Silver Dollar City's Hidden Treasure

by Brian Jewell 19. April 2012 00:53

Silver Dollar City's greatest treasure may be lie 300 feet below its surface.

Branson's pre-eminent theme park is best known for its rides, entertainment and 100 artisans who demonstrate Ozark Mountain crafts for visitors. But the park got its start because of Marvel Cave, a limestone cave that was first discovered by Osage Indians around 1500 A.D. In 1894, a local man bought the property that the cave is located on and opened it as a tourist attraction; he and his daughters continued to operate tours of the cave for the next 50 years. In 1950, the Herschend family leased the land built a few buildings around the opening to the cave. Their small development has grown into Silver Dollar City, an attraction that vastly overwhelms the popularity of Marvel Cave itself.

The presence of a theme park doesn't make Marvel Cave any less marvelous, though. Silver Dollar City admission tickets entitle visitors to free tours of the cave, which take around 40 minutes. I joined a cave tour during my day visiting the park, and was amazed by what I saw.

We descended into Marvel Cave on foot, slowly making our way down the more than 450 steps that lead to the bottom. The descent was slow and easy, though, and we were treated with spectacular views along the way. One of the most memorable sights is the Cathedral Room, a 200-foot-high cavern that is the largest entry point of any cave in North America. This huge room is spectaclar is scope, large enough to house the Statue of Liberty, and makes a wonderful introduction to the sights to come.

After walking across the floor of the Cathedral Room, we continued along a half-mile path that took us past spectacular rock formations and waterfalls. Many of the rock formations were created by the slow drip of water over thousands of years. They have been lit in dramatic fashion to help highlight the stunning beauty of this secret underground world.

At the end of the tour, we ascended just a few stairs, and then boarded an incline railway that took us the rest of the way up to the surface. Though thousands of visitors were having a great time above ground, I think those of us that took the time to tour this fantastic cave got the best experience of all.


Descending into the Cathedral Room

Marvel Cave's spectacular waterfall

The cave tour highlights otherworldly rock formations.


Unique geological features

How to sell group tours to a younger generation

by Stacey Bowman 19. April 2012 00:34

My husband and I are in our early 30s and have a small child. We are not your normal group tour type, but we could be part of an untapped market. Most couples our age are working, raising a family and seriously strapped for time. Planning a long couples weekend or a family vacation can be difficult. I’m a member of a generation that says yes with a click of a button, and I’d rather not have a phone conversation.  So how do you find me?

I know you are going to roll your eyes, but it’s through social marketing.  Facebook, blogs, e-newsletters, digital editions, texting, tweets and so on are your most powerful resources. Yes, I’ve said, “I’m so over Facebook” before, but I still check it every day: when I’m stuck in traffic, waiting on the doctor, in line for coffee, pretending to watch a documentary with my husband — should I go on?

Maybe I’m not updating my personal status that much anymore, but I’m still looking, and if you’ve got something I like, I’ll click on your link. And isn’t getting someone to your site half the battle? And if you do not support mobile devices or do not have a professional-looking website, I will leave your site in a heartbeat. Sorry, but it’s true.

Now that you’ve found me, how do you sell me on a group tour? First, you need to remember who I am. You can’t sell me on a 14-day trip to Italy, no matter how amazing the price. I don’t have the time, period. Sell me on a four-day weekend, where I don’t mind asking the grandparents to watch the baby. Give me a seven-day family trip to Disneyland or the Smoky Mountains that is affordable and flexible, and watch me blast it out to all my friends, who will put their families on that trip, too.

Here are a couple of things to remember about this generation: We are looking at the cost just like everyone else, and we will compare prices online if we think we can do better. We may not go on a bus, but in 10 different SUVs or minivans.

Name badges — really? Most of us have been to all-inclusive resorts; we’ll do wristbands, but name badges — ugh. Give us options. We will spend money on spas, outdoor adventure and so on, all so we can post a picture online to impress our friends who didn’t go on the tour.

Oh, and I forgot the best part: We 30-year-olds have parents, parents who are in that sought-after group called boomers. Treat their kids right, and you just might end up selling that 14-day trip to Italy after all.

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Travel Thoughts

Branson Scenic Railway

by Brian Jewell 18. April 2012 23:18

One hundred years ago, Branson was a newly incorporated town growing around a stop in the White River Line railway that connected Arkansas and Missouri. Today, visitors can experience a taste of historic transportation — as well as the scenery of the unspoiled Ozark mountains — during a ride on the Branson Scenic Railway.

