Janice Martin plays second fiddle to no one. Aboard the Showboat Branson Belle dinner cruise on Branson's Table Rock Lake, hundreds of heads tilt up in unison as the aerial violinist suspends her lithe body upside down on aerial silks, her long, blonde hair tumbling with her, then plays musical selections from "West Side Story" as effortlessly as if she were comfortably seated in her favorite chair. The act is part of "Made in the USA," a show featuring some of the most popular American music of the 20th century. What makes Martin remarkable is her versatility. She's billed as a violinist, but she's equally talented on the piano.
A classically trained singer, she can hit the high notes in the most challenging arias. But, in this show, she captivates the audience with an inspiring rendition of "Amazing Grace." One minute she's playing iconic movie scores on the violin and the next she's a cowboy boot-wearing country music queen, fiddling a lightning- fast version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
Branson may be small, but it's big on affordable family entertainment and attractions. Touted as the "Live Music Show Capital of the World," this town ensconced in the beautiful Ozark Mountains boasts 50 theaters and more than 100 live shows, mostly along Highway 76, or "the strip." It has the dazzle of Vegas and the talent of Broadway, but retains a down-home, kid-friendly vibe, a winning combination that attracts approximately 8 million visitors annually.
THE SHOWS MUST GO ON, AND ON AND ON
The shows in Branson never stop. Such an abundance of entertainment options can be overwhelming, but if you're looking for a show that will be a hit with the whole family, "The Twelve Irish Tenors" at the King's Castle Theatre should fit the bill.
These guys bring down the house every time, and that's not just the luck of the Irish. Loads of talent and an eclectic lineup of musical numbers - including everything from pop to Broadway to opera - keep this show fresh.
Many of these "Irishmen" are about as Irish as hot dogs and apple pie, but they can belt out tearjerker Irish ballads such as "Danny Boy." Numbers such as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" showcase their harmonization skills and incredible vocal range, while feel- good songs such as "Hey, Jude" get the audience singing along.
It's amusing to see a bevy of teenage girls boldly sidle up to Johnny Depp and insist on having several photos taken with him - Facebook fodder, of course. He stood patiently during the photo session. Even when a giggly blonde daringly stroked his jet black hair, he remained composed.
That's the cool thing about the Hollywood Wax Museum, which showcases eerily lifelike wax figures of celebrities. People can declare their undying love to Johnny Depp or give a little fashion advice to Angelina Jolie without the threat of muscled security personnel.
Classic film buffs get a thrill out of mingling with Old Hollywood stars (well, their likenesses anyway). Judy Garland looks as though she could burst into song any moment and comedian Bob Hope, who was an avid golfer, stands with a club casually slung over his shoulder.
IF IT QUACKS LIKE A DUCK
There are many ways to tour Branson: by train, trolley, helicopter and boat, but if you want to make a big splash with the kids, take a duck. These amphibious vehicles are modeled after the World War II DUKWs that were used during the D-Day Normandy landings to transport ammunition from anchored ships to shore.
Tourists do a double-take when they spot these boat-like vehicles full of quacking passengers (everybody gets a "whacky quacker") rolling through the streets of Branson.
The tour begins on land in the entertainment district, then heads outside the city for scenic mountain views before splashing right into Table Rock Lake. For most kids, the highlight is a chance to drive the duck on the lake - with a little help from the captain.
THE LAST FRONTIER
At Silver Dollar City, a chorus of piercing screams echoes through the frontier-themed park as the Outlaw Run takes a terrifying nose dive - a stomach-churning, 162-foot vertical drop, the steepest on any wood roller coaster.
After zipping through the Ozark Mountains at a top speed of 68 mph, thrill ride enthusiasts describe this new, $10-million roller coaster as "mind blowing" and "amazing."
Thanks to a state-ofthe-art track, the Outlaw Run twists upside down three times, and just when riders think the excitement is over, it launches into a double barrel roll. For some, 87 seconds of exhilaration isn't enough, and they get back in line to do it all again.
Today, Silver Dollar City is a top family attraction, but it began in 1960 as an afterthought, a place for tourists to hang out while they waited to tour Marvel Cave.
There were no roller coasters, just a small 1880s-themed street with a general store, a blacksmith and a few amateur shows. Visitors loved it.
Silver Dollar City gradually evolved into a full-blown theme park that was just as popular as Marvel Cave. White Water, a 13-acre water park, was added in 1980. Now it's easy for visitors to get so caught up in Silver Dollar City's rides and shows that they forget about the cave, but those who do are missing out.
This limestone cave was opened in 1894 for guided tours. Before you call it a day, purchase a souvenir or two from one of the park's talented resident craftspeople who are keeping alive arts such as basket making, glass etching, chip carving, and candle making. You won't leave with useless, overpriced tchotchkes, but heirloom-worthy items made by skilled artisans.
Where to Stay
Radisson Hotel Branson, 120 N. Wildwood Drive, Branson, 417-335- 5767, www.radisson.com Where to Eat: McFarlain's Family Restaurant at Branson Imax, 3562 Shepherd of the Hills Expressway, Branson, 417-336-4680, www.bransonimax.com
What to See
Showboat Branson Belle: www.silverdollarcity.com/showboat- branson.aspx King's Castle Theatre: home to the Twelve Irish Tenors, 2707 W. Highway 76, Branson, 417-334-2500, www.kingscastletheatre.com. Hollywood Wax Museum: 3030 W. Highway 76, Branson, 417-337-8277, www.hollywoodwaxmuseum.com. Ride the Ducks: 2320 W. Highway 76, Branson, 877-887-8225, branson.ridetheducks.com. Silver Dollar City: 399 Silver Dollar City Pkwy., Branson, 800-475-9370, www.silverdollarcity.com.
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