Branson from 6 to 64: A family diary of a week spent making memories
SUNDAY: THE DRIVE
A family of nine, two grandparents, five young adults featuring three Cyphers boys and two daughters-in-law, and two small grandchildren, a 10-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, pull out of the driveway. Destination, Branson, 7 hours away.
“Are we there yet?” comes the question from the kiddie section. With that, the trip is officially underway.
“Oh no!” harkens the father of the small children. “My app says there is a major traffic jam on the Poplar Street Bridge!”
I, of course, a veteran of the city and that darn bridge, find this information very hard to believe.
“No problem,” I tell them. “We will simply divert around the city on 255 south.”
The plan was solid. Until we missed the 255 exit.
You notice another difference when you cross state lines. The scenery is much better in Missouri than in Illinois. But the navigation, up and down the winding hills, can take its toll. Then there are the billboards. In most states I have been in, billboards are routine, like “Jubelt’s Bakery, two miles ahead.” Such boredom would not fly in Missouri. “Jesse James Hideout!” “World’s Largest Store!” “Candy, Candy, Candy!” “Cave tours every 30 minutes!” And of course, “Guns!” Even saw what appeared to be a homemade sign right along 44 that said simply, “Greitens.” But I believe they had his name spelled wrong.
There was one billboard that sucked me in because after seeing it 10 times in a two-mile stretch, you wonder what the big deal is. “Missouri Hick. World’s Greatest BBQ!” Now that’s the kind of billboard that interested me. Off the road, we went. And went. And went. Two lanes, into nowhere. Come to a dead end and the signs say nothing but “Missouri Hick, turn right.” And then, there it is, in Cuba.
The first thing you see is a big hog on the roof, then a sign that says “Hillbilly Heaven.” Today there is a big note on the front door that says “today’s special is blackberry cobbler with warm ice cream.” I am liking this place before I walk in. I will not be leaving without a belly full of that cobbler and cream. The place is packed. The waitress recommends the sampler platter: ribs, brisket, pulled pork and two sides for $15. One of the adults tackles the all-you-can-eat ribs for $20. We ate and ate. And then it hit me: I had no room for a blackberry cobbler with warm ice cream. I was distraught.
Make no mistake, I consider myself an expert at these sorts of things, and I am going 5-stars for Missouri Hick.
Back on the road, I had a craving for something sweet in my stuffed belly, so I started considering all the candy billboards. And then I saw this: “GET YOUR DEEP CHOCOLATE FUDGE IN URANUS!” You know what, I think I will just pass.
You get close to Branson, and then the road hits you again. Up and down winding hills. The resort is another 15 minutes up and down the hills. Left turns and rights. But finally, we are there. Unpack, get groceries and then time to put more food in the belly.
The closest pizza joint to us says they are swamped, and can’t take any more orders. The family is tired. One of my sons had one too many ribs. One of my daughter-in-laws has already called it a night. Big day tomorrow: Silver Dollar City. As I lay in bed, the last thing I heard was “I’m going on every ride. Nothing is stopping me.”
It was the 6-year-old. She didn’t appear tired at all.
MONDAY: SILVER DOLLAR CITY
We made a beeline to Fire in the Hole, the park’s original and oldest roller coaster. This is one I knew I could handle, and we wanted to see if our boys remembered the ride from their youth, which now seems like a long time ago. I survived the ride like a champ. The 10-year-old was a little wobbly coming out. Not so the 6-year-old.
“What’s next?” she said with wide eyes.
With the park not yet full, we decided next was the main event, Mystic River Falls, a new water ride featuring the highest drop on a raft ride in the western hemisphere. I considered my options, but having successfully managed the log flume ride at Six Flags over a few decades, I felt confident. The grandson? Not so much.
“I dunno,” he balked looking up to the sky.
“Come on,” said his sister pulling him toward the line. “We’re going.”
Like Hicks BBQ, Mystic River Falls is a 5-star ride. So much so, that Gramps went again. You will get soaked. Completely soaked. Just slide your credit card into the heating booth waiting at the exit ramp. No idea what that cost. But the alternative is not good.
The next stop was Firefall, and this brought back horrific memories. It’s a scaled-down version of Disney World’s Tower of Terror, which still haunts me to this day.
“Let’s go on this one,” hollered the granddaughter. Her brother desperately looked my way.
“Hey, there is the cinnamon roll place,” I pulled out of nowhere. “You guys’ ride, and we will grab some rolls.”
The two of us sneaked off in shame but returned in time to see the action. An eight-story drop at nearly 70 MPH. It hurt me just to watch.
I suggested kiddie rides next, where Dumbo goes in circles and frogs bounce up and down. This lasted long enough for me to rest in the shade. I knew what was coming, and I needed an excuse.
“OK, dad,” one of my sons said. “Time for the coasters.”
