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This one wasn't exactly like touring the entire United Kingdom in a motor coach, with overnight stops and pubs and bards and abbeys and castles along the way.
This was 51 civilians, one driver, one tour director and one destination:Branson, Missouri.
Live Music Capital of the Universe. Ozark Paradise. Outlet Mall Heaven. Lawrence Welk's Bubble Machine. Osmonds. Lennons. Country. Still No Casinos, Not Now and Not Ever.
Most important of all, and this is really why we did this: Best All-Around City for Motorcoach Travel, according to the American Bus Association.
In other words, considering the theme of this series: We had to.
It was 12 hours each way, 500-and-something miles, just about all of it on Interstates that essentially buried old Route 66--which didn't come up much. Our stops were mainly for restrooms, not highway history.
We didn't even stop for Meramec Caverns, Jesse James' Hideout. Not even for Jesse James' Restrooms.
This was, officially, the "Branson Showtime Tour," brought to you by Mayflower Tours of suburban Downers Grove. Four days, three nights, most meals (all except lunches) included, and five (yes, five--or maybe six) shows.
It was exhausting. These weren't kids on this little junket. But there were no casualties.
It was, mostly, a hoot.
Day 1: The journey
"It doesn't matter what you call it--it's still a piece of equipment designed to convey people. But it's more comfortable than a school bus."
--Stan Short, coach-motor coach-bus driver
They pick you up at home, in vans and limos. That's a sweet part of this deal. They come get you and your bags--you don't lift a thing, don't drive a thing, don't impose on anyone--and they haul you and the luggage to a parking lot where the actual bus is waiting.
I stepped outside my place Monday morning at 5:22 a.m., eight minutes early. The sun wasn't there, but the van was. Tom Egan, far too alert at that hour for anyone but a dairy farmer, grabbed my bags.
"Everybody has fun in Branson," Egan said as he loaded a suitcase into the back of the van. "It used to be the place where I went fishing every spring, when I got out of the Air Force. Then overnight, it became 'the country music capital.'
"But you're going to have fun. Just watching the people. "
I was his first stop. This van would pick up two Northwest Side ladies, Charlotte and Cleo, then a married couple, Angela and Charlie, not too far away, and bring us to a Steak n Shake parking lot in Rosemont. Two more couples--they had arrived in two limos--were waiting for us. And our bus was there. Our motor coach. Our coach.
Also onsite: our Mayflower tour director.
Sheri Korth is a 10-year veteran of tour-directing. She has, despite a decade of coping with inevitable crises and the occasional crotchety grump, somehow managed to retain a wholesome freshness and energy, mostly because that's what happens when girls grow up in small-town Iowa and Wisconsin.
"Our next stop is the Denny's in Bolingbrook," she bubbled into the coach's little microphone. More passengers would meet us there, she said. "When we have everybody onboard, I'll go over everything."
A voice from the back of the bus.
"Can you switch us to Bobby Vinton?"
"No!" Sheri said, the bubble strained. Then came a quick recovery. "We can't switch any of the shows we have--but he could be an option for Tuesday evening . . ."
After the stop in Bolingbrook came a stop in Joliet, at a McDonald's, where more vans and limos had brought the rest. Now we were gathered together: passengers, tour director and our bus driver, named Stan Short, who wasn't.
Here's a guess: Average passenger age was somewhere around 70. Maybe a little higher. One woman turned 70 during the tour, and the news barely made a ripple. Two couples will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversaries this year; a third, their 63rd.
We were not children on a school bus.
There were pairs of ladies, and there were married couples, and there were a couple of couples who were traveling together, and there was me. The bus carrying all this life-experience eased out of the Joliet McDonald's at 8:40 a.m. It would arrive at our hotel in Branson at 8:38 p.m. You already know the math.
Sheri Korth's job, besides staying sane and not losing anyone in, say, Litchfield, was to convert this collection of disparate beings into a unit.
"You might want to say hello to the people across the aisle, and the people in front and back of you," she suggested through the p.a. system. Turned out some might, some mightn't. Too early. Too gloomy. A light, chill rain added to a feeling that 47 of us, at least 47 of the 51, really wanted to be back in bed.
"Now," she said, "let me take a few minutes and tell you what we'll be doing."