When I took an afternoon excursion on the railway, I couldn't help but notice how the "Ozark Zephyr" seemed to transport me and my fellow passengers across space and time. The train ride starts at Branson Landing, a modern retail and dining complex on the banks of Lake Taneycomo. But as soon as I boarded the train, I found myself surrounded by a mid-20th century environment. The train features a collection of classic train cars, some of which have been in service for decades, and a couple of special dome cars that offer great viewing opportunities.

Once the train began moving, the business of Branson faded away, and the beauty of the Ozark Mountains came into view. As we chugged our way through thick forest and along the hilltops, we enjoyed the same landscape that rail travelers saw as they rode through this area 100 years ago. Along the way, we passed over a number of high trestles that gave us gorgeous views onto valleys and canyons below, as well as some tunnels carved out of the local limestone hills.

About two hours later, we pulled back into busy Branson and back into the 21st century. I found myself so relaxed by the ride and so enchanted by the scenery that I almost didn't want the ride to end.



Vintage train cars

Wrapping around a high trestle

A view from the railway's highest bridge

A Canyon Sanctuary

by Brian Jewell 18. April 2012 00:36

Branson may be known as the Music Show Capital of the World, but it also enjoys a wonderful natural setting in the Ozark Mountains. Visitors see two mountain lakes as they make their way around town; further away from the famous Highway 76, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a welcome respite for nature lovers.

It takes a bit of a drive to get to Dogwood Canyon, which sits on the border of Missouri and Arkansas. Groups that make out are in for a treat, though. This 10,000-acre nature preserve highlights some of the most beautiful geological features of the Ozarks: deep limestone canyons, caves, ponds, waterfalls and other impressive formations. Paved sidewalks and rougher trails wind throughout the park, giving visitors a variety of ways to explore. Groups can come in to the welcome center together, and then split up to do different activities such as walking/hinking, bicycle tours, ATV rides and Segway tours.

I chose to explore the park on horseback. Though many of the other activity options take visitors through the wooded paths at the bottom of the canyon, horseback adventures begin at a corral at the top side of the park. I took a one-hour guided ride, along with a friend from the Branson Area CVB. During the ride, our guide took us up and down trails that cut across the top of Ozark hills overlooking Dogwood Canyon. We rode slowly, going by the pastures where the park staff is raising a herd of bison, and through fields where other "off-duty" horses roamed freely, enjoying the sunshine on a warm April morning.

The trail rides are easy, relaxed activities that almost anyone could do, and guides can accomodate groups of up to 12 people on each ride. Twice a week, the guides take more advanced riders out on half-day excursions. Bigger groups can have their own experiences on tram rides through the park, which last two hours and include visits to the bison and elk pastures. During the summer months, groups can have a chuckwagon dinner in the fields during the tram tour of the park.




Macon Rocks

by Brian Jewell 10. April 2012 23:20

Macon sits at Georgia's intersectoin of history and music. There are plenty of great attractions to visit duirng a tour of the city, but my favorite during my short visit was The Big House: The Allman Brothers Band Museum.

The Allman Brothers were one of the pioneering bands in the music today called Southern Rock, blending traditional rock 'n' roll, country, jazz and blues styles. During the early 1970s, the band lived, wrote and rehearsed in a rented house on a hill overlooking downtwon Macon.

"They moved in here in 1970 as an unknown band," said E.J. Devokaitis, the museum's curator. "By the time they left in 1973, they were one of the most popular bands in the country, but they had lost their two leaders in motorcycle accidents."

Visitors to the house today will find that it has been transformed into a museum that pays tribute to the band and their musical achievements. Near the entrance, a television plays a continuous loop of live concert footage, helping to familiarize guests with the bands' characteristic dual-guitar solos and other signature sounds.

From there, galleries throughout the house help to tell the bands' story, illustrating it along with way with various instruments, props, costumes and other artifacts from the group's heyday. Music buffs will marvel at the numerous drums and unique electric guitars on display. Other exhibit areas deal with life on the road, the band's touring crew and the equipment necessary to stage a 1970s rock show.

Upstairs, two of the house's bedrooms have been re-decorated as they were during the band's time living there, with the help of one of the founding members' wives. Visitors can also see the re-created "getaway room," where the musicians and their families would escape the music business proceedings downstairs to relax in a typical 1970s "hippie's" den.

I'm not old enough to have remembered the Allman Brothers in their heydey. But after an hour exploring this museum, I came away with a great appreciation for these musicians and how they helped to shape the modern musical landscape.


The museum's front rooms now house museum displays.

An original Allman Brothers drum set.

Artwork memorializes the band and their era of rock 'n' roll.

