Thurs Dec 23rd. After a half-day at work, we met at my house to pack up the car and head out of town. Plan was to go as far as Marshall, TX (4-5 hours) to get a start on the journey. Luckily, as we were loading up, DH noticed that the rear tires on my mom's car (the vehicle we were taking) were bald. Bald + long drive + possible snow/ice = B.A.D. So we were delayed a bit, but my mom got new tires. Made it to Marshall without any problem, had a nice stay at the La Quinta there (nothing fancy, but not bad, either) Fri Dec 24th Thanks to the warnings from a few friends, we went prepared with the Arkansas road conditions website. Checking that this morning, I found that all the routes I'd planned as possibilities were covered in ICE. So we quickly found an alternate route, which basically went up the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Not a bad drive, and didn't run into any bad weather at all. We did get to see some snow, but not much, and all of it was already on the ground. Only "exciting" thing to happen was dodging the owl that decided to divebomb the car on the windy road at night. Everyone made it through okay, and the owl woke me up. ;-) Found our key for the Stillwaters Resort, which would be our home for the next week (and one we all really liked -- condo/DVC style, 2 bedroom, with a view of the lake). Sat Dec 25th Merry Christmas. We slept in this morning. After the long day in the car, none of us wanted to get up early today. We did finally make it out by about noon, checked in at the front desk, and then found our way to the Grand Country where we would see our first show in Branson. We hoped to eat before the show at the Grand Country Buffet, but since it was one of the few places open, it had too long of a line. We got tickets for the Gregory Popovitch (sp??) Comedy Pet Circus, did some shopping, then came back for the show. Show was cute, but nothing fancy. We didn't think it was worth the price (about $4 too high per person), but if we'd had kids, that would have been different. We all wanted more "pets" and less "circus", but oh well. It wasn't a bad way to spend Christmas. Got dinner at the Grand Country Buffet, which was a very good buffet, then made our way out to the Sheperd of the Hills Homestead where they had the drive-through light display "Trail of Lights". At $8 a person, it was a bit steep, but the show was very cute and rather Disney-like. Cute animations, cute lights, music all over. Overall, rather well done. We would have all considered it worth the price at $5/person instead of $8. Recognizing how expensive it must be to run all that stuff, I understood the $8 anyway. Then on to the city of Kimberling City (I think?) where we drove through the Port of Lights, which was a very well done light display. No animations or music, but the lights were very nice. Especially the archway of wreaths that we ended up driving through 4 or 5 times. LOL! My mom wanted to keep going through it again and again. ;-) Sun Dec 26th Today we got off to another late start, and began our routine of getting breakfast at Cracker Barrel. This time, our first stop was at the Waltzing Waters to catch the 1pm show with Frederick, which had been recommended by some friends. The studio needs a little refurbishment, but the staff was friendly and the price very good. We were greeted by Greg, who "plays" the lights and water display, who told us that tomorrow was Frederick's birthday so they were going to get him with a cake during that afternoon's performance. Luckily I went back out into the lobby early enough to catch them when they decided to give him his cake *before* the show instead of during it, so I was able to get a few pictures. Then we were treated to an almost-private performance. There were only 3 groups in the theater. The 3 of us, another group of 3, and one couple. With such an empty theater, I was able to jump up and down and run across the aisles and stuff for some nice pictures. :-D Really, don't let the run-down appearance of the outside of the theater turn you away -- when Frederick is playing (he plays two grand pianos at once, and at one point even plays two *different* songs at the same time -- he's quite talented), the show is well worth the visit. Next we did a bit of shopping to kill some time until time for our next show, the Dixie Stampede. If you're into rodeos, this is a very fun attraction. It's a dinner show with trick riding, audience participation, races, special effects, beautiful horses, great singing... all in all, a great time. Dinner wasn't that great, but the show was worth the price. I loved it, DH enjoyed it, my mom thought the show was okay but hated the dinner. Oh, and the pre-show entertainment (a very talented juggler this time) was very fun as well. Mon Dec 27th This morning, my mom and I got up "bright and early" (okay, 9...) to head out to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It was about an hour drive, which we finally got to see in the daylight. I'll have to say, Arkansas is a very scenic state. Not the "rugged beauty" of the Colorado Rockies (which is my preference), but a very serene, peaceful scene that brings to mind visions of Johnny Appleseed. Made it to Eureka Springs with just a short amount of time to shop. I think we spent about 45 minutes shopping, most of which was spent in the cross stitch shop (where I started yet another new hobby, punch-needle embroidery...). Then it was a "fast" drive (well, speed-limit, but meaning we couldn't stop to look at things) through town to the Cressent Hotel for lunch (eh. Mediochre lunch). We were in a hurry to get to our 1:30 tour appointment (a surprise for my mom) at the Rosalie House. I ended up having to call the owner / tour guide and ask for an extension as lunch was a bit slow. But we made it to the house, and were treated to the most unique Victorian home tour I've ever been on. The owner actually lives in the house, so much of the material there was "please, do sit on this" "sure, you can touch this!" "Hey, play with this toy, see how they used to pass the time?" and things of that nature. A *lot* of fun, and it finished up with us getting dressed up in Victorian costume for pictures. My mom and I really enjoyed the tour, and would have stayed longer if we hadn't needed to get back for another show. DH on the other hand was very happy he stayed home. ;-) Spent the next 30-45 minutes driving around in circles around Eureka Springs so we could get pictures of all the quaint Victorian-style homes. We found several we would have taken if someone had given them to us. ;-) Very cute town! Then another quick drive through the scenic country back to the resort, where we rushed in to get DH before rushing to dinner and our next show (and by far the best of the trip), the Jim Stafford show. Now if you've never heard of Jim Stafford, there's really no real way to describe him. All I can say is that he's very talented, and we laughed more at that show than I think we ever have at any show before. We laughed, we cried, we sang along, we laughed some more, and then even more laughing. Absolutely fantastic show. Tues 28th We took it easy this morning, only making it to our site for the day at about 2. That was Silver Dollar City, which must be as a whole the cutest theme park I've ever been to. Yes, even tops Disney for "cute" (in the Western-style). No, it wasn't flashy like Disney, or as big, but it was very well done, with arts and crafts displays, kettle corn, a blacksmith, candle-making, a few cute rides (not the quality of Disney, no, but still very cute), and the most unique and fun shops we found on the entire trip. And when the sun started going down, the entire city was lit up in Christmas lights, in a display the likes of which I haven't seen since the previous Osborne Family of Lights when the Residential Street still existed at MGM. Basically, if you've ever been to DisneyLAND at Christmas (Land, not World) and have strolled around the It's a Small World area to see the lights -- take that, and fill the entire park with it. It was beautiful. And very charming. They even had a cute Christmas light parade (not MSEP quality, but still cute, and the closest to Disney-like I've seen). And the highlight of the day (not counting all the CUTE shops!) was the Christmas Tree. During the day, it's nothing fancy. I sure wasn't impressed after seeing Disney's trees. But at night, the tree comes alive with lights, and every 15 minutes the lights are synchronized to music in such a grandiose way that it even tops any *light* show (lights only, not fireworks, stages, fountains, etc) I've ever seen at Disney. Really, I thought the tree was Disney quality. :-D In case you can't tell, I loved Silver Dollar City. Wed 29th Today, we planned to go see a cave then some more of Eureka Springs, but due to the weather coming later in the week, we decided to just go see another must-do on our list, Turpentine Creek, Arkansas. Turpentine Creek is a wild cat preserve and rescue, with over 100 tigers, lions, bobcats, cougars, and a few wildcat-wanna-be's (bears, badger, etc). With how much we all love the big cats, this was another must-do for us. We got off to a late start again, so didn't make it to Turpentine Creek until about 2:30, but that was a good time to be there. That gave us enough time to look around on our own before the last tour of the day (3pm), and the last tour would get us back early enough to catch the feeding at 4pm. Like all wildlife rescues, Turpentine Creek was bittersweet. Seeing all the big cats up close and so well cared-for and loved was great. I mean, how often do you see two lions snuggling together with their heads on each other's backs?? Or cougars or tigers rolling over on their backs and sleeping or playing? Or a cougar playing with a staff member through the bars of the cage, using no claws (if she even had any :-( ) and licking the staff member in a loving way? That was all great. Hearing all their stories of abuse (like previous owners filing down their teeth or getting them declawed and leaving them limping for the rest of their life) was all sad. And their cages are almost all smaller than we liked to see, but the cats were obviously happy and well cared-for, and they are working to create larger "habitats" for the big cats. That was pretty much all we got done that day. It was just over an hour's drive down to Turpentine Creek, then an hour and a half drive back (because it was dark by the time we left), and I was just so tired after the driving (I did most of the driving this trip) that we just called it an early night. Thurs 30th This morning, my mom and I started out with some quick shopping. Found a few more gifts that my mom needed to find, then she and I returned to Silver Dollar City for about 2 hours. We'd purchased 2004 Annual Passes when we knew we'd be coming, but DH didn't have one. That was fine -- he