This, to reiterate, was Monday. The schedule:
Two shows on Tuesday: the Brett Family Singers at 9:30 a.m. and the revue on the Showboat Branson Belle at 4:30 p.m. (a dinner show).
Three on Wednesday: Yakov Smirnoff at 9:30 a.m., Shoji Tabuchi (more about him later) at 3 p.m., and "Spirit of the Dance" (described as a "Riverdance"-type thing) at 8 p.m.
And between shows? "I try to keep you as busy as I can," she said.
Someone in back shouted something about Jim Stafford--another Branson show--which revived the call for Bobby Vinton. Yes, she said, there's time for a third show Tuesday night for anyone willing to pay the extra $27.50 a ticket.
"I can check to see if they're available for Tuesday night," said Sheri. The bubble was back. "I'm kind of the social director on the coach. If there's anything you need, don't hesitate to let me know . . ."
Illinois along Interstate Highway 55 is not compelling. Sheri's chatter was a happy distraction from the dull flatness. The first rest stop would be just after 10 a.m. at another McDonald's, this one at Bloomington. McDonald's, along with having the world's hottest coffee, also has consistently clean restrooms. Even though there's a one-holer at the back of the bus, rest stop restrooms are big on bus tours.
Thirty minutes later, we were rolling again. No one brought food back. Many came stocked.
One couple's actual carry-on stash: wheat crackers, peanuts, Twizzlers, Poppycock, malted milk balls, pretzels, M&Ms (peanut), saltines, chewing gum, Tootsie Pops, apples, bottles of water and I'm sure I missed something.
Sheri kept communicating on the p.a. Promptness mattered. "What's the difference between a Mayflower passenger and a hitch-hiker?" Pause. "Fifteen minutes." Uneasy laughter from the crowd.
("No," she said later, "I've never lost anybody.")
And just past the Dixie Trucker's Home in downstate McLean: the first game.
"I have to see how alert you are," Sheri began. "I have some advertising slogans here.
"`How do you spell relief'?" A few mumbled answers came mid-bus. "`When you care enough to send the very best'?" A few more. " `I can't believe I ate the whole thing'? " Stumped.
We were already in Springfield. Her strategy--creative distraction--was working. "When you get up to the viaduct here," said Sheri, "you can see the dome of the Capitol building . . ."
We were about 10 minutes from our lunch stop. The tour director moved up the aisle, passing out name badges. My badge said "Rosalie."
That was the deal. Everyone got wrong badges. The game: At the restaurant, find the person wearing your badge. "Tell the person two things about yourself. Then you give them your name, and they will give you the badge."
Lunch would be at a Ponderosa, the chain steakhouse. "As you walk in," said Sheri, "the restrooms will be on your right."
It took me exactly 1 hour 12 minutes to find "Alan."
Back on the road.
"Somebody was asking me about the Mississippi River," said Sheri. "Well, we're going to cross it when we go from Illinois into Missouri in St. Louis. Has anybody ridden up the Gateway Arch?"
Hands went up. Miles went by. Corn sprouts, in perfect rows, were ankle-high . . .
"For anybody who is interested, we're now going to play bingo."
Most played bingo, which beat staring at corn stalklings.
At 2:35 p.m., the Arch was in sight. A few cameras came out. The cameras wouldn't come out again until Branson.
"I have a video," Sheri announced. It was about the building of the Arch. Bob Costas was giving us the section-by-section when the Meramec Caverns went by, unannounced. Half the bus was asleep when Costas signed off. It was 3:45.
"For those of you who are still awake," said Sheri, "I have some clues about candy bars . . . " It was another game. She found players. The bus found more rain. The driver found our next rest stop: St. James Winery.
"They're expecting us," she said. "The restrooms are into the first door, through the gift shop and to the right."
In 30 minutes, between restroom visits, passengers bought--along with dressings, dipping sauces, candles and corkscrews--33 bottles of St. James Wine.
Another game: Missouri trivia. The land, though, had become a nice distraction: It was hilly here in the Ozarks along I-44, and the tightly bunched deep-green treetops looked like broccoli.
Dinner, included in the package, was a simple but good buffet (chicken or ham, pies for dessert) in a party room at the Ft. Leonard Wood Ramada Inn. Restrooms were ample. As we dined, Sheri Korth made calls.
Back on the bus.
