Branson vs. Chicago- red and blue vacations
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
For my vacations this year I couldn't have chosen two more different destinations than Branson and Chicago. Both cities are about four hours from my home, but they might as well exist in different universes. They are redneck and blue state, yin and yang, city mouse and country mouse. And both, in their own ways, are great places to go on vacation.
In this age when political sensibilities define who we socialize with, where we shop, and what television stations we watch, it's nice to know that vacation destinations can be fun and welcoming if you have good credit and an open mind. Vacations should be a place to both relax and learn, recharge and go crazy. The state of Florida may have sucked the bulk of vacation dollars from the US, but Branson and Chicago both provide two unique pictures of America.
Chicago is looked down upon by those of a conservative bent as a city full of crime, drugs, and minorities. What I observed on my visit this summer was a clean, safe tourist area in the downtown Loop area, and a beautiful lakefront. The streets were bustling with activity, the restaurants were good, and there was no shortage of fun and affordable things to do. Chicago attracts tourists from all over the world with its world-class museums and plentiful shows, with Hamilton being the hot ticket this year. The architecture of the skyscrapers that dot the skyline is amazing, and this year I took a tour on the Chicago River that I'd highly recommend.
Branson is looked down upon by liberals because of its location in the religious, conservative belt of hills that stretch from the Ozarks to the Appalachians. Country music rules in Branson, and the atmosphere is decidedly right of center. Branson caters to senior citizens, and I noticed huge busloads of elderly tourists from all over the continent piling into restaurants and shows while I was there this week. The city has more live shows than any city in the US, including Chicago and New York, and the offerings are primarily country, bluegrass and oldies music, but also more diverse than you'd expect. The area has grown since its humble beginnings and is home to one of the first and most overlooked theme parks in America- Silver Dollar City. Though Branson caters to seniors, it also has attractions that children and families can enjoy.
Both vacation destinations have more in common than most people think. Both have beautiful natural backgrounds. Branson sits in the beautiful Ozark highlands, with a large man-made lake, Table Rock Lake, just around the corner. Chicago has Lake Michigan, an immense Great Lake that compliments the city while providing beaches, bike trails, and boating right alongside the tall skyscrapers.
Both cities have affordable shows and entertainment. Almost all Branson shows are in the $25-$50 range, and the two great shows I saw in Chicago were both under $50. Both cities have museums that both entertain and inform. I have to give the edge here to Chicago with its Museum of Natural History, Art, Science, and the Shedd Aquarium. Branson has more touristy museums like the Titanic Museum (shaped like the actual ship), Ripley's Believe it or Not, and the World's Biggest Toy Museum.
The shows in Chicago are well polished and professional, and attract the best talent in the country. I particularly love Second City and its world famous comedy troupe. Branson, like Las Vegas, has built its own brand of year-round entertainers, who were attracted here by the harmonic convergence of music legends like Roy Clark, Andy Williams, the Osmonds, Glen Campbell, Mickey Gilley and Mel Tillis. Those legends have been replaced by more home-grown family acts like the Duttons, Baldknobbers, and Presleys, who put on professional shows that are entertaining and fun. Even Barry Williams (aka Greg Brady) had a show down here and it was one of my favorites. Branson entertainers are hard workers, selling souvenirs during intermission while their kids help out everywhere.
Chicago's main drawback is its cost. Parking is expensive, and hotels in the downtown area cost more than those in most other cities. Like most large metro areas, there is crime, homeless people on the streets begging, and traffic congestion. The areas I was in felt very safe, and if you stay on foot or use mass transit you can get most anywhere downtown easily.
Branson's main drawback is its provincialism. If you aren't Christian, Caucasian, conservative, or country, you might feel out of place. There are some non-country offerings, including magic shows, tribute bands of old hits from the 60s and 70s, and very talented Chinese acrobat troupes that have their own theaters. I don't fit the 4-C mold, but I had no problem having a good time. Though the area is predominantly white, I would hope that Branson hospitality would extend to those of other races, colors and denominations, but I have no personal experience in that area.
What I'd love to see sometime is a busload of men in drag pull up to a Branson show or a busload of born again Christians brave the streets of downtown Chicago. We're so entrenched in our political identities that we've forgotten how to have a good time. I can laugh at political jokes about you-know-who, and still stand to honor our veterans. I can enjoy both the city and country, both Les Miserables and the Branson Belle dinner show. I wish more Americans felt that way.
Next year, for 2020, try to take a trip to some place that looks fun but a little bit scary. Hopefully, you'll find that the people there are just like the people everywhere, friendly, hard-working, and eager to please tourists. People dependent on tourist dollars want to put their best face forward, and will bend over backwards to show you a good time, whether in Chicago or Branson. You don't have to agree with everything in their culture, but you do have to accept them the way they are. There's too much hatred, division, and judgement in this country already, so get out there and spread a little love and understanding. Your bubble will thank you.