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Live Music Capital of the World … and SO much more!
by Edith Wagner
In reunion land we tend to think of Branson, Missouri, as a military reunion place, which it certainly is.  However, I visited specifically to learn whether it is also a family reunion destination and can report with a resounding “yes, it is!”  In fact, Branson is a reunion place extraordinaire.
Located nearly at the center of the US, Branson is less than a day's drive for one-third of Americans. It is nestled in the lakeside beauty of the Ozark Mountains and is an affordable, wholesome family entertainment capital that emphasizes fun, comfort and the feeling of being right at home. The community embodies essential American values such as patriotism, faith, courage and generosity of spirit in a warm, inviting atmosphere that is truly genuine and heartfelt.
Branson’s whole purpose is to welcome tourists, so it’s an easy place to be drawn into … quickly. I am fascinated by how an area got a little water and still maintains an oasis. Their ability to draw both entertainment and an audience is world-class.

Someone, somewhere, decided Branson was going to have a ton of shows and attractions to draw visitors to their city. They call themselves the Live Music Capital of the World, which cannot be disputed, with more than 50 theatres and over 100 shows that you can enjoy morning, afternoon and evening. If shows are your thing, and you want to see many of them, you may never see sunlight! One of the advantages of Branson shows is that many appeal to the young adults who might need an extra incentive to attend a family reunion.

But first, let’s look at all the things for families to do.  Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a 2,200-acre preserve in the heart of the Ozarks, on the Missouri-Arkansas border just south of Branson. There is hiking, biking, horseback and ATV riding.  Payne Stewart Golf Club is a tribute to a Missouri native and favorite son.  Or try the Shepherd of the Hills Vigilante ZipRider that travels a half mile at speeds reaching 50 mph.

The Branson area is full of unexpected surprises.  An example of one of the best is Bonniebrook (roseoneill.org), in nearby Walnut Shade, Missouri, the home and studio of Rose O’Neill, famous illustrator and creator of Kewpie dolls, who are 100 this year.  O’Neill was a women’s rights activist, wealthy entrepreneur and reputably one of the five most beautiful women in the world at her time.  Her home and studio are lovingly restored, and staff and docents (especially Susan Scott) are passionate about O’Neill and her history.  Add it to your program and expect to be enchanted!

The College of the Ozarks (cofo.edu), aka Hard Work U, in nearby Point Lookout, Missouri, is great place to visit, especially if your family includes young people thinking about college.  Request a student guide who will show you the working mill, greenhouses, beautiful Williams Chapel, the working dairy and ice cream shop, all staffed by students working their way through school.  No loans for these students, though tips for guides are always welcome.  In fact, they have accommodations for reunions and for banquets!

The Branson Auto Museum (bransonmuseum.com) features more than 100 cool cars, from a 1924 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery to a 2010 Camaro SS, and at least one car for most of the years in between.  The Hollywood Wax Museum (hollywoodwaxmuseum.com/branson) is the only wax museum devoted entirely to celebrity figures so faithfully recreated that you'd swear they are alive.

The Titanic (titanicbranson.com) lives on in an exhibit of that fateful voyage.  Feel the spirit of the passengers in galleries of over 400 personal and private artifacts.

The Veterans Memorial Museum (veteransmemorialmuseum.com) is a national tribute to the brave men and women who defended our liberties during the 20th century and is one of my favorite military museums.

Riding the Ducks (branson.ridetheducks.com) is an essential Branson activity.  Amphibious vehicles offer an exciting land and water adventure, with a splashdown in the lake.

Silver Dollar City theme park evolved around the entrance to Marvel Cave, 300 feet (600 stairs) below the surface, one of nature's great wonders. Silver Dollar City entertains families with events throughout the year.  Step back in time to an 1880s craft village filled with the best crafts persons and artisans at work, thrill rides, family attractions and festivals. musical performances, street performers and Silver Dollar City’s Culinary & Craft School.  Silver Dollar City also is known for delectable home style meals at restaurants throughout the park.
Live shows and artisans keep everyone’s attention: chip carver, potter, broom maker, candy maker, glass blowers, furniture maker, blacksmith, candle maker.  All their crafts are for sale.  Visit silverdollarcity.com.  Group rates are available.

Parade picture
Branson, Missouri, may be America's most veteran-friendly town. Branson salutes veterans and active-duty armed forces year-round.  If you’re lucky enough to be there on Veterans Day, you’ll also enjoy a spectacular parade of honor.

Shows BY families FOR families
See families like the Presleys, the Hughes Brothers, the Lennon Sisters (yes, the same ones who were a staple of the Lawrence Welk Show), the Brett Family, the Haygoods (seven brothers, one sister) and SIX (six Knudsen brothers, no instruments!), and the Mabe family Baldknobbers, who have been entertaining for over 50 years.  In fact, the Baldknobbers original costumes and instruments were accepted into the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History’s permanent collection.