"I talked to both shows," came the announcement, "and they have seats available." Bobby Vinton or Jim Stafford. "Our driver can take you to the shows, then pick you up . . ."
(Eighteen people from our bus would add Vinton's show, and eight would see Stafford's--meaning 26 people from our bus, and these were not kids, would see six shows in two days.)
We were still two hours out of Branson. The bus was peaceful. And then . . .
"I've got some trivia questions for you," Sheri announced. No one hurled St. James wine bottles at the tour director. "What was Li'l Abner's hometown?"
It was almost 7.
"I've got a video I'm going to put on, called `Lights, Camera, Branson,'" she said. The video was mainly interviews of Branson's stars. Unfortunately, the video was obsolete. Stars come and go quickly in Branson. Fortunately, most of the passengers were asleep 10 minutes into the thing anyway.
At 7:45, the bus left the interstate for U.S. Highway 65, the road into Branson, a road of Serious Billboards: for Vinton and Andy Williams and the Presleys and the Osmonds, for Jim Stafford and various Lennons and Mel Tillis, and for the shows on our schedule too.
"Oh," said Sheri, "look at the beautiful sunset."
"A dollar sixty-nine," said a voice, who spotted a beautiful gas price.
Then, the theaters, the clutter of motels, and more theaters, and a Wal-Mart, and outlet malls, and more motels and mini-golf and go-kart tracks and more theaters.
Branson is still a mess.
But, hey . . . everybody has fun here.
Day 2: Showtime
"Some days, it's better than others. Last week one day, we had seven buses."
--Musician with the Brett Family Singers show
Motor coaches, according to the Branson tourism people, bring in only about 6 percent of the nearly 7 million people who come here every year. Much of that is seasonal (spring and fall) and seniors; in summer, it's mostly cars and vans--and kids.
But in all seasons, everyone on those buses sees lots of shows.
Record number of coaches for one Branson show, according to driver Stan Short: 52, for a performance by pianist/showman Dino. More than 100, he said, brought passengers to one day's three Shoji Tabuchi shows.
Motor coach trivia, same driver: A new Cavallo bus like the one used on this tour sells for about $400,000; its engine is designed to last 1 million miles; you don't want to sit in back if you get car sick; and the seats on the right have a little more leg room than the ones on the left.
It is a beautiful Tuesday morning in Branson. Breakfast at the Settle Inn, as it will be for three mornings, is "continental" (i.e., eggless), unexceptional (like the Settle Inn) but included.
The bus leaves promptly at 9 for the 9:30 a.m. show at the Legends Family Theater. At night, the theater is home to the "Legends," celebrity impressionists who are not really a family; mornings, it is home to the Bretts, who are.
Moments after the bus eases onto the theater lot, an actual Brett climbs onboard to greet us, a gesture that happens nowhere on this planet except in Branson or during hijackings.
"We're excited to have you," chirps Tom Brett, father of three of the Brett Family Singers and husband of the fourth. "God bless you, have a wonderful time, and come see us after. God bless y'all."
Sheri Korth tells us where the restrooms are--"The women's, of course, is right by the gift shop"--and we're off the bus.
The Legends Family Theater seats 950 people. For the Brett Family Singers' morning show, there are 51 of us, plus our tour director, plus maybe a dozen others in the seats. That's it.
It's a pretty good show. Tom sings, plays the piano, plays the guitar. Andrea, his wife, sings and arranges. Briahna, the college student, sings, dances, plays piano and is cute. Brydon, 16, sings, plays drums, dribbles a basketball and is cute. Garon, 11, is mostly cute, but sings, dribbles and plays drums.
The Brett Family Singers also sell a large number of lighted yo-yos at intermission and earn a standing ovation at the end.
"The morning shows depend on the coaches," Tom Brett says later. "That's for sure. A lot of our fall shows are already sold out--because of the coaches."
We're back on the bus. So is Briahna Brett.
"So--did you like me?" There is an enthusiastic group "yeah," and applause. Tom Brett joins her, with Mom Brett alongside. "I hope you enjoyed it," says Dad. "We had a blast. Come back and see us."
The bus moves out. Sheri tells a joke, then slides into guide mode. "The theater on the left is where Ray Stevens performed," she said. "He left about five years ago, and it's been `Country Tonight' ever since. . . . There's the Shoji Theater on the left. The picture is of Shoji and his wife. . . . To the left, Mountain Man Nut & Fruit Co."
