. We were in a little RV park that was right on the Arkansas River. It wasn’t much at this time of year, but we could see that it would be beautiful in the summer. Just one night there and then back on the road again.

On Tuesday, December 5, we drove the last 150 miles into Branson. But not before we had a flat tire fixed. What a pain in the butt! That cost us a couple hours, but we still got to America’s Best Campground by a little after 4pm.

After our welcome dinner we had a Christmas party which included a gift exchange. We did one of those where you can steal any previously unwrapped gift. The John Deer pocket knife had several owners, as did the Santa Shelf-Sitter and a Branson T-shirt. Our good stuff got stolen and we wound up with a very nice umbrella and a cute little Christmas ornament.

Wednesday morning was a shopping trip that Julian and I opted out of. We had plenty of ways to spend money, and we didn’t seem to need this one. We kinda felt like we needed to get our feet on the ground anyway. We did a little grocery shopping and so on.

At 3:45 we left the campground on 2 buses for the Dixie Stampede. We had seen this show in Orlando a couple years ago, but enjoyed it just as much. It was a nice start to the trip.

After that show, we drove about 45 minutes to see the Port of Lights in Kimberling City. This was well worth the drive! It is set up in a marina area of a park. Many businesses pay for a small area in which to place their display. I took several pictures, but without a tripod, they didn’t come out very well. This one is the best of the bunch and can give you a small idea of what it was like.

There were such beautiful displays. There was a tunnel of holly wreaths, angels, Santas, snowmen and women, a fisherman whose fish was actually out in the water. I only wish I could have captured more of it.

Thursday morning was open as far as the package was concerned. So we had pre-booked tickets to see Yakov Smirnov on our own. What a great show that was! He is such a funny guy and very patriotic. We enjoyed his show tremendously. And during the intermission we were fortunate enough to be among the few who got his autograph on a photo taken when we entered the theater. (They are big on that in Branson.) And then he was gracious enough to allow me to get this great photo of Julian with him.

Then it was back to the campground for a quick lunch before leaving with the group for the Dutton Family show. One of the sons came onto our bus when we arrived to welcome us to the show and then escort us to our seats. The members of this family do it all. They were in the shops, they were ushers, they were everywhere and looked like they enjoyed every second of every thing that they were doing. And wow! Could they play and sing! Here’s the whole family.

They even got the grandkids involved. And they played those violins pretty well.

When we were all back on the bus, one of the sons came out again to make sure we enjoyed the show and that all the DVDs were delivered of the show we had just seen. Talk about service! They were great people.

From there we all went to dinner at the Grand Palace Hotel. The food was really good and there was live entertainment there as well. And then it was on to “Broadway’s Spirit of Christmas” show. This was another terrific variety show which included the Osmonds. Yes, four of the older brothers performed during about half of the show. I didn’t get any photos of them, and I can’t explain why. They were great as was the entire show.

Whew, three shows in one day! It was too much. Great entertainment, but too many places to be in one short day.

Friday morning, the group went to the College of the Ozarks. We passed on this trip, too. Julian read the brochure and pretty much figured it wasn’t our kind of trip. Staying home turned out to be a very good thing as some of the plumbing froze overnight. Yes, it was about 12° when we got out of bed that morning. Brrrrr! But with the help of the sun and a hair dryer Julian got the pipes cleared out and working fine. He bought a drop light to keep in that bay for the remaining nights that were also below freezing.

The afternoon show was The Brashler Music Show. This was yet another family of talented performers. They have one of the longest running shows in Branson. They do a pure gospel show every Thursday, but we saw their Christmas show. Wonderful songs that we hadn’t heard as often, if at all, during other performances.

And get a load of their dachshund, Katie. She was on stage for most of the second portion of the show. At one point, she was left alone on the chair. She got up and took a drink out of the cup left close by the chair she was on. What a great little pup she was.

The son-in-law came out to the bus after the show. He told us that he and his wife (the woman in the picture) raise dachshunds. Katie was four and had been in the Christmas show since the start this season. During one of the early shows, she got up for a drink and discovered that the crowd loved it. She has been doing it every performance since. What a little show-stopper!