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Monastery of the Holy Spirit

by Brian Jewell 10. April 2012 22:44

You may not expect to find a tourism attraction at at Catholic monastery, much less one in suburban Georgia. But in Conyers, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit has become a must-see location for groups touring the area.

A group of Trappist monks from Kentucky established this monastery decades ago, living in a barn and doing farm work in the nearby fields. Over the years, the monastery grew to include a church, workshops and more comfortable living quarters. Several years ago, the monks decided to embrace tourism as a means of creating some revenue and giving the public a look into their interesting lifestyle.

Today, the monks have created a first-rate visitor experience. The old barn in which they once lived has been transformed into the Monastic Heritage Center, with a great museum-style exhibit that details a day in the life of a monk. Visitors can see an example of the brothers' early sleeping quarters, some of the clothes that they wear, and the different trades that they ave learned to help make the monastery as self-sustaining as possible. The exhibits also outline the monks' daily schedule, from their first prayer service at 4:15 a.m. through their community meals and nighttime rituals.

After an introduction in the museum, group members have a number of options. They can visit the monastery's abbey — a sparsely decorated church by Catholic standards — and even join in a mass or prayer service if one is in session. They can also tour the gardens, where some of the brothers have honed their skills as master bonsai sculptors, or visit the on-site bookstore. A cafe adjacent to the bookstore sells deli sandwiches and other snacks, and gives diners an opportunity to have a peaceful, reflective meal.

It's funny to think about tourism and monastic life working well together. But at the monastery of the Holy Spirit, the brothers seem to have struck the perfect balance.


Monastic Heritage Center

A display of historic monks' habits.

The abbey's colorful, geomtric stained-glass windows.

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Surveying the Civil War

by Brian Jewell 10. April 2012 00:54

There are few places in the United States so impacted by the Civil War as Atlanta. The city famously burned after Union general Sherman captured it in 1864. Today, nearly 150 years later, the events are still a striking part of the Atlanta story.

There are plenty of places around the city that shed light on the Civil War battles that happened here and the scars that they left. But for visitors who want to get a broad overview of the war, its causes and effects, the best place to start is the Atlanta History Center. This museum has a variety of exhibits that deal with Atlanta's past, including a large section called "Turning Point: The American Civil War Experince."

"This is one of the one of the largest collection s of Civil War memorabilia on display in the country," said Brandi Wigley, the museum's senior manager of community initiatives. "It tells the human side of the Civil War."

The exhibit has all of the common display pieces that you would expect to find: guns, uniforms, cannons, maps, photographs, etc. But it also does a great job of distilling the major causes and movements of the Civil war into easy-to-understand pieces. Visitors begin in a section calld "War of Ideals," that deals with the motivations of each side that led to the outbreak of war. As the experience progresses, displays mark the turning points that took place in each year of the war, and mark the important shifts in strategy, economy and national attitude that eventually led to the Union's victory.

I really appreciated the way that the museum made the war easy for me to understand. And the artifacts on display helped to illustrate some of the realities of the conflict that aren't apparent simply from reading a text pannel. One of the most striking images I came across was a collection of "war ordinance" -- dozens of shells, mortars and cannonballs that were used in battle. The small ones were the size of a grapefruit; the larger ones could be twice the size of a modern bowling ball. The size and number of these weapons helped me to understand just how scary action on the battlefield must have been, and how much bravery was displayed by those who fought.

The exhibit ended with a poingant discussion of reconstruction, reconcilliation and the legacy that the war left on Atlanta and the nation. Many of the issues at play in the mid-19th century still affect us today. But great, moving exhibits like this can help us all to understand just how far we've come.


The exhibit showcases both artifacts and attitudes.

War Ordinance

Re-creation of a Confederate encampment

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Roswell's Southern Trilogy

by Brian Jewell 9. April 2012 23:55

Barrington Hall

Roswell, Georgia, has all of the characteristic elements of a Southern village — a picturesque town square, a lush green park with a white bandstand and a historic river mill. But Roswell also has something that most of the other small towns around Atlanta don't — a trio of antebellum homes.

"Roswell has three antebellum homest ath are open for tour three days a week," said Marsha Saum, tourism sales manager at the Historic Roswell Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We call them the Southern Trilogy."

Civil War buffs know that Atlanta and much of the surrounding area were largely destroyed by Sherman and his troops in 1864. But Roswell escaped the path of Sherman's destruction, and today the Southern Trilogy gives visitors perhaps the best look into what the lifestyle of the Atlanta-area elites would have been like in the time before the Civil War.

