A 10-Story, 90-Foot Vertical Drop, and Other Reasons to Visit Branson, Missouri

Posted June 4, 2018 4:37 p.m. EDT

“I’m watching a middle school marching band perform ‘60s pop,” texted Mekado Murphy, my New York Times colleague who had arrived just before I did to the Silver Dollar City Theme Park in Branson, Missouri. I caught up with him at the entrance, as a gaggle of preteens was finishing a spirited brass rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

Both Mekado and I had gotten caught in the theme-park-fever weekend traffic that has of late hit this little city in the Ozark Mountains, an hour south of Springfield, Missouri. But we remained decidedly stoked about our mission: to try out the park’s brand-new Time Traveler ride, which cost $26 million to build and is the fastest, steepest, tallest spinning complete-circuit roller coaster in the world.

My roller coaster fandom is at about a 5. I’ll ride Space Mountain at Disneyland all day, but I’m not making a trip to California just to do that. Mekado is the most enthusiastic expert on roller coasters at The Times — he’s written 10 articles on the subject since 2010, while holding down his day job as an editor on the Culture desk — and the greatest theme park fan I have ever met who is not a 10-year-old boy. “It’s a controlled thrill,” he said. “You’re secure and you’re moving on a track, but the way that track twists and turns offers so many possibilities for excitement.”

Mekado advocated for Branson to be on the 52 Places list and wrote the entry. Growing up in Oklahoma in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he used to come here regularly on vacations to see Andy Williams or fiddler-with-flair Shoji Tabuchi. He usually skipped Silver Dollar City, though, which opened in 1960 and mimics an 1880s mining town, complete with costumed characters dressed as train robbers.

He has ridden over 150 roller coasters — including a few spinning ones — but Mekado said he has never experienced one as steep or sophisticated as Time Traveler. It features cars that turn back and forth in controlled spins (so you don’t get nauseated) while traveling up to 50.3 mph. There’s a 10-story, 90-degree vertical drop straight down out of the starting gate; the tallest drop is 100 feet down the side of a ravine. All of this is in the middle of an undulating forest in the Ozarks. For roller-coaster nerds, it also has three inversions (including a 95-foot vertical loop) and two launches. All are record-breaking stats for a spinning coaster, or so I’m told.

Coaster-Head in Training

Getting on it, though, proved to be tricky. We made a beeline for it first thing, armed with skip-the-line Trailblazer passes ($70 unlimited, or $40 with restrictions, plus the $65 single-day admission) only to be told we’d have to wait or come back. That pioneering Time Traveler technology also comes with hundreds of necessary safety sensors. Once one is set off, the ride has to shut down until the problem is cleared. And it seemed to happen every time we approached the building.

So Mekado and I had run around the park like, well, 10-year-olds, in what will go down as one of the great days of this trip. In our Time Traveler holding pattern, we tested the Giant Barn Swing (two pendulum arms whooshing back and forth); American Plunge (a good way to get drenched while riding in a log flume); Powder Keg (a terrifically fast coaster with a TNT and dynamite theme); and Wildfire (a looping roller coaster that rises so high out of the trees you get views of the lake beyond).

Best of the old bunch was Outlaw Run, an award-winning cannon of a wooden coaster that Mekado wrote about in 2014 and described to me as “definitely solid.” He neglected to mention that it’s also totally insane. The thing starts with a 162-foot, 16-story drop at nearly 90 degrees, and later shoots through a barrel roll that makes it the only wooden coaster in the world with three inversions — never letting up for a full minute and a half. I hated him for taking me on it, then immediately wanted to go again.

Finally, after lunch, we got word that Time Traveler was good to go, and raced over. Mekado, who had convinced me to sit in the front, put his hands up the second the start gate opened. Our car rotated 180 degrees to the right, throwing us sideways down the initial plunge. The spinning means that sometimes you’re going backward and looking at the screaming faces in your neighboring car, and sometimes you’re going forward, with nothing but sky and trees in your view. And within that, you’re twisting and flying upside down. Time Traveler is also the only spinning coaster with a second launch, which means it pauses for a second and then rockets through an upside down loop.

“I love the first time riding something,” Mekado said, as we were still laughing from exhilaration, “because even though I’ve watched it, I’ve seen it, there’s no way I could really know how it would feel. I’ve ridden a lot of roller coasters. This one feels different.”

And then of course we had to know how it would feel riding in the back, like any true coaster-head. My review: Better the second time. I even put my hands up. Once or twice.

Beyond the Corn Dog

Not a coaster fan? Silver Dollar City is also just a beautiful place to be, built on lush tree-covered hills. By mandate of the owner, for every tree that gets cut down, two have to be planted in its place. Most of the rides, including roller coasters, look like they grew out of the middle of the forest.