“You know, it’s lunchtime,” I said. “Don’t want to ride on an empty stomach.”
“I don’t want to eat! I want to ride the roller coasters!” The little girl has spoken again.
I nudged the grandson. “Yeah, I’m hungry,” he said.
My wife gave me that look. Can’t fool her after all these years.
“You guys go ahead,” I said, waving them to Thunderation, Powder Keg, Time Traveler, Wildfire, and whatever other rides some madman created in his dreams to torment me.
The granddaughter was too small for these rides, which caused much upheaval as we watched her run from one ride to the other to check the height requirement. Except for one: Thunderation, the famed coaster with the 80-foot lift rising high above the Ozarks. There was no stopping her. I turned to her older brother.
“Look, you either suffer through this for five minutes, or you hear about it all night.”
He slowly began the walk to the ride. A life lesson from Grandpa. It’s called pick your poison.
My wife and I waited and watched them load into their wagons. Off they went, high into the sky, the granddaughter with her hands high in the air.
TUESDAY: NATURE WALK & ‘JESUS’
The children were up early.
“Are we going on more rides?”
I shuddered at the thought, and jumped out of bed refreshed, with a spring in my step, feeling a sudden urge to exercise, and announced to everyone we were going on a nature walk.
Okay, the previous sentence is a bald-faced lie. But one of my daughters-in-law loves to walk, and I discovered a hiking trail along our path. It seemed harmless enough, so why not? Even I can be up for new things.
Through the woods, we wandered, along a creek bed.
“Watch out for sharp rocks,” someone in our group hollered.
I was watching out for the snake that was coming out to get me.
“Duck through all the tree knobs,” I heard next.
If I see the snake, I am out of here.
The walk was slow, trying to step on the right rocks and still avoid the mud by the creek. But if Daniel Boone could do this, so can I. And just when I thought I was moving fast enough, a much older couple passes me by like I am standing still.
Apparently, there was a waterfall at the end of the trail. I wouldn’t know.
“I think I am going back now,” I announced to the group as they trudged along.
They were surely stunned.
We met up later at the Sight and Sound Theatre, a beautiful air-conditioned venue with a concession stand, serving roasted almonds. Memories of the walking trail were quickly forgotten. Bob-1, Snake-0.
We came to see “Jesus,” a musical production. We had brought our children here years before to see “Noah” and loved it. I had arranged for a quick sneak peek behind the scenes of the theatre, which ended with the grandchildren on center stage under a spotlight. We had to drag them off. A few more minutes and they would have been singing and dancing and signing contracts with agents.
As we returned to the lobby awaiting the performance, a man introduced himself.
“You must be Bob,” he said holding out his hand.
“I am,” I said.
“I’m Jesus,” he said.
And there is this pause as we stare at each other. Do I confess my sins?
“Dan,” he smiled. “I play Jesus.”
We chatted briefly. What an incredible job to have for a man of faith.
You really don’t need me to review the “Jesus” production. There are 8,000 Trip Advisor reviews. 7,300 of them giving it a perfect 5 stars. 500 more give it 4. From grandparents to grandchildren, it’s a spectacle, with amazing sets and production, and live animals walking the aisles. Two shows a day, sold out crowds. When COVID hit, more than a half-million people still walked through the doors I have this sense that visitors flock to Branson to see Silver Dollar City. But they leave seeing “Jesus.”
Any of your best adjectives will describe it.
WEDNESDAY: WATER PARK & DOLLY PARTON’S STAMPEDE
I woke up with a ticky cough. The day would only get worse.
“Come on Grandpa Bob,” I heard with my eyes still closed. “We are going swimming!”
Yes, today was water park day, and I was fine with that. Tube rides go down better than coasters at this point, so let’s load the cars and go. Like Silver Dollar City and “Jesus,” we had brought our children here years ago. But White Water was a smaller park then. It had grown, with more rides and many more options to spend your money. What used to be a concession stand serving pretzels was now Hula Hula Taco and Big Kahuna BBQ.
The park opened at 10 a.m. We were there at 11, and every chair was taken. No place to set up our home base. We shoved everything except my credit card into a locker and went exploring on the hot concrete in our bare feet.
I wound up in the Aloha River with my grandson. We call this the Lazy River back home, which serves my purposes well. Just a slow, winding glide through the maze, lounging in an inner tube. The grandson was getting bored, so I performed a few tricks getting in and out of the tube. Watch grandpa stand on his hands. Look at grandpa do a complete circle underwater. I thought this went well.
We exited and hooked up with everyone for lunch. My oldest son, having spent the first hour in the wave pool, had his sunscreen washed off and was already burning.
“No big deal,” he said.
Got to the food window, reached in my swimsuit for the credit card, and there was no credit card. This is where panic sets in.
