Everything Dreamy About Our Magical Branson Christmas Vacay
View from the main house at Westgate Branson Lakes Resort
With the holidays right around the corner, we did something we’ve been dreaming of doing for a long time—we took a mini Christmas vacation in Branson, where we were invited to stay at the Westgate Branson Lakes Resort. Like most folks from Green Country, we’ve heard about Branson’s near-mythical status as a vacation destination since we were kids but never had the chance to fully experience the phenomenon for ourselves until now.
As a family who has spent a handful of Christmases at Walt Disney World in Florida, we found ourselves constantly making comparisons between the Branson holiday experience and our past trips to the mouse kingdom. But there’s just something about the breathtaking autumn landscapes in the Ozarks that adds to the sense of seasonal wonder in a way that no amount of artificial Floridian snow can match.
With two teens and a tween, Justin and I have grown accustomed to competing against earbuds and smartphones for their attention, so getting everyone unplugged from Discord and YouTube for a few days is a gift on any occasion. That’s why we had to contain our delight when, a few minutes from Branson, our eldest child suddenly abandoned his headphones and began channeling David Attenborough, breathlessly narrating every detail of the landscape.
If you’ve been dreaming of a magical holiday vacation, Branson completely lives up to the hype and doesn’t require three weeks off of work and a second mortgage. To inspire your next family Branson trip, I’m sharing everything dreamy, fun, and generally scrapbook-worthy from our holiday vacay with links to get you started planning yours.
1. Waking Up to Table Rock Lake
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel across the country and have had the opportunity to take in some incredible sights from New York to Wyoming to the mountains of Colorado. And one of the finest sights I’ve seen in all of that time was the view from our fourth-floor suite at Westgate Branson Lakes Resort.
Our lake-view deluxe villa was set up so that we could take in the view from anywhere in the suite whether we were in the kitchen brewing a pot of coffee or checking our emails from the comfort of the posh master bed. To my surprise, Noah, who loathes getting out of bed in the morning as much as the next teenager, asked if I would watch the sunrise with him the day after we checked in. Thinking I would call his bluff, I obliged, and he eagerly shuffled out of bed.
Before long, Lucy had joined us, and the three of us sat bundled up around the balcony table watching the lake and sky explode with morning color like a Bob Ross painting come to life. As the moody blue-grays of the water and sky vibrated with the opalescent hues of sunrise, enchanted billows of fog drifted lazily across the water like icy ghosts against the autumn backdrop of sage, goldenrod, and crimson trees across the lake. Somewhere near the bank, a solitary boat seemed frozen in time.
And on the morning we checked out, we awoke to a world that looked like something out of a fairy tale. Glowing all around us in the periwinkle pre-dawn was a thick lake fog as if we had been swept up into a cloud while we slept. It lingered surreally through the sunrise before rambling on to greater heights, leaving the lake clear and bright as if no fog had ever passed by.
Our Westgate villa itself was a dream as well. Vaulted ceilings and bright whites, gentle blues, and other Instagram hues welcomed us in the spacious quarters with plenty of room for the fam to stretch out at the dinette or roomy kitchen counter. The large, luxurious bathroom exuded loads of spa energy and offered plenty of space to get ready for the day without fighting over mirror real estate.
The layout set the bedroom back from the main living space, giving the adults in our crew a much-needed quiet retreat while the younger set was free to be as wound up as they wanted to be. And with a queen sleeper sofa among the living room furniture, the sleeping quarters weren’t too cramped for our family size. And for a crew with teenagers, having access to amenities like a full kitchen and laundry room makes traveling so much easier.
Arthur and Lucy carved out some time to check out the indoor pool, which was a short walk from our villa. The resort also offers plenty of activities on-site like shuffleboard, mini-golf, a fitness center, horseshoes, and a sand volleyball court.
View at Westgate Woods
2. Vintage and Antique Treasure Hunting
If you enjoy shopping for vintage or kitsch as much as we do, Branson is a veritable paradise, especially when it’s the season for playing Santa. If you’re into browsing for hidden treasures, you’ll find plenty of well-curated antique malls, flea markets, pawnshops, and the like around downtown Branson, like the rather expansive Vintage Marketplace we checked out, located at 3630 W Hwy 76. The many shelves and booths were practically overflowing with Fenton glass and milk glass, lovingly crafted vintage quilts, throwback toys, artisan jellies and jams, adorable miniatures, and all manner of furnishings, tchotchkes, and ephemera.