We were bused back to the campground for a quick dinner on our own. Then we went off to the Moon River Theater to see Andy Williams. Pulling up to the theater was a treat all by itself. The grounds were covered in trees and every tree was covered in white Christmas lights. At their base was a pale blue-green spotlight which made the whole picture just gorgeous – like a winter wonderland.

I thought we might be in for a long show when they brought Andy Williams on stage in a sleigh. Was he that old? We’d been told of suspicions of lip-syncing – could that be true? No way! He got out of that sleigh and looked and sounded great. He put on a terrific show and even danced a little on a couple of occasions. And though we weren’t up close to the stage, we could see nothing to make us think he wasn’t singing every word live. It was a great show – not to be missed. At the end he sang his "favorite Christmas song" – Moon River! It was great!

The next morning we were off again, this time to see the Lowe Family. Yet another very talented family. They all played all kinds of different instruments and could all sing, too. They put on another great show.

We had the afternoon off. This was a good thing. We’d been running like crazy and it was nice to relax a bit before the last show. But first we had a farewell dinner at the campground. The food was very good. After eating there was a prize give-away. One of the tour directors had been shopping in every location, show, etc. She had CDs and DVDs from the shows, jams and bread from the university tour, lots of great things. As luck would have it, Julian and I got a 2-disk set of Andy Williams from the 60s and 70s. We’ve already listened to it and have really enjoyed it.

Our last show was Shoji Tabuchi. We hadn’t heard of him, but he sure can play the violin. He’s got a pretty good singing voice too, but still has a heavy Japanese accent. He did “The Wabash Cannonball” better and faster than I think I’ve ever heard it done. Wow! His daughter performed as well. She does not have an accent and is also very talented, not to mention beautiful (as Julian pointed out). It was another great show.

Something about Branson in general: God and Country are alive and well in that town! Nearly every show we went to took a moment to ask all veterans to stand while their branch of the service was honored. I haven’t seen that many flags nor heard that many patriotic songs in a long time. We heard not one cuss word, nor any off-color jokes. Every single show made a point of keeping Christ in Christmas. It was uplifting, to say the least.

There was a continental breakfast for the group on Sunday morning. It was time to say good-bye and head on down the trail for most of us. Frankly, Julian and I were ready to find warmer locations! We got a fairly early start and made it to Lake Village, in south-east Arkansas, by late afternoon. It was a nice park, and the weather was already getting warmer!

Then we decided to change course slightly and go to Biloxi, MS, for one night. Yeah, we love to gamble. But it’s also where Julian had spent his first year in the service and it’s always fun to visit. We came into town on US-90, right on the coastline. Wow! What a difference Hurricane Katrina had made. It was very sad. We had been through Biloxi in July, 2005, and enjoyed the Treasure Bay casino. It was a huge boat shaped structure out in the water. It is one of the few casinos that has been rebuilt today, so that’s where we decided to play and have dinner. It is still under construction/renovation. They had a long enclosed walkway from the parking area into the casino with lots of photos of the original Treasure Bay… and how it looked after Katrina. This huge structure had literally been ripped in two. The larger portion was shoved quite a distance from its original location. The smaller section was washed up on shore. Now, there is nothing at all. I’m serious – nothing!

That is only one example. There were other structures that we remembered being on the beach side of the road that were also completely gone. Any of the piers that had stood were now only pylons sticking out of the water. Hotels we had even stayed at on other visits were nothing but foundations. And the homes were the saddest. Parts of buildings were ripped away. Gaping holes showed in the sides of apartments. These people were truly hit hard. In spite of having an enormous amount of work still to do, it was obvious that the human spirit has made huge strides in allowing the residents of this area to return to a new normalcy.

From there we drove to DeFuniak Springs, in the panhandle of Florida. We spent two nights there and soaked up the warmth. We drove to the coast and had lunch in Destin. We were very impressed with how blue the water was and the beautiful white sandy beaches. This picture was taken just outside the restaurant where we had lunch.

On the 14th, we drove the last 350 miles home. It was a GREAT trip -- in spite of the cold weather. We had a super time.

Merry Christmas to all!