The family made a mad dash back to Aloha River, where I was last seen performing my bevy of tricks. We searched frontwards and backwards. We went sideways, apologizing to everyone we crashed into. We went underwater. We talked to lifeguards Finally, we headed to the lost and found.
There was no credit card to be found.
An extremely rare screw-up by the Cyphers family, considering we had not lost a credit card since two weeks earlier. Fortunately, that one was on the wife.
We opted to hang out for the day and hope the card miraculously turned up. Finally, we had enough and headed home. One last stop at the lost and found.
“Anyone turn in that lost credit card?” I begged.
The woman went to a small box and pulled out a card.
“Name?” she asked.
“Cyphers,” I pleaded.
She looked at the card and handed it to me. It was like a lost puppy finding its way home. I was the happiest man in the world. Imagine calling the credit card company back and saying “I know I just called a few days ago, and I know I just got this new card, but......”
We headed to the parking lot. It was time for Dolly Parton’s Dolly Parton’s Stampede. But now I was coughing again. And my oldest son’s back was turning bright red.
Rarely do you wait in line for an attraction and see the stars. But as you walk into the Stampede, you pass the Appaloosa and the Ponies. Inside it’s a crush of people lassoed into an elevated rodeo ring. On come the lights, out come the performers, and here comes the food. And for the next two hours, you will eat (with your hands), see pig races, eat some more, see magic tricks, eat some more, hear corny jokes, eat some more, watch dogs do tricks, and then eat some more.
Let’s start with the food. It comes one at a time. First up was the creamy soup that you drink out of the bowl. It was piping hot and wonderful. So wonderful, that when I saw the rest of my family not drinking theirs, I grabbed them. Had four bowls of that soup. It was probably a bit much.
Then came the biscuit, then the whole rotisserie chicken, then the baked potato, then the pork loin, then the corn on the cob. Finally, the apple turnover. I may have missed a few things along the way.
As far as the entertainment, I don’t know how you can do better than Skeeter and his dancing chicken, Nugget.
In many ways, the Dolly Parton’s Stampede is like the “Jesus” production. It’s just not something you see anywhere else. They go to Branson for Silver Dollar City. They don’t leave until they see “Jesus.” But they leave with a full belly from Dolly. The Dolly Parton’s Stampede was the surprise hit of the trip for the family.
We had to make a pit stop on the way home. Desperately needed cough drops and sunburn lotion. Two people didn’t feel well upon arrival on Sunday, and now two more were struggling. We still had three days to go.
THURSDAY: RETURN TO SILVER DOLLAR CITY
The grandson, having tamed Thunderation, decided he had seen and heard enough from his sister.
“I’m going on all the rides that she is not tall enough for.”
This is what happens to the male species after a few days of serious thought. You get to the line in the sand where a man must take a stand, and define his worth. My grandson, bless his soul, was drawing his line today.
I informed the group that I too was originally planning on tackling all the coasters today, but as I was now coughing non-stop, it didn’t seem right to put other people at risk. I would do the honorable thing and just watch from the sidelines, as much as it pained me. There was that look from my wife again.
The grandson did his homework. He knew the two rides his sister couldn’t ride: Time Traveler and Wildfire. He just had to get through them. Time Traveler calls itself the world’s fastest, steepest and tallest spinning coaster. There is a nearly 100-foot vertical loop, followed by a 10-story drop. Oh, and you hang upside down, frozen in time. Such a shame that I was suffering from a cough due to a cold.
Up until I saw the lad strapped into his seat, and the ride pushed away, I was predicting a change of heart. So was his sister, who desperately wanted to be on that ride.
We were wrong.
Off he went, and we waited. There was no viewing area. Finally, everyone appeared at the exit, a maze of people surrounded by a little boy who was stumbling back.
“You did it,” I told him.
Whatever he mumbled, I couldn’t understand.
Next stop, Wildfire.
This is an older ride that my kids rode years before. I remember watching back then because I didn’t feel well enough to ride that day. Speeds pushing 70 mph, a 15-story vertical drop, full loops, cobra rolls and corkscrews. It was a big-time ride back in the day, one of the biggest.
“You got this,” I told him.
He didn’t look so sure.
“Five minutes, and you are right back here. We will get one of those lemon shake-ups.”
A nod and he was gone. I grabbed Grandma and we went to the observation deck. The same place we watched our children strap in with disbelief years ago.
Things were different coming off this ride. This was exuberance. This was relief. This was victory for my grandson, one that he will never forget. I long to hear the tales about the day he mastered Time Traveler and Wildfire.
It was time for a victory party and that lemon shake-up. The kids would ride some smaller rides with their mother, who was becoming well known to the people in charge of the rides.
“You okay, mom?” became their common question to the woman screaming.
Meanwhile, my coughing was bad, and my son’s sunburn was worse.
And those were about to become the least of our worries.