Plus, it has ridiculously hearty and delicious food for a theme park — often served with live music on the side. The big draw is “skillets” cooked on enormous cast iron pans crafted by the park’s own blacksmiths, who also do outdoor demonstrations. I ate a succotash skillet of corn, okra, squash, chicken, peppers and onions that comes from a 25-year-old recipe.

Food offerings change every few weeks, as various festivals rotate through the grounds. Thanks to the BBQ and Bluegrass festival, we snacked on a barbecue-nachos concoction, with shredded brisket, coleslaw, baked beans and barbecue sauce, all atop corn chips. Why I’ve never had this at a Super Bowl party is a shame and a mystery to me. Dessert options included Oreo-flavored funnel cakes; peanut brittle hand-pulled in demos at Brown’s Candy factory; and fresh cinnamon bread baked from grain that was crushed by one of the park’s water wheels.

The most popular snack seemed to be the tater twists, which are essentially a spiral-cut potato fried into one long chip on a stick. Some genius also figured out how to put a foot-long Nathan’s hot dog on that stick and then fry the tater twist around out. We couldn’t finish it.

‘You’ve Got to See a Show!’

Think of Branson as a wholesome Las Vegas with a Nashville twang. The “Strip,” or Country 76 Boulevard, is replete with neon-lit live entertainment venues; a light-up Ferris wheel; and kitschy architecture galore.

“It’s just a great place,” said Brian McKee, a retiree from South Bend, Indiana, who was on his 11th trip to the city. “The people are so nice. It’s a Christian-oriented, family-oriented place. I don’t think there’s any show you couldn’t take your kids to.”

Of the three shows I went to none served alcohol (neither does Silver Dollar City). The best shot for a late-night drink I found — though I wasn’t looking hard — was wine at the Olive Garden. The shows were so much fun, though, I didn’t need it.

The older crowd seemed to adore Presleys’ Country Jubilee. The group actually started out performing in some of the area’s abundant caves, which were the cheapest, coolest venues in summer, and built the first theater on the Strip in 1967. (The Baldknobbers, founded a decade before that, were the first group in town.)

Three Presley generations play music together, interspersed with comedy routines centered around nerdy Cecil, a “trained idiot” with glasses and his pants up to his chest who complains a lot about not being able to get a date. The highlight was the non-Presley host, Jay Wickizer, who has a deep baritone like Johnny Cash. (The lowlight was the constant jokes made at the expense of women: “What goes from 0 to 200 in 5 seconds? My wife on a bathroom scale!”) It ended with a salute to the veterans in the audience (of which there were many) and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America,” with everyone in red, white and blue sparkling outfits, playing red, white and blue guitars.

On the advice of a friend of color, I skipped the well-liked Dolly Parton Stampede, which until recently was called Dixie Stampede, and divides the crowd into the North and the South for some Civil War playacting. (Branson has a strong Dolly Parton connection; Silver Dollar City is owned by the same people as Dollywood.)

I headed to the Showboat Branson Belle, also owned by the Silver Dollar City folks. You get a full dinner (nothing to write home about) and a show featuring the formidable pipes of Kelsie Watts, an “American Idol” season 15 semifinalist, while riding around Branson’s gigantic man-made reservoir, Table Rock Lake.

Comedy magician Christopher James proved a funny emcee, with jokes about the Christian Mingle dating site and Kim Kardashian. There was also excellent tap dancing and a fun medley with lines (and homemade costumes) from popular movies ranging from “The Sound of Music” to “Ghostbusters.” It ended with a salute to “those individuals who’ve dedicated their lives to serve this country.”

Most universal was the Haygoods, made up of six brothers and one sister playing 20 instruments, plus really impressive light shows and pyrotechnics. They began their musical careers harmonizing to the Beatles on their front porch, and have a young, more current vibe. Highlights included a violin-banjo “Devil Went Down to Georgia” duel (with the crowd shouting, “Banjo! Banjo!”), a honky-tonk version of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”; and tap dancing in industrial boots.

It ended with confetti cannons and the whole crowd cheering on their feet. I was right there along them, cheering for the Haygoods, but also for how travel can bring so many unexpected joys. — Practical Tips

Eat early. I found it near impossible to get food after 10 p.m. that wasn’t from a chain. (BillyGail’s Cafe is your spot for delicious breakfast.) Some amusement parks on the strip, though, do stay open until 11 p.m. on Saturdays. Try Heavy Metal High Rise, a four-story go-kart track, which I rode after befriending a group of Jamaican hospitality workers here on an exchange.

Check out Marvel Cave while you’re at Silver Dollar City; it has the largest entrance to any cave in the United States. On a return trip, I’d hit up things I missed: Bigfoot on the Strip (a 200-foot drop ride), the Titanic Museum (in the shape of a sinking ocean liner), and a zip line through the Ozarks. But above all, I’d go back to Peninsula Lookout, a barely-there pull-off on Table Rock Lake. A fisherman advised me to hike through a small patch of woods, where I found a handful of locals, enjoying beers, sunset on the water and a moment of peace.