But those are just the performing families; what about the other shows? Many are must-sees for the whole family, and at top of that list is Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction.  But, be forewarned, a delicious four-course dinner extravaganza is all eaten with your fingers; no forks!
Sight & Sound Theatres offers original productions of Bible stories.  The Beijing Circus and The Legend of Kung Fu wows audiences with traditional martial arts skills, aerial ballet, dance and music. Its cast of 65 performers makes it is one of the largest theatrical productions in Branson.
Shoji Tabuchi, Jim Stafford, Andy Williams, Chubby Checker still doing "The Twist" and Legends in Concert at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater just scratch the surface of show choices in Branson.

The Hiltons of Branson
www.hiltonsofbranson.com
Hilton Branson Convention Center
200 East Main Street
Branson, MO 65616
417-336-5400 (phone)
The Hilton of Branson adjoins the new Branson Convention Center, and is in the heart of Historic Downtown on Lake Taneycomo, just minutes from theatres, outlet malls, golf courses, Table Rock Lake, Silver Dollar City and numerous attractions. 

Eating is good in Branson
The Hilton of Branson’s Level 2 Steakhouse is exceptional, with specialties of aged corn-fed midwest beef, heritage Missouri pork, locally grown produce and signature desserts.
Andy Williams’ Moon River Grill includes many recipes from Andy’s mother’s own cookbook.  The chicken pot pie is a special feature (yum).
Plan a meal at The Keeter Center at The College of The Ozarks. The culinary staff of students at Dobyns Dining Room offer something for every taste.
The Showboat Branson Belle plies the crystal clear waters of Table Rock Lake during a two-hour early evening dinner cruise, which includes an excellent dinner and the best in Branson shows.

Your starting point for all things Branson!
Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB
Visit www.ExploreBranson.com or call 800-296-0463.

About the author
Edith Wagner is editor of Reunions magazine.


Warm welcome plus cool costs = great reunions
by Jacky Runice

Like the cinematic formula of the perfect beau or babe who has been right there under your nose, Pensacola, Florida, may be overlooked as a reunion destination because the town’s flashy southern neighbors dazzle us. Sure, it has sugary white sand beaches and the Gulf of Mexico surf to lull us into relaxation, but this Florida hamlet also struts its rich history, museums and festivals, visual and performing arts, genuine Southern hospitality and advantages you won’t find in other spots in the state: little traffic, fewer crowds and open spaces at a lower cost to reunion groups.

The Florida Panhandle’s lush vegetation, thick with Spanish moss and the scent of magnolias, is more closely related to the Deep South than what we typically think of as Florida. Pensacola is just ten miles from the Alabama border. You won’t find unnatural smiles on the faces of “castmates” here, but an unaffected hospitality peculiar to America’s southern states. Pensacola’s settlement dates back more than 400 years, so consider taking your group to see Historic Pensacola Village for a taste of the city’s Spanish, British and French history. Fort Pickens, with its cannons and installations, tells the area’s Civil War story amid seven miles of unspoiled gulf beaches.

Visitors don’t commonly connect Florida with world-class museums. But, Pensacola is known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” and is home to one of the world’s best air and space museums. The National Museum of Naval Aviation displays more than 170 aircraft, a re-created World War II town, a walk-through ship replica and an IMAX theater. It’s a fitting home base of the legendary U.S. Navy Blue Angels. Visitors can watch weekly practice just around the corner from the Naval Museum.

Pensacola’s rich and varied military history makes it a winning setting for a military reunion. From the mid-1700s when British and Spanish explorers established forts, to today’s personnel stationed at Pensacola’s several military bases, the city pays respect to those who have served. Veterans Memorial Park features the nation’s only permanent replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Pencil in a visit to Fort Pickens, built in 1834 and in-use until 1947. A self-guided tour takes visitors through the fort’s history as a Civil War fort and prison for famed Apache leader Geronimo. Fort Barrancas, dating back to 1763, still stands at Pensacola Naval Air Station and is open to the public for tours. Call 850-934-2600 for information about both forts. The fourth tallest lighthouse in the nation also stands at the Naval Air Station and is open for tours. The Civil War Soldiers Museum houses a private collection of medical artifacts and hundreds of items soldiers used during the war. Call 850-469-1900 for details.
Pensacola is brimming with African American history, too. African Americans were among the first non-native Americans to set foot in the US in 1559 when they accompanied Don Tristan de Luna to what is now Pensacola Beach. A battalion of African Americans helped build Fort San Carlos. You can see the 1804 cottage of Julee Panton, a free African American at Historic Pensacola Village. Johnson Beach on Perdido Key is named for Rosamond Johnson, an African American Pensacolan who died in the Korean War. The area also produced the first African American four-star US Air Force general.

