Christmas cruising in Branson

30 Nov

I always have a packed schedule when I head to Branson for a holiday weekend. It’s easy to pack in several shows during your stay, spending much of your time inside dark theaters listening to Christmas carols and watching holiday dance numbers.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Branson’s holiday shows, but think many people forget about the other activities available that don’t involve singing, dancing or Christmas carols. On my last Branson getaway I decided to check out a few fall activities, which would keep me outside in the brisk, Ozarks’ air.
I started my weekend by hopping aboard the Lake Queen, an old-time stern wheeler that takes visitors on daily cruises on Lake Taneycomo. Built in 1913, the lake is the oldest man-made lake west of the Mississippi and offers more than 108 miles of scenic shoreline.  I pulled up a chair on the open air observation deck and settled in for the cruise.
The guide for my lake excursion, Capt. Dave Taplin, a former oysterman, fisherman and self-described “Yankee in the bible belt,” navigates the 100 foot long Queen around the former White River. He tells stories and bad jokes and relates the area’s rich history along the way. He has a great gig.
During the paddlewheeler’s evening cruise you can see the Christmas lights that decorate the bluff above Taneycomo, the lights strung around The Branson Landing and the Fire and Water Show syncronized to holiday music.
“People ask me, ‘Don’t you ever get bored doing this every day?,’” he told me, turning the Queen’s helm over to Brendon McLaughlin, a 10-year-old tourist from West Monroe, La. “I always say,’ Does your office look like this?’ You can’t beat this. All the critters and the birds and the scenery. The people love this cruise.”
It’s easy to understand why the cruises are popular. During my 90 minutes on the water, I spotted nesting eagles, blue heron fishing for lunch and a handful of other wildlife wandering the shore.
I wasn’t the only one wowed by the Queen.
Brendon, who — under Capt. Dave’s watchful eye — steered the ship for the better part of the cruise, was thrilled he was able to drive the Lake Queen again.
“It isn’t my first time,” he said, smiling. “I got to drive last year when we were here. None of my friends ever got to drive a ship. I hoped I would get to do it again.”
Brendon’s excitement is typical of those Capt. Dave lets take the wheel.
“I let ‘em drive anytime,” Dave said. “A lot of the time I get kids with disabilities. It’s like the thrill of their lives, adults, too. I’ve never seen a kid that didn’t like it. It’s great fun for everybody.”
Maybe next time Dave will let me drive. Go to http://www.bransonlandingcruises.com for ticket prices and cruise information.
Showboatin’
On Friday night I boarded a Christmas cruise of another kind.
The Showboat Branson Belle, a 278-foot-long, 3-million-pound vessel built specifically to cruise Table Rock Lake, accommodates up to 720 guests in its floating theater. My cruise was an 8 p.m. dinner cruise and included a singing and dancing Christmas show with Todd Oliver and his talking dogs.
The Showboat celebrated its15th year sailing the 50-year-old lake in 2010. The show was nice, Oliver’s dogs funny and the dinner top -notch.
Next season Oliver moves his comedic canines to the Jim Stafford Theater, so a comedy cruise will be added to the Showboat’s line up and the entire menu will be new.
It’s kind of scary — but, pretty cool — cruising the lake at night. During intermission Showboat passengers are invited to go topside to the covered observation deck and check out the shoreline dotted with Christmas lights. It was a peaceful way to spend a few minutes, watching and listening to the paddle wheel churn up the lake.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Jim Jell, a passenger, said as he stood on the Showboat’s stern. “I was in the Navy, so it’s interesting to see how the crew works. It’s a neat way to see a show. I’m glad we got to see the guy with the talking dogs before he left. That’s funny.”
Jim’s wife, Mary, loved the dinner cruise, too.
“I love the band,” she  said. “They really know how to do it.  The dancers are good. The Christmas singing is so nice. I was really surprised the food was so good. That’s a lot of work to feed all us that fast.”
On a typical day the Showboat’s galley crew turns out more than 3,000 three-course meals. Dinner and a show on the Branson Belle will set you back around $58 plus tax, but prices vary depending on the showtime and the menu you select.
Titanic
Are you a history buff? Satisfy your hankering for maritime history with a Christmas cruise aboard the Titanic.
OK, it’s not really a cruise. You never leave land when you crusie aboard this Titanic, but who would want to go through the same experience the passengers of the ill-fated steam ship did when it sank mid-ocean in April of 1912?
The Titanic Museum Attraction sits anchored at 3235 West Highway 76 in Branson. You can’t miss it. I’ve been aboard the giant liner several times and there’s always something new to see or some new event to check out.
The newest additions to the Titanic’s crew are Molly and Carter, a pair of king Charles spaniels who greet guests on the ship’s gangway every day at noon. The two cute canines pay tribute to the dogs that — like 1,517 other passengers — lost their lives when the “unsinkable” ship sank in the ice cold waters of the Atlantic.
During the holidays the Titanic’s Grand Staircase is decked with Christmas garland, the giant ship’s rails are lined with lights and Santa and his team of reindeer welcome guests aboard Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 11.
More into movies than history? Titanic features an exhibit dedicated to the James Cameron movie that brought the doomed White Star liner to life for millions of moviegoers. The exhibit features costumes from the film and displays a Heart of the Ocean necklace made famous by the film.
More than 400 personal and private artifacts — salvaged from the ocean floor — are displayed in 20 rooms inside the museum, each telling a different story. A family 4-pack of tickets runs $53.87 plus tax.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

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