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Monday, August 19, 2013

Family Vacation 2013 : Branson, MO

This past week we took our first vacation as a family of three - finally! As someone used to constant travel (New York! Seattle! Austin! Miami! California! Italy! Aruba!) it's insane to me that I haven't been on a vacation* since I went to Australia in December 2010 when pregnant with Carys.  I was in the midst of a MASSIVE cabin fever attack and forced Chris to agree to a quickie family vacation somewhere within driving distance and cheap.

*visiting my mom doesn't count, so says me

We ended up at the Marriott Willow Ridge Lodge in...Branson, MO. Not exactly the pinnacle of what I would have originally imagined for a wonderful vacation, but it was a gorgeous resort that had the employee discount available within an easy half-day drive - so it won. And it was perfect, really (lack of palm trees notwithstanding).

(hotel stock photo)

To summarize Branson, it's the redneck, evangelical Christian version of Las Vegas. And before you get offended: NOT MY WORDS! Ha! That's how the hotel staff described it to me.  Much smaller scale, much more spread out, much greener, MUCH bigger hair...but lots of   people have   described it like that! That's not to say that's a bad thing or I didn't love it, though - we had a ton of fun.

I tried to keep our list of activities in the area on the free/cheap side, since, well, money. Ya'll (oh god, Branson after-effect) know how it is.  Hence the reason we went to Branson and not Jamaica, mon.

I considered doing one or two "big" activities, like hitting up Silver Dollar City (a theme park) or the Dixie Stampede (a dinner show), but at $50+ per adult and not knowing for sure whether Carys would enjoy it, I decided to skip them, and I'm glad we did.  There were a few things that I had on my "maybe" list that we didn't end up doing, but I still think we would have enjoyed - I'll list them here in case anyone else is planning a Branson vacation with a toddler and looking for ideas: the National Tiger Sanctuary, a wolf sancuatry, any of the caves in the area (Marvel, Talking Rocks, Fantastic Caverns), the Branson Scenic Railway, the Lake Queen Cruise, and Butterfly Palace.

One of the freebies we hit up was the Shephard of the Hills Fish Hatchery. This places has tanks and tanks full of trout - and when I say full, I mean like each tank held 70,000+ fish - which they raise in order to release into a nearby lake. You could get feed the fish, which Carys loved doing. They also offered a free tour, which I found interesting, but Carys apparently wasn't as interested in the behind-the-scenes goings on (going ons?) involved in raising fish, so we ditched the tour halfway through and went back to feeding the them. We were probably only there for 45 minutes or so, but it was free, so...money well spent.

I tried to get a good picture of the sheer number of fish that were in the tanks, but between the netting protecting them from birds and the glare of the sun off the water, it was difficult.  If you look really closely at the below picture you can kind of see them...it's almost like one of those mindfuck puzzles to get to see them between the glare and the net, though. Give yourself a medal if you can!

This starts to give you an idea of how big this place was and how many tanks.

I limited the scheduled/planned activities to two per day - one pre-nap and one post-nap - including one morning and one afternoon planned for lazing around at the hotel. This worked great - we were never stuck trying to figure out what to do, but we weren't too overscheduled and we had time to fit in a few unplanned activities as well.

One of the unplanned activities was playing putt-putt golf. I official bestow the title of "Putt-Putt Capital of the World" to Branson, Missouri. Come on up and get your award! They were EVERYWHERE. All themed. Hollywood themed, farm themed, dinosaur themed, pirate themed, medieval themed...

One of the dinosaur themed ones right by the hotel caught our eye because Carys loves dinosaurs right now. After the fish hatchery, we had an hour to spare before her nap, so we decided to introduce her to the world of (mini) golf. Chris, Mr. Golf Lover himself, was thrilled. She picked out her own putter and ball (and made sure they matched) and quickly picked up on what I understand to be one of the tenets of golf - cheating. No matter how many times we showed her where to start, she'd run to the hole, teeter her ball right on the edge, and use the putter to scoot it in. Then, of course, celebrate madly. "I DID IT!" Obviously we let her keep cheating. So technically she won the entire course. 

After nap, we headed out to the beach (Moonshine Beach on Table Rock Lake).  Granted, it was a lake beach, but it had sand (and rocks! and live fish!) and Carys was in HEAVEN. She did not want to leave the water for a second. I had to beg her to come build sandcastles with me. Who has to beg a kid to play in wet sand?? Me, that's who.

She spent the first few minutes crawling the length of the beach. I don't even know. Can I blame Two for the weirdness? I think "Two" is the answer to all the mysteries of this age.

Another last minute trip we took with some downtime was going to the Promised Land Zoo.  Overall, I'd say the baby zebras alone made the admission price worth it. There was a decent animal show where you got to pet a bunch of different smaller animals, and again: feeding baby zebras. Hello! The front third of the zoo had some interesting/fun animals (baby lion, baby camel, baby zebras, random hyena...), but the back two-thirds of the zoo was all just hoofstock. And not really interesting, unusual hoofstock either. Just the same antelopes over and over. So the first third of the zoo? Yes! The last two-thirds? Eh. I'd do it again, though, just to get to touch another baby zebra because baby zebra.

I cannot tell you how much I laughed when Carys reached out to grab the gorilla's chest and exclaimed, "Milk!"

Petting a ring-tailed lemur, a screaming hairy armadillo, and a baby crocodile.