Which is our rest stop. Austin Hartley, presumably one of the Mountain Men, boards the bus. "If you need restrooms . . . "
Lots of samples. Back on the bus, and on to downtown Branson for a couple of hours.
"All the restaurants have restrooms, of course," Sheri says. "But if you're looking for public restrooms . . . "
Downtown Branson is about two blocks in one direction and two blocks in the other, and that's about it. As bus passengers descend on the shops, Branson suddenly feels like a rube St. Thomas under attack by cruise ships.
I buy two outdated ("Branson 2000") but clean T-shirts for $2.33 each, enjoy blackberry cobbler a la mode for lunch and get back on the bus.
"Did you find some good things to buy here in Branson?" Sheri's question gets a smattering of yeses. The bus rolls to the little neighboring town of Hollister, which is under repair except for the College of the Ozarks, which we motor through. A stop at a scenic overlook offers a hilltop view of Branson, which doesn't look much better at altitude. We do, however, get a glimpse of the roof of Andy Williams' house.
"We're on our way to Showboat Branson Belle," says Sheri. When we get there, a greeter named Sandi hops on. "We have nice, clean restrooms in the gift shop . . . "
The boat, built in 1995, is nice. This is a dinner-theater-cruise setup, and the three-level hall is packed. How much of it is coach-people? "A good 80 percent," says Kim Brokaw, a waitstaff supervisor. Dinner is prime rib--kind of a brownish gray and, remarkably, not bad. The show is better. Lots of singing and dancing, a hilarious ventriloquist named Todd Oliver plus the usual gospel interlude and the standard patriotic finale. (Ninety percent of all Branson shows include a gospel interlude and a patriotic finale, usually including a salute to our veterans. They just do.)
Back on the bus.
"How was dinner?" Sheri asks. "Great," says everybody, but they really want to talk about how Todd Oliver made the live dog's lips move while his didn't.
Stan lets a few folks off at Jim Stafford's theater, and a few more off to see Bobby Vinton. The rest of us head back to the hotel, figuring by all rights we should be tired.
It is a mistake. Sleep comes reluctantly, both shows draw raves next day from our fellow passengers--and, when in Branson . . .
Day 3: Extreme Showtime
--Claudia Vecchio, Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce
It is before 9 a.m. Stan Short takes the 51 of us past Mickey Gilley's theater and the former Roy Clark Celebrity Theater, past the former Charlie Pride Theater and alongside Bobby Vinton's Blue Velvet Theater, which is across from the Buck Trent Breakfast Show and, the other way, across from Andy Williams' Moon River Theater.
Williams will appear this fall with Glen Campbell, who used to have his own theater. So did Tony Orlando and Charlie Pride, and so did the Osmonds, whose theater has been taken over by Ripley's Believe It or Not, believe it or not. But they'll be back later. Wayne Newton's sculpted horses are still in front of his former theater.
Someone leaves, someone takes his place. The Branson Shuffle.
The former Ozark Theater is now the Yakov's What A Country Theater.
Sheri Korth is on the mike.
"This morning. We're going to see Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian comedian," she says. "He's the one who goes, `What a country!'
"There are two sets of restrooms for the ladies, so that's nice . . . "
When the bus stops in Yakov's Parking Lot, a woman hops aboard.
"Good morning, everyone. My name's Connie." We will follow Connie's black and white checkered flag to our seats, which we take while a dancing accordion player on the stage dances while playing the accordion. Of the shows we will see, only Yakov Smirnoff's show begins with the National Anthem. Ours. The theater, which seats 1,350, is packed. It deserves to be.
In the parking lot are 17 buses. When the show is over, Smirnoff is in the lot, bounding one-by-one onto every bus that hasn't left--including the Mayflower bus.
"Did you enjoy the show?" he asks, smiling broadly and genuinely. From the response, everyone did. He makes small talk for a few seconds, shakes all hands within reach as cameras flash, waves and thanks us for coming, bounds off our bus and bounds onto the next, the smile never leaving his face.
What a country.
