What could be better than taking the kids on a trip to the Ozarks? From roller coasters and shows to caves and aquariums—plus plenty of places to get an ice cream—the region offers much in the way of family-friendly fun and enrichment.

Missouri Life publishers Danita Allen Wood and Greg Wood enjoy Branson views with their grandchildren, Ada and Arlo.

By Greg Wood

“Hey, Papa, can we go on some ‘woo-wee’ hills?” our ten-year-old granddaughter Ada asked about our upcoming adventure. She was immediately echoed by her seven-year-old brother, Arlo. 

“Oh, heck yes,” I replied. “It’s the Ozarks, and they have a lot of ‘woo-wee’ hills.” Our two grandkids live in relatively flat Minnesota, and our farm in Howard County is in the geographic region called the Ozark borderland. We have a few hills, but not like the Ozark hills. 

This was not the first trip we’ve taken with the grands without their parents to Branson. On past trips, we’ve visited the Presley’s Country Jubilee, a theater show full of music and comedy, played minigolf, cruised and dined on the Branson Belle, and even more.

Seeing the Ozark Mountains (okay, hills) as we approached Branson on Highway 65 got some oohs and aahs from the peanut gallery, and that made my wife, Danita, and me smile. Our first stop was to check into our resort hotel, The Ozarker Lodge. This brand-new facility is in the heart of Branson, but at the same time, it is a quiet and relaxing place, especially for families. It has a nice swimming pool and a coffee and wine bar along with craft brews on tap in the main lobby for us older folks. There are fire pits and cedar hot tubs nestled a few feet from the flowing water of Fall Creek. I like this place! 

Ada and Arlo immediately raced for the pool, and we chased after them. After a couple hours watching them expend more energy than I do in a month, we were hungry. Conveniently located next door is Danna’s, one of Branson’s best burger and barbecue places. The kids loved the food, especially the milkshakes and fries. Danita had barbecue pulled pork, and I had the southern catfish—both were excellent. We went to bed early for a good night’s rest as we were leaving early in the morning for a full day at Silver Dollar City, an essential for every Branson visit. 

Branson makes it easy to entertain our grandchildren, Arlo and Ada.

We started our morning, as everyone should, with a full breakfast at Molly’s Mill Restaurant, within the City. It included all the fixin’s of an Ozark country breakfast. Next up: some spelunking. Marvel Cave is a natural wonder and a National Natural Landmark. It is the main reason Silver Dollar City is located where it is; the theme park started by offering some amusements and food to guests who were awaiting a cave tour. It is truly a marvel as you walk down 300 steps into the opening room that’s large enough to fill with three hot air balloons at one time.

Marvel Cave is the deepest cave in Missouri and thought to have been discovered by the Osage Indians long before Europeans came here. “In 1541, Spanish explorers entered the cave hoping to uncover riches and possibly the fountain of youth,” says Dalton Fisher, with Silver Dollar City. Fast forward to 1869: Explorers descended into the cave looking for mineral deposits, especially lead. They lowered themselves over 300 feet down into the vast, unknown blackness. (No steps for them!) They carried lanterns for light and spent hours studying the cave walls, but they failed to discover the lead ore they sought. Even so, they were convinced that marble could be found in the cave. Their report inspired area locals to name the cave Marble Cave. “In fact,” says Dalton, “No marble was ever mined from Marble Cave, only bat guano, so the name was changed to Marvel Cave.” Ada and Arlo, who had never been in a big cave before, were duly impressed!

Now for the main event: The rides! We started with the legendary Fire in the Hole. This was during the last year of the original ride’s operation, and a new version has just opened. Built 50 years ago, the original Fire in the Hole saw more than 25 million riders. Truth is, Danita and I took our own kids on this ride when they were little, before they graduated to the many huge and often world-record setting roller coasters and water rides.