This is just a random blue-tailed skink I saw on a tree. Pretty though, right?

I'm sorry for all the baby zebra pictures. NOT.

We grabbed lunch when we got back to the hotel, and Carys chose to relax in a poolchair. The pose could not make me laugh harder.

(EDIT: The "Ride the Ducks" attraction is now closed in Branson, but leaving the info for memory purposes.) One thing that I did have planned was the "Ride the Ducks" tour. You see these pretty much anywhere that has a city with water nearby - you ride in an amphibious vehicle and get a combination land/water tour. My trivia of the day - they originated in Branson! Many of the vehicles were originally built in the 40's! The end. I don't have a lot of great pictures of this because it's hard taking pictures when you're trying to keep your child from jumping out a window into the water and wind is whipping your hair at 200 miles per hour. (P.S. We heard from many sources that the Table Rock Lake tour is the way to go.)

A) Stupid 50mm vignette. Ugh. I didn't correct it in post because I didn't notice it until now. B) We pulled up along another Duck vehicle, so I snapped this just to show what the car/boat looked like.

The view of Table Rock Lake from the top of the "mountain" nearby that the Duck took us up to the top of...a bit perilously.

As per usual, she wanted to ride by herself.

She definitely thought the duck quacker whistles were the best souvenir of the trip.

This is on top of Table Rock Dam looking down at the previously mentioned fish hatchery that we visited.

We had one more unexpected bit of downtime during the trip, where we went to do putt-putt again.

Look at this picture. I die, seriously.

This is an actual layout of the actual results of our actual shots (well, Carys rolled). Carys is blue, I'm red, Chris is yellow. Oh, did I mention I got TWO holes in one? Chris got one and won the game, but still. I don't golf. Ever. I'm proud.

A few shots of Carys enjoying the hotel children's pool (we swam a bit in the big pool also, but for as much as she wanted to run around in the water by herself, we stuck to the little one for the most part).


We also did a few other things that I didn't have my big camera for - we went to Branson Landing for dinner and to watch the fire/water show, we went to a 50's themed diner where Carys was completely infatuated with the singer on stage and stood on my lap and danced the entire time (obviously completely charming all the people around us - no joke, at least a dozen people told us how cute she was [humblebrag]), we hit up the activity center at the hotel to do some kid-friendly activities for Carys, we swam more, we played shuffleboard (because we're 80 years old), we went to the College of the Ozarks for brunch, where Carys got to pet some of the cows that provided the very milk we drank (P.S. SO HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ... so, so good. So much food...so good).

I'll end with a few phone pics from the trip:

Proof of my first hole-in-one....

After golfing the pirate course...

Riding the ducks...

"Driving" a boat at the Bass Pro shop boat display at Branson Landing...

Dancing at the diner...

Totally enamored with the Cat in the Hat...


Possibly dead baby camel (note: not dead)...

So am I to take from this Christ is making zombies?

One of the kid's club activities she did - stuffing this turtle. She LOVES him. That's him in the box that she's dragging along in the next set of pics too.

Resort grounds.

I totally nerded out and hit up the Titanic Museum. By myself.

An enormous BBQ rib meal we ate...

Riding the horse ride (I haven't seen one of these in FOREVER!) at the BBQ joint.

Moonshine Beach...

Giving the baby a kiss at Moonshine Beach (cue collective AWWW!)...

The only pic we have of the three of us (well, there are others were Chris is making a lovely face but Carys is looking away or I look even worse than I do here)...

DAMN STRAIGHT I went to Walgreens and bought s'mores stuff the second I realized there was a firepit at the hotel.


Petting the cows at the College of the Ozarks...

P.S. The GIFs in this post are automatically generated by Picasa/Google Plus when you upload a series of pictures. I didn't make them....but I love that Google did!


  1. Very cute! Love the GIFs as well. Hooks me up with one of those buttery rollllllls!

  2. Umm, you may have sold me on Branson for next summer....

  3. Baby Zebra!!!! So cute. There is a baby zebra at our zoo, but it's across a moat and in no way are you able to go up and feed it. Plus Mommy zebra is always nearby and I think she would bite you if you tried.

    Other notes: 1) Love Carys red romper. You can only pull off a romper until a certain age, so I try to get them for Kaia while I can. 2) Why is there a Titanic museum in Branson? Perhaps I'm behind on my Titanic lore, but Titanic was traveling from Southampton UK to New York, USA. I'm unaware of any planned stop in Branson, MO, which would have been impressive considering Branson's land-locked location.

    Looks like a good trip!

  4. Gini, let me know if you need any more info! If you do go, I might also be able to help you out on the hotel.

    Emily, no mamas here. :( Just the babies. I love that red romper too - I got it for next year; it's supposed to be a 3T but it's tiny. I'm glad she potty trained now because it barely fit with a diaper under it. And the Titanic things is ridiculous, isn't it??? But it was surprisingly well-stocked with artifacts and nice. I was pleasantly surprised!

  5. Your daughter is one adorable kid! This isn't just pure leisure, it is also a very educational activity for the family, especially to your child. I can tell that you have created great memories just by looking at the photos. I hope that families can do things like vacations every once in a while. It relieves stress and anxiety and at the same time strengthens the mental and physical health of the whole family.

    Robert Wise @Condos in Steamboat

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