It was the simplest of rides, Tom and Huck’s River Blast. A slow family boat ride shooting water pistols at onlookers, who could shoot back at you. What could possibly go wrong?
You don’t know the Cyphers family.
One of my sons, not on the ride, was waiting with his water pistol to spray the family boat when it arrived. Somehow, when the moment came, he accidentally banged his head on a nearby wooden post. The collision between his head and the wood opened up a large, bleeding gash above his eye, and sent us heading to the first aid room, a room the Cyphers family has frequented before in public venues.
We basically now had two adults who arrived not feeling well, and three more heading toward the disabled list, still in the middle of a vacation, hundreds of miles from home.
It was time to circle the wagons and call it a day before anything else went south. I asked the family to rate the park on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the best. The consensus among the adults was a 4-plus, a park better than Six Flags, less than Disney, and comparable to Universal Studios. It got prompts for its country, wooded setting with a variety of eats, and we clearly noticed an improvement since we took our children years ago in the number of coasters, and of course, Mystic River Falls was a big plus. To get to a Disney level, SDC needs a virtual reality show stopper, such as when Universal launched its Back to the Future ride.
The grandchildren had their own scale for the park. “A 15!” the granddaughter yelled. Her brother nodded, sort of.
The morning did not start well. In one bedroom, I could not stop coughing. In another, I heard a sunburned son screaming under a cold shower. I walked downstairs to see a daughter-in-law patching up the gash over my son’s eye.
“Seems to me all the ladies are doing well,” she said, “but the men are struggling.”
I could not argue that point.
“So, we were thinking, you guys should just rest today, hang with the kids, and we can go and do our thing.”
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. The bells and whistles were going off in my head. This could only mean one thing: SHOPPING!
My sons gave me a quick look.
“I think I had better go along,” one said.
“Me too,” said the other. “Just in case I find something.”
Then it dawned on me. I was too sick to go, which means my wife would be alone with the credit card! I would have been better off if it was still at the bottom of the Aloha River!
I paced the floor while they shopped. I learned long ago that the phrase “outlet mall” meant a long haul. I just sat and waited, watching how much money I was losing in the stock market, and waiting for the inevitable.
They returned with box after box to be hauled in from the car. It was painful to watch. Then I heard the son with the battered eye say “we couldn’t find anything,”
Uh oh. The process of elimination.
Then my wife opened a bag to produce a jacket and a bra. She was done! I smiled.
“Sweetheart, really, you should have treated yourself to more!”
I don’t think she believed me. There were still a dozen boxes on the floor, all belonging to the poor sunburned kid. He might as well have stayed home and stood under the cold shower all day.
Finally, the vacation was to cap off with a golf outing. We had a 4 p.m. tee time for three. Mr. Cough. Mr. Sunburn, and Mr. Battered Eye. We had waited a day too long to cancel.
Mr. Sunburn could not move. He was out.
“Come on,” I told the battered eye... “I paid $300. Grab your clubs.”
We walked in with a Kleenex up my nose and a bandage around his eye. The man at the pro shop just stared at us. I gave him the short version and he just laughed and shook his head.
“You guys should be in bed and not on the golf course. Get out of here. We never heard of you.”
We thanked him and left. The vacation was over. It was time to go home. If we could make it.
I asked everyone to give me rankings on all the things we did, and what they would remember. The 6-year-old picked the wave pool, the 10-year-old was proud of mastering Time Traveler. The wives liked watching their husbands remember things from their youth. The adults loved watching the kids. Grandma and Grandpa enjoyed just being with their family. There were high marks all around for Silver Dollar City, Jesus, and Dolly Parton’s Dolly Parton’s Stampede.
The resort was clean, the cars were packed. It was time for the long ride back. No stopping at Hicks, or for fudge at Uranus. The three struggling men were still struggling. Let the record show that there was still my third son, who arrived not feeling well after all those ribs, but was clearly outperforming us now.
“Let’s go,” I announced.
I kept waiting for someone to suggest they tie me to the roof.
In my car were my wife, Mr. Battered Eye, and his wife. Everybody put a mask on. I figured after all the places we had been, all the people we had encountered, and how sick I had been inside the resort with them, it was too late.
It rained all the way home. I sneezed and ate cough drops. We stopped at Poor Richards in Eureka. We hit home and the family split up into three different cities, six hours apart. We likely will not be together again until Thanksgiving. Over the next few days, we learned via text that nobody felt well, and then the phone rang.
“Dad, I tested positive. You better get tested.”
And then a second call came And then a third. And a fourth. And a fifth. My wife took her test and hollered the result.
“I’ve got COVID!”
It was my turn. I knew the answer before I took the test. I wish it was this way in high school.
“It’s positive,” I said.
Nine people go to Branson. Eight return to an isolated bedroom. The only one left standing is the little girl. She is ready to go back.
The Griswolds have nothing on the Cyphers.
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