When it comes to the beach life, Pensacola boasts nationally ranked beaches reminiscent of American beach towns before rampant development. Pensacola Beach is part of the federally protected Santa Rosa Barrier Island and a happy, family-friendly area where water tower tops are painted like beach balls. There are chowder houses and beachside cafes, shopping opportunities and entertainment with minimum travel, traffic or cost. The Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier and Observation Post is the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico, with views of emerald green water and lovely sand glistening in the Florida sunshine. Explore the different personalities of lively Casino Beach and Quietwater Beach, a calm sand beach on the bayside that’s perfect for little ones. A fleet of charter fishing boats await walk-on and private charter to troll for grouper or deep-sea it for sailfish. Kids can enjoy sport at Fort Pickens pier in the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Run by the National Park Service, the Gulf Islands National Seashore provides Pensacola 16 miles of shoreline without commercial development. Some areas, like Santa Rosa Sound, render perfect sailing and windsurfing conditions, with lessons and rentals available nearby. Plan a morning at Naval Live Oaks to enjoy 1,400 acres of dense woods, nature trails, picnic spots, animals, birds and a sense of old Florida. Rent bikes and enjoy all or part of a 40-mile path winding around the Santa Rosa Sound.

One wouldn’t think the first reunion of the Old Antarctic Explorers Association (OAEA) would choose a beach community, but Pensacola was first on their list. Pensacolan Bill Blackwelder, a group member who worked or served in the Antarctic, thought his town was a good bet because the plane that made the first Antarctic landing is on display at The National Museum of Naval Aviation. Perhaps it was also a coincidence a Pensacola Visitor Information Center’s employee who helped with the group’s November 2002 reunion was an Army guy who also spent time in the Antarctic. “The Visitor Information Center is made up of great people,” Blackwelder said. “Our reunion was Wednesday through Friday before Veterans Day,” he explained, “and we had a speaker from the National Science Foundation talk about present-day Antarctic operations and a Naval Air Station tour. We saw the Blue Angels perform, too.” Many of the 400 attendees stayed a day or two longer to tour Pensacola.

Pensacola, Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key (about 15 miles from Pensacola) offer an array of lodging alternatives at reasonable prices. The Hampton Inn, with 600 feet of pristine beach, is just four stories high and has two heated beachside swimming pools. The in-room microwave, mini-fridge and location near restaurants and family attractions make it a good family choice. Contact 800-320-8108, or www.hamptonbeachresort.com. Pensacola’s yearly average temperature is a mild 77 degrees and winter months hover in the mid-60s, so pack accordingly. The Pensacola Convention & Visitor Information Center is ready to help reunion groups find comfortable and affordable accommodations and suggest fun itineraries. Contact 800-874-1234; www.visitpensacola.com.



Babble on about your beachy-keen reunion
by Jacky Runice

Oceanographers, poets, shell artists and various and sundry sandistas from dogs to children know the beach is the hub of happiness — flying Frisbees, crackling radios, waves lapping at the rocks and striped umbrellas — A place where adults restore their spirits and children extend theirs. The beach is quite possibly the best place to gather family and friends and if you explore a spot like the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina, you’ll find a year-round reunion possibility with endless sea-smooching-sky panoramas and loads of lively activities and attractions: live-entertainment theaters, amusement parks, shopping, championship golf courses, delightful cuisine and historical sights.

There are countless accommodation options along sandy beaches stretching 60 miles from Little River to Georgetown, but the reunion planner needs a place that has it all in one package. Two of the finest resorts catering to reunion groups in Myrtle Beach are the Sands Resorts and Sea Mist Oceanfront Resort.

In 1972 Sands Resorts opened with 150 guest rooms and today six oceanfront properties include 1,600 guest rooms and 25,000 square feet of meeting and convention space. You’ll notice superior service here because all employees must graduate with a master’s in guest service arts from Welcome University, the resorts’ extensive customer service training program. Cindy Milbourne, who organized the first Bing Family Reunion in ten years, noticed the super service from the outset. “I started by searching the Internet and sent feelers to different places in Myrtle Beach, Sands was first to respond, I liked what they had to say,” Milbourne explained. “They collected a packet of information about food and room rates and worked out a special rate and a wonderful deal for us.” Milbourne had a paltry five months to plan a reunion for over 100 people. “One of our younger family members died in February 2003 and he always talked about gathering the family. At his funeral we discussed the fact that we only seem to gather when someboe dies. I took it upon myself to get the family together,” she explained. “When I started I didn't have a clue,” she continued, “so Hilton Head was our first idea but I couldn't get the response I needed, plus Hilton Head is nice but not as geared to children as Myrtle Beach. At Myrtle Beach, the kids liked the amusement park, waterpark and aquarium, there’s shopping and lots of family activities that don’t cost a lot but it’s also relaxing.” Family members from infant to age 85 descended upon the Sands Resorts for a welcome reception, two buffet meals, a BBQ on the beach set up by Sands staff, memorial service, family meeting about the next reunion and plenty of free time so family could enjoy the resort’s many amenities. “I liked the personal attention they gave us,” Milbourne explained. “Angi Young (Corporate Sales Manager at Sands Resorts) put menus together, emailed back and forth and by the end of it all, we were old friends and I felt like I was the most important person she had to deal with. Angi and the staff went above and beyond, we felt like we were family and they were so understanding and helpful. I had never seen the property and I hadn't been to Myrtle Beach in 15 years, so they sent me many pictures and making the reservations was so easy,” Milbourne concluded.