If you’re really into vintage hunting, it’s worth it to plan ahead for an afternoon of shopping. Here is a handy little list of shops to check out from Explore Branson to get you started.
3. Checking Out Branson’s Main Strip
I’ve heard downtown Branson described as a mini Vegas for families, and after spending some time hanging out on the main drag, I am inclined to agree. The main Branson strip is a neon wonderland packed with entertainment options for folks of all interests and ages. There are plenty of live music and tribute shows for just about every taste from Sam and Dean Winchester’s playlist to Franki Valli and the Four Seasons.
There’s also plenty of fun for thrill-seekers including stand-alone roller coasters and thrill rides, the awesome-looking “mountain coaster” called The Branson Coaster, and even five-minute helicopter rides for $35 (you can’t tell me that wouldn’t be completely worth it). There are also loads of miscellaneous family-friendly attractions that will have you planning ahead for your next visit, like the fun-plus-science WonderWorks lab (look for the upside-down building) or Titanic Museum (look for the half a Titanic).
As avid pop culture geeks, it was especially tough for our family to pass by the Celebrity Car Museum with its Mystery Machine, Lightning McQueen, and Tow Mater parked out front. But the one place I can’t wait to check out on a future trip is Retro Mania with its ‘80s movie museum, retro mini golf, audio-animatronic ‘80s movie haunted house, and New Wave Cafe.
While we were there, we had the chance to check out the Christmas show at Presleys’ Country Jubilee. Around since 1967, the Presley show was the first of its kind in Branson and is still run by the same family of musicians and performers today. If you’re traveling to Branson with family members who love country and gospel, they’ll love this show.
4. Christmas at Dolly Parton’s Stampede
I was genuinely not prepared for how excited my husband would be when I told him we were going to Dolly Parton’s Stampede. Obviously, I love Dolly Parton because I’m human and she’s one of humanity’s perfect creatures right alongside LeVar Burton and Betty White. But I had never heard of Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and I was surprised to get such an eager response from my fella about a dinner show. I also had literally no idea what to expect as we shuffled into the theater or that it would end up being one of the best shows I’ve ever been to.
Kristi and Justin at Dolly’s Stampede
Over several courses of top-notch food served by our holiday elf server, we were treated to a delightfully well-executed musical performance on horseback. The costumes, performances, Christmas magic, and horse tricks were a visual smorgasbord, and the food seemed to just keep coming. On the menu was creamy vegetable soup, a hot biscuit, a super tasty and tender whole chicken and pork loin, herb-basted potato, buttery corn-on-the-cob, and for dessert, an apple turnover. When we asked our server if they had any vegetarian options for Arthur, she handled the request with the same class and professionalism you’d expect from someone associated with Dolly (they also have a gluten-free option).
All in all, it was a charming and funny show that couldn’t be more perfect for a family night out. If you only go to Branson for one thing this Christmas, Dolly Parton’s Stampede should be at the top of your list.
5. Silver Dollar City
If you’re looking for a serious infusion of Christmas magic, Silver Dollar City has you covered. Set in an 1880s mining town, Silver Dollar City’s natural Ozark scenery is as much an attraction as any of its theme park rides. As we adventured around the park, the perfect November day and steampunk Laura Ingalls Wilder energy added to the sense of holiday magic.
The Silver Dollar City holiday season goes until December 30th this year and features 30 shows a night including Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a Living Nativity, and Rudolph’s Holly Jolly Christmas Parade. And with its holiday light tunnels and the whole park decked out in 6.5 million Christmas lights and more than 1000 decorated trees, it’s easy to get caught up in the Hallmark Christmas movie fantasy.
Arthur in a light tunnel
If you’ve never been to Silver Dollar City, it’s so much more than just a standard amusement park where you’re constantly bombarded with character merch and over-the-top branding. Instead, it’s meant to capture the charm of a simpler time and place where craftsmanship and beautiful meals shared with loved ones were the order of the day.
