I know, you’re the dad. They expect great things from you when it comes to vacations. If you are like me then Disney World in Florida with a deluxe meal plan, park hopper passes for all, and an upscale resort in the park is the “Gold Standard”. I call it that because it will seriously deplete your supply of Gold for other things the family desperately needs, and though the fun and the memories are great, there are better options – ones that are extremely attractive from a cost perspective, and because they involve family activities and lots of very educational fun that will inspire everyone and still leave you the hero. I’m going to detail one for you now (This one we’ve done more than once on the cheap).
Full disclosure is in order here. We discussed when and where to go – once we decided on where, the question became WHEN? My lovely wife planned our whole vacation on a ridiculously short timeline. All I really did was battle to get the time off work, and use some of those hotel points earned working away from home long stretches to get us nice free rooms on our 2 day drive each way there and back! It was a team effort. As I was fresh off my latest work trip before we went, I did what I could.
Take them to North Arkansas/Southern Missouri. No, I’m not kidding. In fact Branson, MO, has a very nice Airport if you’re the flying kind. It’s a place where they still deeply respect veterans, everyone calls you “Sir” and not just because you clearly not a young man – but because it’s the respectful thing to do. Where people hold doors and elevators for ladies. It’s a place where the local Sheriffs put “In God We Trust” on their cars, and the police are wearing real uniforms and very helpful – not looking like some post apocalyptic para-military outfit. This is a place where there are lots of radio stations playing christian music, virtually no rap with it’s destructive anti-social messages, and of course people still openly embrace their guns and religion.
Now – I’ll grant you it’s not mostly Catholics, but you won’t be seeing LGBT Pride days celebrated at Silver Dollar City. There will however, be a heavenly Gospel Choir group singing at one of their free shows in the park if your lucky. What you will find in Branson is shows, activities, museums, etc… Think of it as Vegas without all the bars and casinos, a family friendly place to go. Check out what Trip Advisor says about what there is to do in Branson!
($-$$ Depending on Discounts and Military Status)
Silver Dollar City is actually one of the top 10 Theme parks in the nation, I put the link to the park in above so you can check it out. While they have thrill rides that will curl your toes – they also have enough family and kids rides to keep everyone busy. You cannot see it all in one day no matter how determined you are to do so. The ride lines are much shorter than Disney and the rides are on-par with Disney’s in both character and quality – with some significantly better like THUNDERATION (Click the name for Video of the ride: Note that in the summer, the trees have leaves and the entire park is lush and shaded!)
The Costumes are wonderful – the food is much cheaper and plentiful than you would expect – so it is not worth eating outside the park. As if that weren’t enough, they have a sister water park right nearby and you can buy a pass for both, so you can splash off there and come back. I didn’t feel a need to do so this last time because so many of the rides in the park will leave you thrilled, laughing, and “Bathtub Wet”! Being damp sounds awful, until you realize how much cooler you feel in the summer with a damp shirt in the shade with a breeze.
*** Note – the Veterans Discounts and Deals at Silver Dollar City meant that the kids under 12 got free passes, I paid for the older child as an adult, and on the tickets I bought I bought one day passes and got the second day free. Saved a bundle. If you’re a veteran – bring proof (My VA ID Worked just fine), and ask about the discounts at the ticket window or call first! We spent 2 days at the Park for the whole family for the price of our condo rental for 1 night – AWESOME!
As I have young children that often excitedly accompany me to the train station to see me off or pick me up for one of my cross country work adventures (every trip is an adventure waiting to happen). They have longed to go on a train with me. A “Real Train”. In Branson, they got to do just that! There is a train in Branson called the “Branson Scenic Railway” it does a 40 mile trip on a real train with some vintage cars – and some cars clearly from Amtrak whom I travel with often. The children were thrilled, the views awesome, and the expression on their faces was priceless. Not terribly cheap, but this one was about fulfilling a child’s dreams and turning them into a real experience. On the plus side for this one, they get you with the ticket pretty good – instead of by charging exorbitant prices at the snack bar. I highly recommend their coffee – and as I roast my own beans, I am picky about that. Theirs is fantastic and cheap.