Nestled in these Ozark hills, these rides give you fantastic views as they sweep up, down, around, and upside down through the oak and hickory trees. The kids loved them all. I think their favorite might have been Mystic River Falls. Danita and I were glad it was 85 degrees that day, as we came out soaking wet. The kids might have tackled any ride, but they were content with a few. Thankfully, the grandparents were saved by the clanging bell of the Frisco Silver Dollar Steam Line, a genuine steam-powered train. We were all amused by the humor of the stop-in-the-woods skit, where the train rests to build up steam for its climb back to the station.

We seemed to revert back to our childhoods ourselves, or at least young parenthood, for a while when we were in Branson and especially at Silver Dollar City, which makes entertaining grandkids a piece of cake! 

For lunch, we sought out the Rivertown Smokehouse, which has a full array of down-home, southern cooking. The kids opted for mac and cheese and corn dogs. Danita had their smoked turkey breast, and I had a barbecue sampler platter. We had ice cream and pie for dessert. Now where is that nice quiet place I can take a nap? Okay, I’ll take a large black coffee instead.

I perked up quickly as we watched world-famous Nik Walenda and his family up on the high wire 50 feet above our heads. Nik has walked a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, Times Square, and Niagara Falls, to name just a few. And, as fantastic as he and his troupe are to watch, the story of how he overcame PTSD after suffering a devastating fall was moving and inspirational. Arlo and Ada were completely mesmerized. After the performance, we got to meet Nik and his wife, Erendira, who also joins him on the wire. Book lover Danita bought and got autographs on both of his books. 

Ada and Arlo learn to make rag dolls at Silver Dollar City.

Shows and musical performances are around every turn as you make your way through the park. We stopped to watch live demonstrations of glass blowing, woodworking, blacksmithing, pottery-making, and all sorts of arts and crafts. This has become one of our own favorite parts of the Silver Dollar City experience. 

This was just Day 1 of our Ozark adventure. Whew!

On Day 2, we traveled southwest of Branson, and after having breakfast at Kimberling City overlooking Table Rock Lake, we continued south, almost to the Arkansas border, to Dogwood Canyon, a nature park created by Bass Pro’s Johnny Morris. This 10,000-acre park is a one-of-a-kind outdoor playground featuring opportunities for hiking, biking, tram tours to see buffalo (bison, for you purists), and horseback riding amid trout-filled streams and waterfalls. The park includes a fully functioning mill, restaurant, conservation center, chapel, bike barn, and a horse stable. The kids’ favorite was a treehouse built by Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters.

Arlo and Ada pet a snake at Dogwood Canyon.

The primary reason for the park is to promote nature and conservation. The day we were there, they had a presentation on snakes with live ones that Arlo and Ada got to touch, while wimpy Danita refused to watch. Caution: Make reservations in advance as groups are small and some activities can sell out. 

This trip was short, so our third day of adventure began on our way home. We stopped in Springfield at yet another Johnny Morris creation called Wonders of Wildlife, billed as the “largest immersive wildlife attraction in the world,” and there is no doubt about that. This 350,000-square-foot facility boasts 1.5 miles of trails— all indoors and air-conditioned—and hundreds of species of marine, amphibian, and aquatic animals, including huge sharks, alligators, stingrays, and so much more. It makes Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium look like a fish tank in a dentist’s office. 

Arlo and Ada explore the Wonders of Wildlife, billed as the “largest immersive wildlife attraction in the world,” in Springfield.

The kids were awestruck from the moment we started our journey through this wonderland of wildlife, and Danita and I were astonished to see one of Ernest Hemingway’s famous Key West fishing boats suspended in the air, not to mention famous Western author Zane Grey’s deep-sea fishing boat. The kids especially enjoyed the touch tank, where we could touch various stingrays, small sharks, and sea urchins. After a three-hour expedition through the ocean and jungles, we headed home. 

“Hey Papa, can we please take the ‘woo-wee’ hills?” You gotta love grandkids. 

Feature image courtesy of Silver Dollar City.

All other photos by Greg Wood.

Article originally published in the May 2024 issue of Missouri Life.