We could easily have spent all day just watching some of the artisans craft their wares. At Brown’s Candy Factory, we watched as the candy makers cut and packaged a fresh batch of fudge, which we had the pleasure of sampling. We also spent some time watching the blacksmith at Mountain Outfitters craft a blade and then checking out the knives inside the store. As a chef, Justin is something of a knife buff, and the rest of our geek family is pretty obsessive over swords and medieval weaponry, so it’s always pretty fantastic to see an artist at work creating a new knife or sword. We also swooned over stunning hand-blown glass art at Hazel’s Blown and Cut Glass, boutique skin products at White River Bath & Body, and lovely leather goods at Mountain Leather Shop, just to name a few.
But Silver Dollar City also has its fair share of top-notch amusement park rides including the critically-acclaimed and award-winning spinning coaster the Time Traveler (here’s a POV video to give you a small taste of the action). My personal favorite ride is the eight-story Firefall, which shoots riders upward at a thrilling speed and drops them back down in a freefall. The effect is an awesome sense of weightlessness and surprise that offers a ton of fun without any dizzying spins.
Of course, there are plenty of lower-intensity attractions perfect for younger kids and park goers who just don’t live for the adrenaline jolt. The classic Grandfather’s Mansion was a huge hit with our crew—think Broward County Mystery Spot, to all you “Supernatural” fans out there. Fire in the Hole is an oldie-but-goodie low-key coaster even our family fraidy-cats could stomach. And for silly dark-ride fun, the Flooded Mine didn’t disappoint.
6. Holiday Dinner at Silver Dollar City
While at Silver Dollar City, we were treated to a full-blown Christmas spread equal to some of the best holiday feasts we’ve had the chance to enjoy over the years at the Rivertown Smokehouse. Think tender smoked turkey, creamy shells and cheese, green bean casserole, tasty fried chicken, buttery corn, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and cheesecake. Learn more about the Silver Dollar City holiday meal package here.
7. The Scenic Overlook on Highway 76
One of the keys to traveling with kids, especially with a kid on the spectrum, is making sure everyone has plenty of time to slow down, breathe, and take in the sights. That’s why we were happy to find a moment of quiet magic in our day when we pulled up to the scenic overlook off of highway 76 known as the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area.
There is a trailhead here that leads to 5.6 miles of trails and 1,534 acres of oak and hickory forest. The stone wall and gazebo at the top of the overlook bear decades of graffiti over graffiti over graffiti from travelers far and wide, creating a sense of wonder at the pure scope of how many people have walked those trails or stopped by on their adventures. There’s also a visual guide to the wildlife you’ll find in the area by season if you plan to hike the trails. A head’s up that the Ozark trails are steep and hilly, so make sure you’re prepared if you choose to heed the call to adventure.
8. Arcade Games and Burgers at Drafts Sports Bar and Grill
Between adventures, we had lunch at Drafts Sports Bar and Grill at Westgate Branson Woods, where we got to try their famous burgers and fish sandwich. As a pescatarian, Arthur is something of a fish sandwich connoisseur, so he was fairly delighted when they brought out his aptly-named Whale of a Sandwich, a golden-fried whitefish served on a hoagie with house tartar sauce. I went for the black-and-blue burger while the rest of the team went for good old-fashioned cheeseburgers. It was all solidly tasty lunchtime fare with fairly massive portions, a must when you’re feeding two teenagers and a tween.
Whale of a Sandwich at Drafts
While there, we spent some time playing our favorite old-school arcade games like Galaga and Pac-Man, threw some basketballs, and even won a rubber duck with the crane game.
9. BBQ Bloody Marys and Trash Can Nachos at Branson Landing
One of my favorite places to check out when we go to Disney World is Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney), and Branson Landing offers much of the same energy, bringing together a decent offering of dining, shopping, and entertainment options. You could keep kids of any age entertained all day here between the handful of arcades and fun spots like the Mirror Maize and Shipwrecked Treasure Museum. And after the kids are sufficiently juiced up on an arcade adrenaline buzz, there are loads of great shops to check out like Pepper Palace, Ferro’s Gourmet Popcorn, and Attic Salt.
There’s also a fair selection of dining including Guy Fieri’s Branson Kitchen + Bar, where we took a little trip to Flavortown with their famed Trash Can Nachos, which went over well with the kids. And after a long day of refereeing the backseat antics of my kids, the BBQ Bloody Mary I ordered to wash them down was fairly close to heaven.
Trash can nachos
Are you planning to take a Branson trip this Christmas? If so, what’s on your must-do list? Let me know in the comments, and have a beautiful holiday week in your little nebula!