We have a couple of hours between Yakov's outward bound and Shoji's 3 p.m. show, and we're on our own for lunch. Our tour director gives us two choices: a 90-store outlet mall, which has a few places to get a bite; or a burger-diner joint that's part of a Wal-Mart mall.
I find a third option down the street. It isn't good.
Back on the bus.
"Someone said we're doing a mini-international tour today," Sheri says. "This morning we started off in Russia with Yakov. Now we're going to see the Japanese violinist, and tonight, we'll see the Irish dancers!"
We were off to see the Japanese violinist.
"Shoji welcomes you," said a woman who jumped onto our bus. "My name is Nancy." Her flag is pink. The ladies room is on the left side. There is a fireplace in the ladies' room. We get a pool table in ours.
Pure Branson: They sell postcards of Shoji Tabuchi's restrooms.
Shoji Tabuchi plays the violin, mainly. He sings a little, sort of dances a little, tells a few jokes and makes fun of his own accent. The show is music, costumes, dancing, spectacle and corn, but mostly music, and mostly Shoji and mostly wonderful.
Heavy rain pounds on the theater's tin roof during the patriotic finale, a rousing version of Neil Diamond's "America."
Outside, when we reach the bus, over the Ozarks we see a rainbow.
Shoji also does miracles . . .
Dinner is in a restaurant called McFarlain's. Good pot roast. Yummy apple crisp.
"Spirit of the Dance" plays Bobby Vinton's Blue Velvet Theater when Vinton doesn't. Two spirited dancers pop into the bus: "We hope you enjoy the show, make a lot of noise and have a great time."
The gift shop is on the left, Sheri says, and the women's restroom is just beyond that.
The crowd is small. The orchestra is prerecorded. The dancers are energetic and engaging, but as they give their spirits a rest, a round male singer's overloud and generally unforgivable rendition of "The Impossible Dream" sends me literally racing to the lobby, then out of Bobby Vinton's Blue Velvet Theater, in quest of relief.
Later, he returns. I had too. When he breaks into "Bring Him Home"--an all-time favorite from "Les Miserables"--I'm out the door again.
"I have never seen a bad show in Branson," Sheri had told us back near Joliet.
This is my third Branson visit. This was close.
Day 4: The journey home
"Anything that happens at home happens on tour. I've had a person die on tour. It was in the hotel, not on the bus. I guess if it's on the bus, it's a major problem."
--Sheri Korth, tour director, Mayflower Tours
Thursday. Our luggage was outside our hotel doors by 7 a.m., as ordered, and gone by 7:10. The bus rolled out of the Settle Inn parking lot at 8, on time, on the dot. No one was late. No one had to hitchhike home.
Our bus took us past one outlet mall and behind Bobby Vinton's Blue Velvet Theater, past Mel Tillis' billboard, up an Ozark, past another outlet mall and past the former Wayne Newton Theater and past the hall where the Incredible Acrobats of China tumble twice daily.
When Stan Short turned our motor coach-coach-bus north on U.S. 65 toward the Interstate, the billboards were all facing the wrong way.
At 8:20, Sheri Korth was back at the mike.
"I want to see how awake everybody is," she said. "I've got some trivia questions. What's the address of the White House?"
Answers came, not so much because people were awake and wanted to prove it, but because by now, no one wanted to disappoint Sheri. Over three days and part of a fourth, she had been patient, charming, fun and in every way the perfect tour director.
And her passengers had become, if not a exactly a unit, certainly 51 people, good people, who enjoyed each other's company.
It was 8:38. "If you have a good joke, I have a wireless microphone, so here's your opportunity . . . "
It was 9:04. "I heard you singing at some of the shows. I have some song sheets. . . . We'll start off with `Mr. Sandman.' . . . "
It was 9:40. "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey" took us into the parking lot of our morning stop, a walnut bowl factory in Lebanon, Mo.
"There's restrooms on the ground level of where we go in . . . "
It was 10:20. We were back on the road.
"OK," said Sheri, "let's do the horse races!" There would be cash prizes, the cash put up by the players: a quarter a race.
"These are quarterhorses," she explained. "While we sign people up for the races, I'll put on a Mitch Miller sing-along tape . . . "
People sang along, and they signed up.
The horses were six numbered fly-swatters. Dice moved the horses up one side of the bus and down the other. People got involved.
"That truck driver," said Jim, behind me, "was looking at us funny."