“We have roughly 43 reunions a year,” Young explained, “including family, military and school. Many reunions are repeat business. We have groups who have come for years and booked for future years. We pay special attention to reunions because we understand they choose us to ensure reunion success. We have hospitality locations to gather and reminisce,” Young said. Phil Costantini, Assistant Director of Sales at Sands Resorts, thinks moderately-priced hotels on the beach and special service resorts provide make Sands THE place to have a reunion. “We have theme parties, patriotic parties by the pool, ample bus parking and friendly people — we know what to do!” Costantini said. “We have a $2 million waterpark that’s popular with kids but it's the combination of price, amenities and flexible room types, like two and three bedroom suites reunions love.”

Mr. and Mrs. Art Pelkey’s group has met every October for 21 years and this is the fifth 774 Tank Destroyers Battalion (who fought under Patton) reunion held at Sands Resorts. “Everyone loves it,” Mrs. Pelkey beamed. “We like it so much, many come two days early to just laugh together and tell stories — ladies tell jokes and men tell war stories. We like the condos and they include a nice breakfast buffet with our room plus a big meeting room.” The Sands’ staff fixes a head table for the group’s impressive memorial dinner. “A chaplain starts the dinner, we read the names of the 18 men killed in WWII and we usually have a speaker.” Pelkey explained. The October 2003 reunion counted 68 members at the dinner and some took excursions to the Carolina Opera and Alabama Theater for music and comedy. “The Sands Resorts people are really wonderful,” Pelkey concluded. Find out for yourself at www.sandsresorts.com or call 800-840-2601.

Nature certainly grandstands everywhere in Myrtle Beach, with peach fuzz sunrises and cerulean skies, but scenery alone does not a reunion make. As Sea Mist Oceanfront Resort guests, your group enjoys the largest resort waterpark in town, heated in April and October, which features mini waterslides, an enormous children's wading pool and dolphin slide. Want more? How about a 3000 sq. ft. activity pool for your clan’s little squirts, 17 swimming pools in all including two indoors, Jacuzzis, sauna, steam and fitness rooms, Castle in the Mist - a 28 ft. tall, multi-level play station, activities desk supplying discount tickets to area attractions, mini-golf course, quick-stop grocery store, arcade with over 120 video games, supervised children's programs all summer-long, numerous restaurants and lounges, some with live entertainment, outstanding golf add-ons, 24-hour security throughout the resort and 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Special events might include a traditional low country oyster roast, barbecue in the water park or a magic show dinner theater.

Sea Mist Oceanfront Resort has been a favorite family destination for a half-century, starting in 1954, as a nine-unit hotel to more than 800 units on a little over 14 acres right on the Atlantic Ocean, still owned and managed by the Ammons family. Golfers will want to know Sea Mist maintains a close relationship with the 100-plus area courses and offers value-driven golf packages, too.

The gracious staff at Sea Mist is ready to customize your military or family reunion along the Grand Strand - just call Jean Shadron or Michelle Lane at 800-200-8687 or email them at groupsales@seamist.com.

A standard package for military reunions that many planners choose includes four nights accommodations, oceanfront or ocean view rooms, a breakfast buffet reception, dinner banquet with select menus, T-shirts, the fine hospitality suite with coffee plus all taxes and gratuities.
Some families have returned to Sea Mist for years. The Resort boasts over 50 room types with occupancies ranging from one to 17 people. Sea Mist also offers the unique Family Village consisting of seven completely furnished apartment-style units located in four adjacent buildings. There are cook-out areas available throughout the property so you can have your own BBQ. Take a look at all of the amenities Sea Mist Resort offers at www.seamist.com or call 800-793-6507.

About the author
Journalist/Editor Jacky Runice has penned a weekly travel column for Chicago's Daily Herald since 1994 and writes about travel and dining for USAToday.com; CBS Local Chicago; and Examiner.com. She expands her repertoire at Kane, Lake and McHenry County (IL) Magazines with articles about everything from healthy living to technology. A former Chicago radio talk show host, Jacky has three grown children who have inherited her love of sampling new cultures, countries and cuisine.

 
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