Mid-America’s Playground

The lake life is a major attraction for people from across the nation, but there’s a lot more beckoning them to Missouri.

By Dennis Boone


Flash poll: Which of these native Missourians should be the poster child for the Show-Me State’s tourism office? Check one:
• Mark Twain
• George Washington Carver
• Kathleen Turner
• Harry Truman
• Sheryl Crow

Trick question. For our money, it’s St. Louis-born Bill Dubuque, who helped give the state a new national buzz as creator of the former Netflix series “Ozark.” The show wrapped up after five seasons in 2022, but not until gifting Missouri new national awareness as a place to get away from it all and enjoy the aquatic life on the Lake of the Ozarks.

Thanks to the influence of this Netflix series—and a global pandemic during the middle of its run that drove people out of the cities to scratch their recreational itch—Missouri is definitely on the map as one of America’s greatest lifestyle and vacation playgrounds.

The lake life is a big part of that. Heck, the Lake of the Ozarks by itself has more miles of waterfront than California has beachfront. That has helped turn that lake region into the state’s premier water attraction, with Table Rock Lake near Branson not far behind and various other state waterways pulling some big dollars to the heart of America.

How big? State tourism officials say that sector had an almost $18.5 billion economic impact in the past fiscal year, with direct tourism-related spending accounting for the biggest chunk of that, $10.8 billion. With an estimated 130,732 jobs related to hospitality and tourism, the sector is a major employer, as well, and it throws off $1.5 billion in state and local taxes.

That economic activity, though, is not all going to ski boats and floating beer coolers. Not by a long shot. Missouri is also hauling in tourists to attractions like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, professional and collegiate sports, camping, hiking, golfing, trail biking, fishing, caving, zoos, botanical gardens, museums, art galleries, concert halls—we’re going to stop there because it’s a very long list.

At just shy of 70,000 square miles, Missouri is a mighty big place. So rather than try to eat the elephant in one gulp, let’s slice it into bite-size geographical pieces for consideration. Largely rural in its expanse, Missouri has a concentration of urban residents in three cities. St. Louis has about 2.1 million residents in its’ Missouri-side MSA counties, while the Kansas City region (has about 1.3 on the Missouri side. Springfield, the third leg of the population-based triangle, has about half a million. 

Combined, that’s close to two-thirds of the state’s population packed into less than 11,000 of more than 69,000 square miles of surface area. That leaves plenty of wide, open spaces to call your name for year-round excursions.

Outside of the urban vacation zones, Missouri tourism is generally driven by attractions in the Ozarks. No surprise that: As a geographical region, the Ozarks spreads from the southwest corner of Missouri northeast nearly to St. Louis, and close to the Mississippi River in the southeast. That’s roughly half the state, and it includes state parks and campgrounds, waterways suitable for canoeing, trails, and the vast Mark Twain National Forest, among many other features.

The center of the population universe in that part of the state is Springfield. Just 30 minutes south on U.S. 65 sits Branson, a national draw in its own right as a vacationland for country-themed musical acts and stage performances. 

To the northeast corner of the region sits Hermann, in Gasconade County, on land designated as part of the American Viticultural Area’s Ozark Mountain. It’s a pillar of a resurgent wine industry in Missouri, one that draws tens of thousands of visitors to multiple vineyards that produce their own vintages.

Through the center of the Ozarks, from north to south, are lakes created by damming key rivers in the mid-20th century. Foremost among them is the Lake of the Ozarks, near dead-center of the state. Table Rock Lake, famed for the clarity of its water, sits on the state’s southern border just a few miles from Arkansas. 

That region contains a chain of lakes, starting and ending in Arkansas, but feeding into Table Rock, then Taneycomo, then Bull Shoals, nearly running statewide across Missouri. In addition to the fishing and boating, it’s a region chock-full of hunting opportunities that beckon those skilled in firearms use or archery. 

It’s not all rugged outdoors, though; in Springfield, you can find one of the nation’s newest and most popular tourist destinations, Wonders of Wildlife. This vision from the mind of outdoorsman Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, is a two-track living museum of aquatic wildlife on one side and land animals on the other. In just its first year of operations, it drew 1.6 million visitors, and based on rates for a family of four, that would have generated close to $60 million in revenue, and $4.8 million in sales tax revenue divvied up by the state, Greene County and the city itself.

Among the higher-level attractions coming to the state is Oasis at Lakeport, a $350 million family resort and entertainment district that is on track for a 2024 opening.  That lakefront tourist destination is going up on property acquired by Big Thunder Marine owner Fred Ross, the recently retired CEO of Custom Truck One Source in Kansas City. It will feature a 20-acre swath of amusement rides and attractions, hotels, restaurants, amphitheater, and marina.

A few hours to the south, the Branson suburb of Hollister will soon be home to another $300 million resort development. Imagine Resorts Hollister, now slated to open in 2024, will boast a 100,000-square-foot indoor-themed waterpark, 450 guest rooms and cabins, half a dozen restaurants, retail, and convention space, generating demand for 450 workers.

We haven’t even begun to explore the huge range of dining options across the state or the number of high-end resorts and hotels that cater to the executive class. Or the camping attractions, hiking and biking trails (the cross-state Katy Trail being a premier example), cave exploration possibilities, hunting, or even winter skiing possibilities. 

So if you’re coming to enjoy Missouri, take our advice: Clear your calendar. It will fill up in a hurry.