During the short time I had to tour Roswell, Marsha and I made stops at all of the homes. The first, Bulloch Hall, is a temple-style Greek Revival mansion built in 1839. The family that lived there were influential members of the area — Margaret Mitchell once wrote about them in a newspaper article — and ancestors of president Theodore Roosevelt. The home has furnishings from the period, along with the stories of both family members and slaves that spent time at the estate.

The second member of the trilogy, Barrington Hall, is another classical Southern mansion. The most notable aspect of this home is its antebellum garden — curators and local gardeners have gone to great lengths to re-create the garden that the home's original owners planted in the back yard. The garden features historic heirloom botanicals, planted in the same arrangements that the property's first gardener created.

An estate called Smith Plantation rounds out the trilogy. Smith Plantation features 100 percen original furnishings, so groups visiting today will see a home interior that looks just the way it did when the Smith family lived there. The home also has 10 intact outbuildings, including slave's quarters, an ice house, corn crib, guest cabins and a covered well.

On a perfectly sunny spring day, these beautiful homes and the flowers blooming around them made Roswell seem as picturesque as possible.


Barrington Hall's antebellum garden

Dogwoods blooming on the grounds of Smith Plantation

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Wednesday is family day at The Masters

by Mac Lacy 5. April 2012 23:28


The Masters is almost as much about traditions as it is about great golf.  Its champions are set apart forever, and, by tradition, select the menu for the champion's dinner the following year.  Both its pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches are traditions, as is the green jacket that Augusta National members wear on the course during the event.  And, of course, each year's champion receives his own green jacket, another longstanding tradition.

But Wednesday at The Masters is also about another tradition--the tournament's Par Three championship.  On a small par three course adjacent to Augusta National, current and former players have fun during a par-three tournament that allows for a much less exacting style of play than the event that follows.  Many players bring their kids along as caddies, all of whom don white caddie uniforms just like the big boys (and girls) who carry the bags in The Masters itself.  Truth be told, it's the kids who are the stars in this little event.

So we started our day by watching a couple of hours of real practice on the back nine on Wednesday, mostly around Number 16 and Amen Corner (Numbers 11, 12 and 13).  By tradition, most golfers skipped balls across the pond to the green on Number 16, urged along by the crowd there.  Many jumped up onto the green and others fell short.  Then we made our way up the 18th fairway to the clubhouse and had lunch in the concession area nearby. 

Afterwards, we walked over to the par three course and found a spot on the 6th green and watched several groups come through.  Due to our long drive home, we left the course long before a winner was declared.  But one thing's for sure--whoever did win that event won't be crowned champion of The Masters on Sunday.  It just never seems to happen.

Call it tradition.

Fredrik Jacobson, of Sweden, brought his son along as his caddy for the par three tournament on Wednesday


A group of international visitors made a color-coordinated splash in the concession area on Wednesday


Patrons awaited golfers at Number 10 green on Wednesday in Augusta


Volunteers manned an information booth near Amen Corner at The Masters

Tiger Woods lined up a putt on Number 16 while Sean O'Hair looked on during Wednesday's practice round

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Augusta 2012

Augusta TEE Center tees off in January 2013

by Mac Lacy 5. April 2012 23:03

When the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau invited Small Market Meetings editor Vickie Mitchell  to come for a preview of their new downtown convention center during the week of The Masters, she knew just what to do.  She invited me to go in her place.

Vickie had done a similar trip to Augusta a few years back and asked if I'd like to do it since I am a golfer.  So my wife, Kim, and I made a three-day road trip of it and enjoyed some true Georgia hospitality along the way.  We overnighted in Asheville, North Carolina and were in Augusta by noon the next day.  I did a hardhat tour of the new TEE (Trade, Exhibit and Event) Center that will debut in January, and also got to see the adjacent Marriott Augusta Hotel and Suites, the Augusta Museum of History and this city's impressive riverfront development along the Savannah River. 

That evening, we and other guests enjoyed a wonderful meal at our hospitality house (an Augusta tradition for golfers and dignitaries attending the golf tournament) and joined CVB CEO Barry White for an evening with Darius Rucker and his band at an outdoor concert for the city's First Tee program.  First Tee gives kids of all backgrounds the chance to learn golf and the game's longstanding tenets of fair play and decorum during competition.  Rucker, himself, is an avid golfer and grew up nearby.

The following day, CVB marketing communications director Katrina Selby escorted Kim and me to the Wednesday practice round for The Masters.

Our group relaxed for a moment on the riverfront promenade that stretches along the Savannah River


Stately homes line the other side of the Savannah River across from the Marriott Augusta Hotel and Suites


The new TEE (Trade, Exhibit and Event) Center in Augusta will open in January 2013


We were served a wonderful evening meal on this patio in our hospitality house in Augusta

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Augusta 2012

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