wasn't as impressed with Silver Dollar as we were, though I think if he'd had a pass, he would have returned with us once at least. He was happy relaxing at the resort and watching the lake, though. We grabbed a quick lunch, then finished up our shopping there in Silver Dollar. Then we rushed back to the resort again to grab DH for our final show of the trip, a dinner show on the Showboat Branson Belle. Our opinion of the dinner cruise -- the dinner was pretty good, very good for "conference" food. The boat was very nice, especially right at sunset. We loved the cruise portion. But there wasn't anything at all in the show that "wowed" us. It was good, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't "great". Not something we'd repeat. After dinner, my mom and I returned to Silver Dollar City one last time to ride the last two rides I wanted to do, and to see one last show. This was the Silver Dollar City version of the Dickens Christmas Carol, which had again come highly recommended. And once again, that friend steered us right. The show was great, with a few minor twists on the story to really make it fun. We finished up the night and our stay with one more song at the Christmas Tree, then it was off to put the puzzle together. Meaning: how do we fit all this stuff we bought in the car?? Fri 31st We were up bright and early this morning, for real this time since we (read: I)had to finish figuring out how to pack the car, then get checked out. I was able to do it, but only by squeezing things into odd shaped holes between suitcases and stuff. LOL! We had two fun things today. First was a visit to the most fun cave I've ever seen, Cosmic Caverns. Not the most spectacular, or the most rugged. Not the most beautiful, or the least. But because of the most fun tour guide (the owner) and the "intamacy" of the trail, it was the most fun cave tour we've ever been on. I can highly recommend it, too. :-D Then came the fun drive down the scenic highway 7. I'd hoped to come *up* that route, but the weather prevented it. As it was, we only got to see the first half (Northern half) in the daylight. Our night was spent in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Stay Away from Hot Springs Arkansas. I'd made reservations at a "historic hotel" that sounded nice and fun. Yeah. I think it was so "historic", it hadn't been cleaned since the 30's, either. The place was a dump, the staff rude, NO BLINDS ON THE WINDOWS, and we weren't sure what would be sleeping in the bed with us. Probably one of the cousins of the 20 (LITERALLY!) bugs I found in the toilet. Needless to say, we went elsewhere. Staff at our second attempt was very nice, but the place was still old and showing its age, my mom's key didn't work on her room, then the lights went out in our room and it took the staff until 1am to get us moved to a new room. Did I mention we called in the problem at 11? Now to be fair, I'm basing my opinion on Hot Springs on just a handful of people and 2 or 3 places, but as far as I'm concerned, I've seen enough and if I never return, that'll be too soon. At least that was the worst that happened on the trip. Sat Jan 1 Nothing much happened here. We did some rock hunting (if stopping on the side of the road and kicking at a few rocks in the misty rain counts as "rock hunting"), then went the more civilized route and stopped in a rock shop to buy our souvineers. LOL! Then drove home. And drove. And drove. Stopped off in Jefferson, TX for dinner at a very, very good Italian restaurant at a *real* Historic Hotel (meaning one I wouldn't mind staying in -- very clean, staff friendly, food great... just beware of the ghosts). Then drove, drove, drove some more, and finally drove home. Did you know Texas is big? LOL! Rajah's Reviews: La Quinta in Marshall: 1 paw up -- clean, friendly, but nothing fancy Stillwaters Resort in Branson, MO: 2 paws up! Clean, friendly, beautiful view on the lake, pretty good location. We'll return. The Historic Park Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas: 3 paws DOWN. Quality Inn in Hot Springs, Arkansas: 1 paw up for the staff, 1 paw down for the efficiency Grand Country Buffet in Branson, MO: 2 paws up, for good "home-style" country cookin' Cracker Barrel in Branson, MO: 2 paws up for yummy food (better than most Cracker Barrels I've been in) and for very friendly and fast service Silver Dollar City misc restaurants: 2 paws up for yummy "theme-park" food, and good service Cressent Hotel: neutral on the food, 1 paw up on the historical aspect and clenliness Restaurant at the Jefferson Hotel (I forget the restaurant's name): 2 paws up for some great Italian! Gregory Poppovich Comedy Pet Circus: 1 paw up. Fun way to spend some time, but really best if you have kids. Shepherd of the Hills Trail of Lights: 2 paws up for the lights and show, 1 paw down for the slightly high price Waltzing Waters with Frederick: 2 paws up, as long as Frederick's playing. Dixie Stampede: 2 paws up for the show, neutral on the food Jim Stafford: 3 paws up! Silver Dollar City: 2 paws up if you like Frontierland (which we do) Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge: 2 paws up for the big cats and the staff, 1 more paw up for the great work they're doing to save these beautiful cats, 1 paw down for the sad / bittersweet tone to the place Branson Belle Riverboat Cruise: 1 paw up for the boat and dinner, neutral for the show Cosmic Caverns in Arkansas: 2 paws up!