The Stone Hill Winery is also right there in Branson and does a kid friendly tour that also includes letting the kids taste the most amazing Concord Grape Juice you have ever had. Their tour starts with engaging and hilariously funny hosts, a movie about the Missouri Wine Industry (before Prohibition the largest in America), and it’s resurrection in the late 1960’s – present. The wine tasting covers about 20 of their wines. If you are going to try every one, even just a sip – don’t plan on driving for awhile. I’m not usually a big wine person. I am picky about the wines I like, as is my wife. We don’t always agree on what we can both enjoy wine wise. By the end of the wine tour we both thought several wines were the “schnizzel”, and we ended up doing some shopping for things we knew we both liked while there – including smoked cheeses from their refrigerator, and several bottles of wine at amazing prices as well as some of the concord gape juice for the kids at their insistence. We also noted many people stopping in, skipping the tour and just buying buying entire cases of certain wines. I can’t blame them.
You killed 2 or three days you you likely have 2 or 3 more you can afford to spend – don’t miss the best part. Take you kids out to see real nature, as God created it. There is no cell service and I still haven’t located a wifi hotspot out at the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas about 2 hours south of Branson. Rent yourself a Cabin, and book some Canoes for a day of floating down the Buffalo River. Watch the wildlife on the banks, gaze at the monster trout winning under your canoe as you count the stones on the rocky bottom through the crystal clear, cool water. See a nice pool, or beach? Pull over – have a sandwich, splash, play, stay hydrated – then go down the river 10 minutes and find yet another interesting spot to stop. Make a whole day of it and do it at your own pace. When you get to the end, beach the canoes and walk up to your car. Wild Bill’s does this best they pick you up at the point you come out of the water and drive you upriver to put you in with your canoes. We had a lovely Englishman expatriate, who has made a new home in rural Arkansas sure he discovered heaven on earth, handle our canoes and transportation this last time. I’ve used Wild Bill’s multiple times and they always do right by us. The key to a good trip is a good outfitter who can make sure you are prepared – because unless you go to the outdoors often, you likely aren’t. They also have one of the few places when you can get the key items you forgot, from a waterproof phone case to sunscreen and towels for the kids.
Turn at Wild Bill’s (You can only turn one way) and there is a swimming beach beach down the way in the Buffalo Point State Park (that is a picture of the swimming beach on below!). This swimming hole is absolutely free and has good parking, changing rooms and public restroom fascilities. You can also camp here as they have a campground and be in close proximity to all the local attractions without the expense of renting a cabin! Highly recommend it – kids choose this over Disney hands down every year, and yes – we did Disney a few years back.
Now show off your manly mettle by taking a tour of Blanchard Caverns (North Arkansas). I’ve done both trails and I’m a “Gipper”, needing at minimum a cane to walk – so I’ll be totally honest – the Discovery trail at Blanchard Springs Caverns is totally awesome! But, it’s 2 hours of solid walking up and down stairs and through some dark spaces. I made it, but it hurt so bad I was laid up the next 2 days until the swelling came down. On the flip side it was totally worth it. The “Dripstone trail” is much more beauty concentrated in one place, and easy enough do even in a wheelchair – shorter too. The Park Rangers are helpful and awesome, having patience when I just cannot move as fast as everyone else no matter who hard I try. The dripstone also has something critical with kids in tow – seating spots and lots of stops to explain what you’re seeing in front of you. ***Note: The “White Nose” fungus infecting the bats has not caused the closure of these caves, unlike many others across the nation, but you will be sanitizing your shoes as you leave the cave in a Woolite solution. The rangers explain all about it.
($$-$$$$ Cabin rentals vary widely – this one was $130 a night log cabin way back in the woods near the river – very comfortable, and slept 6)
Go back to your cabin – tired, hungry, excited. You can’t talk on the phone, you can’t play on the internet or check Facebook. Your phone is still a great camera though! Most of the cabin rentals we’ve done have a selection of board games and a few decks of cards. Bring some books. Play games, cook together, eats some meals together, read stories aloud, play so hard the kids are asleep exhausted by 7 pm, make S’Mores that would infuriate Michelle Obama with real Chocolate and Marshmallows. Buy some of the fine beers or wines available locally and after the kids are asleep, collapse outside on the front porch with a glass in your hand, put your arm around your wife and count the fireflies together until the snoring starts in the cabin. Take the time to just admire and enjoy creation without distractions.
It’s not perfect – but it’s as close as it gets for us. I hope you too have the opportunity for a very inexpensive, very educational, and very exciting vacation with your family.
PS: In the interests of the fullest possible disclosure, I have no business or financial interest in any of the above named places. These are all pictures I personally took while there, and I have been in no way compensated for any endorsements of products, goods, or services. The ones I mentioned are just so great that I thought everybody should know about some of the best kept secrets in middle America!
God Bless your family,