The No. 2 horse won the first race by a couple of seats. Winners pocketed $1.50. The races lasted until the lunch stop, at a Cracker Barrel in Fenton, Mo.
"The restrooms are pretty much straight through the store."
Back on the road. The corn seemed much taller than it had been Monday.
"Let me give you some movie trivia . . "
"OK, I have a game with famous couples. `Ozzie and--' . . ."
"Let's see--I have a few more advertising slogans for you. `You'll wonder where the yellow went' . . . "
It was 6:55 p.m. Already. Incredibly. The bus rolled into the parking lot at the Joliet McDonald's.
"I hope," Sheri Korth said into her little microphone, "you had a good time on this tour."
She got Shoji applause. Outside, the first convoy of limos and vans was waiting.
On the coach-motor coach-bus, and then in the parking lots at the Joliet McDonald's and the Bolingbrook Denny's and finally at the Rosemont Steak n Shake, there were hugs among people who, days earlier, were strangers.
Four ways to tour Branson
COMPANY AND TOUR: Mayflower Tours: "Branson Showtime"
www.mayflowertours.com, 800-323-7604 or through travel agents
LENGTH: 4 days, 3 nights
PER PERSON DOUBLE/PER NIGHT: $593/$197.66
SINGLE SUPPLEMENT/PER NIGHT: $120/$40
INCLUDES: Home pickup, Chicago and neighboring counties; transportation; accommodations; 5 shows (possible dropoff and pickup for optional 6th show); sightseeing; 6 meals (3 dinners, 3 hotel continental breakfasts).
SHOWS: Shoji Tabuchi, Showboat Branson Belle, Brett Family Singers, Yakov Smirnoff, Spirit of the Dance.
COMPANY AND TOUR: Van Galder: "Branson Fest"
www.coachusa.com/vangalder, 800-747-7407 or through travel agents
LENGTH: 5 days, 4 nights
PER PERSON DOUBLE/PER NIGHT: $609/$152.25
SINGLE SUPPLEMENT/PER NIGHT: $146/$36.50
INCLUDES: Pickup at Janesville, Wis., Rockford or South Beloit, Ill.; accommodations; "Branson Fest" -- time with and performances by stars, and two matinee shows (this tour available April only); 4 additional shows; visit to Laura Ingalls Wilder home; 6 meals (1 dinner, 1 lunch, 4 hotel continental breakfasts).
SHOWS: Shoji Tabuchi, Hughes Brothers, Lawrence Welk Show, Jim Stafford.
COMPANY AND TOUR: Peoria Charter Coach: "Best of Branson"
www.peoriacharter.com, 800-448-0572 or through travel agents
LENGTH: 4 days, 3 nights
PER PERSON DOUBLE/PER NIGHT: $440/$146.66
SINGLE SUPPLEMENT/PER NIGHT: $115/$38.33
INCLUDES: Transportation from Peoria ($27 shuttle each way to Peoria from O'Hare or Midway); accommodations; 6 shows; visit to Silver Dollar City; 5 meals (3 dinners, 1 continental breakfast on coach, one hotel breakfast).
SHOWS: Shoji Tabuchi, Hughes Brothers, Osmond Brothers, Dixie Stampede, Brett Family Singers, Presley Country Jubilee.
COMPANY AND TOUR: Mid-America Tours: "Best of Branson"
www.midamericatours.com, 800-323-8383 or through travel agents
LENGTH: 5 days, 4 nights
PER PERSON DOUBLE/PER NIGHT: $659/$164.75
SINGLE SUPPLEMENT/PER NIGHT: $170/$42.50
INCLUDES: Transportation from Elk Grove Village or neighborhood pickup (free); accommodations; sightseeing; 5 shows; visit to Silver Dollar City; 7 meals (2 dinners, 2 lunches, 3 hotel continental breakfasts).
SHOWS: Shoji Tabuchi, Yakov Smirnoff, Osmond Brothers, Jim Stafford and Showboat Branson Belle.
NOTE: Dates vary by company (all offer Branson Christmas tours), and prices may vary by season. Showselections and all prices subject to change. In addition, several coach companies (including these) can provide charters with custom packages for your groups; and a myriad of companies offer tour packages out of St. Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines and other cities.
For information, call 800-296-0463, or check www.explorebranson.com