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Branson booms as Titanic joins lineup

The bow of the Titanic rears above the spray of waves, the fatal iceberg jammed in its black and riveted iron flank.
Workers finish painting the exterior of the Titanic Museum in Branson, Mo., Tuesday, March 7, 2006. Visitors will enter through the iceberg.John S. Stewart / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bow of the Titanic rears above the spray of waves, the fatal iceberg jammed in its black and riveted iron flank.

The museum built to resemble the ship is part of Branson's efforts to continue growing by widening its appeal beyond the elderly tourists who first helped it boom in the early 1990s, drawn by wholesome country music and crooners.

Branson is adding more upscale shopping, family attractions and pop music fare aimed at newly retiring baby boomers and parents with children. The southwest Missouri town also is seeing a surge of commercial and residential development as it becomes more of a year-round resort.

"It means we are not an attraction-only destination. It's a mix of shopping, commercial and residential development, and it means more year-round employment," said Jerry Adams, Branson's city communications director.

Visitors are expected to number 7.6 million this year, Branson tourism officials say. That would be a 4 percent increase, double the national growth in vacation travel that the Travel Industry Association of America forecasts this year.

Branson is not about to turn its back on its country music roots. But to appeal to aging baby boomers and more families with children, there are more pop music attractions this year, including Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater Complex, opening in April and presenting 1950s and 1960s rock.

** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ** First Class maid Jaynee poses for a photo in front of the full-scale reproduction of the Titanic's grand staircase in the Titanic Museum on Tuesday, March 7, 2006, in Branson, Mo. (AP Photo/John S. Stewart)John S. Stewart / AP

Theme parks are also expanding. Silver Dollar City, a mix of crafts and rides with a late 19th century atmosphere, is spending $8 million to add 10 rides in a new area called the Grand Exposition that echoes the era of world's fairs and expositions.

Also opening this spring is Branson Landing, a shopping mall with a marina and boardwalk on 95 acres on Lake Taneycomo. About 80 percent of an expected 100 stores and restaurants, including Belk Department Store, will be ready for the development's May 26 opening.

Later this summer, a Bass Pro Shops, the Springfield-based hunting, fishing and outdoors retailer, will open at Branson Landing, followed by a Hilton Hotel in October. A convention center and a second Hilton are due to follow in 2007.

Branson Landing is part of a development boom here. The value of new construction was a record $173.5 million last year after $76 million the year before. This past January alone, new construction worth $44.6 million broke a record of $10.3 million from January 1994.

The Titanic attraction, officially named "The World's Largest Titanic Museum Attraction," opened in March.

Museum owner John Joslyn is a former television producer who dove to the wreck in a submersible in 1987 and produced the documentary "Return to the Titanic ... Live."

Joslyn has been a collector of Titanic artifacts and opened a smaller, similar attraction in Orlando, Fla., that he sold to build the Branson museum.

The Titanic building looms above Missouri 76, Branson's Strip. The 100-foot-tall building recreates the bow of the ship, complete with a pool at its base that sprays water as though it were cutting through the ocean.

The entrance is through a mock iceberg tip that juts out of the ship's side. Inside, visitors take a 90-minute walk past more than 400 artifacts and reconstructions of the ship and the life stories of many of its passengers.

The grand staircase from first class is rebuilt, as are first- and third-class cabins. Visitors step out on a darkened deck chilled to feel like the fateful night in April 1912 and can barely make out the outline of an iceberg ahead under a field of stars.

Joslyn said he has been coming to Branson for years and decided it made more sense for his attraction to be here, rather than Orlando.

"I love the Branson demographics," Joslyn said. He said both the families that tend to come in summer and the older visitors in the spring and fall have an interest in the Titanic story.

City economic development director Michael Rankin said Branson Landing will help meet a city goal of increasing year-round business and employment to make up for a seasonal drop when most entertainment and tourist venues close from December through March.

The shopping experience at Branson Landing also fits into efforts to increase tourism. Shopping is a major activity for vacationers and complements the shows and theme parks, according to Dan Lennon, vice president for marketing at the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It's still all about tourism and all about entertainment," Lennon said. "But one of the challenges we have is getting more first-time visitors."

A resort destination needs a certain percentage of first-timers to keep growing. That rate in Branson has been running in the low 20s since a peak of 35 percent in 1995, and the chamber wants to get it back to an industry benchmark level of 25-30 percent, Lennon said.

That's where new attractions such as the Titanic museum and a greater variety of music shows come in.

Branson is also a drive-to destination, which can work to its advantage, despite high gas prices, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.

"We've seen time and time again when gas prices spike, people still tend to travel. That can benefit an area that is within a drive of a number of large metropolitan regions," said association spokeswoman Cathy Keefe.

If You Go:

: Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, or (800) 214-3661.

GETTING THERE: Located in southwest Missouri, 35 miles south of Springfield. From U.S. 65 South, take exit U.S. 65/Missouri 248/Veteran's Boulevard. Springfield is the nearest major airport.

: 1600 West Highway 76;  (417) 332-1960. Shows - including Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gary Lewis & the Playboys and "Original Stars of American Bandstand" - open April 21. Adults, $39; children 12 and under, $20.

: 3235 76 Country Blvd. and Highway 165; (417) 334-9500. Adults, $16.95; children 5-12, $9.95. Open daily, 9 a.m.-11 p.m.

: Located in downtown Branson, near Business Highway 65 and Main Street. Opens May 26. Mall includes Belk Department Store, restaurants, marina and boardwalk on Lake Taneycomo. Bass Pro Shop will open later this summer.

: Amusement park; (800) 475-9370. New attraction, Grand Exposition, opens this spring. Hours vary. Adults, $43; children, 4-11, $33; seniors, 62 and over, $41.