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Branson Lures Country Music Lovers to Ozarks : Missouri town draws a passel of visitors with its theaters, arts communities and folksy style.

August 09, 1992|BILL HUGHES

Branson, the upstart Missouri Ozarks town with the down-home country music sounds, is expected to attract about 5 million visitors this year, many of them mature travelers arriving via senior tours.

There are some 28 country music theaters in Branson alone, with total capacity of 53,791--significant for a town with a population of about 3,500. Branson is about an hour's drive south of Springfield, on U.S. 65.

Most of the theaters offer shows seven days a week, featuring the likes of Kenny Rogers, Mel Tillis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Mickey Gilley, Roy Clark and dozens more performers, including a show-stopping Japanese fiddler named Shoji Tabuchi and a country crooner named Andy Williams.

Add to that the Ozark arts-and-crafts villages and shops, such as Silver Dollar City on the outskirts of town, fine home-style restaurants and easily accessible fishing and boating, plus the noted outdoor drama "Shepherd of the Hills," an annual event held from May through late October.

Branson's appeal to mature travelers is simple: Music and wholesome comedy, where the nearest thing to a swear word is "gosh durn."

A number of senior tours heading to Branson from Southern California were sold out this year almost before the ink was dry on the brochures. Although Branson can seat 50,000-plus for entertainment each night, there are only about 10,000 rooms available in hotels, motels, resorts and condos. Booking space for tours is difficult and must be arranged many months in advance.

Enter Collette Tours. The Pawtucket, R.I.-based company, one of the country's oldest tour operators, has announced a series of eight-day package tours featuring three nights in Branson. There are four departures this fall, to be followed next year by one tour every week April through October.

Tours begin with two nights in St. Louis, local sightseeing and a night of riverboat gambling on the Alton Belle. Tour members then board a motor coach for a scenic tour through the Ozarks and three nights in Branson at the Days Inn.

Tour members will see the Shoji Tabuchi show, "Shepherd of the Hills" and the Passion Play in nearby Eureka Springs, Ark., and Will have free time for shopping or country music matinee shows.

The tour continues to Lake of the Ozarks; the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library in Fulton, Mo. (it was here that Churchill made his memorable "Iron Curtain" speech), and Hannibal for a tour of the Mark Twain Museum, before returning to St. Louis.

Priced at $899 per person, double occupancy, the package includes seven nights' lodging, 14 meals, extensive sightseeing and entertainment. Air fare to and from St. Louis is not included.

Tour departures this year are Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, 9 and 23; next year, Fridays from April through October.

Other Southern California tour groups offering trips to Branson include Fitzgerald Tours, which has a weeklong Ozarks tour beginning Oct. 12 that includes three nights in Branson (about $1,000 per person, including air fare from Los Angeles to Springfield, plus motor coach), and Gardena-based Westward Travel, which sold out its two tours this year but is planning to offer more departures in 1993. Call Fitzgerald in Brea at (800) 266-9992 and Westward at (800) 537-4602.

Consult your travel agent for more information on tour groups headed to Branson.

For general information on Branson, write to the Branson/Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 220, Branson, Mo. 65616, or call (417) 334-4136.

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