You only get so many vacations in a lifetime, only so many chances to see the world, to see the United States.
And so we have to make a decision. We have to choose the destinations that refill our souls, renew our spirit and give us the hope we need to work the other 50 or so weeks of the year to make money to pay for the vacations.
Certainly, you can turn to the internet for advice. You can browse countless trip reviews, hotel recommendations and breakdowns of every tourist destination from Quebec to Cozumel.
Or you can lean on the advice of travel professionals. The people who are trained to navigate the labyrinth of possible family vacation destinations, scouring the top attractions in the United States for deals and the best hotel rooms to create the perfect vacation for your whole family.
But sometimes, destinations share quite a bit of DNA. This means it is wise to choose one or the other, not both.
Should we explore Myrtle Beach or Virginia Beach?
Should we go to Cedar Point or Kings Island? Either amusement park is great – and they have different things to do – but ultimately it’s a very similar experience.
Certainly, you can do both if that’s your thing, but if you want to maximize your lifetime allotment of vacation days, do you have to visit both Six Flags Over Georgia and Six Flags St. Louis?
Is Branson the same as Pigeon Forge?
There may be no more stark case than Pigeon Forge, Tennessee versus Branson, Missouri.
These two mountain tourist towns share so much DNA they would match as siblings on Ancestry.com. In many ways, there’s a little bit of Twilight Zone action happening.
Queue the SpiderMan pointing meme.
Imagine spending a couple of days in the Pigeon Forge area, then being doped B.A. Baracus style – and waking up in your cool black van with a red stripe the next day in Branson.
Where are the giant aliens? Am I in another dimension? Is this the multiverse? Hannibal, it’s time for a plan to come together because I’m losing it. There’s a man, a man on the wing!
I bought Titanic Pigeon Forge attraction tickets last night. Will they work at the Branson Titanic Museum?
My God, is that a Dolly Parton’s Stampede – formerly known as the Dixie Stampede?
As a side note, I wonder if that’s the first time anyone crossed the streams on an “A-Team” reference with a classic “Twilight Zone” reference.
When we publish this thing, it might create a wormhole.
Pigeon Forge vs Branson: The breakdown
From commonly owned theme parks to dozens of identical attractions, if you treat your allotment of vacation days as a bucket list, there’s really no need to do Branson AND Pigeon Forge.
Now, for some people, vacations aren’t about varying experiences. It’s about finding what they like and doing it over and over again. There’s no shame in that.
There’s a reason I’ve taken my family to Disney World so many times. Each year, there’s something new. The experience is something different. I enjoy watching my kids experience one of the world’s greatest theme parks in the different seasons of their youth.
But if you find yourself in a position to choose between vacationing in Pigeon Forge or Branson, we want to give you all the information you need. There’s only one thing to do.
We’re going to break this thing down scientifically, Nick Bakay style.
We need a tale of the tape.
Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner we have the place founded on a foundry in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. Gatlinburg’s big brother and Branson’s kissing cousin… with a population of just 5,875, fighting up a weight class, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
And in the other corner, we have the pride of Missouri. And strangely, even though it’s not in the Razorback State, the pride of Arkansas. Coming in with a population of 11,416, Branson, Missouri is the only place in America generally considered cheesier than Pigeon Forge.
Let’s break down this competition by category and look at a few of the identical attractions:
1. Beyond the Lens!
There are only two Beyond the Lens attractions in the country, and both offer more than 150 interactive exhibits.
The Branson location also has a FlyRide attraction, which looks similar to the new SkyFly attraction at The Island in Pigeon Forge.
But we’ll award the point to Branson for having FlyRide.
2. Ripley’s Believe it or Not!
While both of these twin towns have a Believe it or Not museum, Gatlinburg has far more Ripley’s attractions overall.
And while you can buy a combo pass in Branson – a combo pass in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge gives you access to the aquarium, plus eight other attractions.
In Branson, you only get three total.
Point to Pigeon Forge (for being close to Gatlinburg).
The odd upside-down house along the main drag of the Parkway in Pigeon Forge is not unique to East Tennessee.
The website explains that Wonderworks began as a secret lab on a remote island in the Bermuda Triangle.
A tornado was unleashed in the lab during an experiment, and the lab was carried for miles and landed upside down.
This apparently happened six times.
It’s a tie. There are six Wonderworks locations, making this category less unique to Branson and Pigeon Forge.
4. Hollywood Wax Museum
The Hollywood Wax Museum has four locations throughout the U.S.
Other than the Pigeon Forge and Branson locations, the other two are located in California and South Carolina.
The two locations also share a Castle of Chaos and a mirror maze.
The main difference is that the Branson location has mini golf, whereas the Pigeon Forge location has a zombie experience.
We’ll give a point to Pigeon Forge for creativity.
5. Branson Ferris Wheel vs The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel
In addition to identical attractions in both places, there are innumerable similar attractions that might be owned by different people but perform essentially the same function.
For example, the Branson Ferris Wheel is a popular destination for anyone who visits the southwest Missouri hotspot.
The Branson Ferris Wheel has 40 gondolas at 6 passengers per gondola and 16,000 LED lights. It is located at the Track Family Fun Park, which also offers go karts, mini golf courses and a lot more. (Sound familiar?)
The Branson Wheel started its life in Chicago in 1995. And there, it served for 20 years before it was taken down for a bigger wheel and moved to Branson.
In Sevier County, The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel on The Island in Pigeon Forge offers great views from 200 feet in the air.
The wheel opened in 2013, making it nearly 20 years younger than the Branson Wheel, though it’s been in its current location longer. The larger gondolas hold up to 8 guests.
The big wheel keeps on turning in Pigeon Forge’s favor. Point to Pigeon Forge.
6. Ozark Mountains vs The Great Smoky Mountains
Ah, my friends, this is truly the reason either city exists.
Without the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Smokies themselves, Pigeon Forge wouldn’t be the tourist location it is today. The same thing could be said for Branson and the Ozark Mountains. There is natural beauty in both areas.
Both cities were built, not on Rock and Roll, but on the beautiful scenery.
Look, there’s no point belaboring this, the Ozarks are lovely. Truly beautiful. I’ve driven through them from the north and the south. They’re one of the wonders of the Southeast.
That being said, the Smokies are superior in almost every discernable category. Nothing but love for the Ozarks, but come on, now.
Point to Pigeon Forge.
7. Splash Country Waterparks
If you’re not overly familiar with Branson, you might be surprised to learn it also has a Splash Country. But it is not affiliated with Dollywood’s sister park in Branson, Silver Dollar City.
The Grand Country’s Splash Country Waterpark features nine water-filled attractions. It is billed as Branson’s indoor-outdoor waterpark, which really tips the scales in Branson’s favor.
Dollywood’s Splash Country is a great waterpark with more to do overall.
However, the indoor options in Branson, including indoor-outdoor slides and a lazy river, make it a better destination.
The water park point goes to Branson.
8. Dolly Parton’s Stampede
While Dolly’s name might not be on the waterpark, she does have a location for the Stampede in both Pigeon Forge and Branson.
Are they serving a four-course feast at one of the most popular shows in the country in both towns? Yes, yes they are.
The winner? It’s a tie again.
9. The Titanic Museum
The Titanic Museum is a unique two-story museum dedicated to the ill-fated RMS Titanic ship.
These attractions are under the same ownership, so it’s difficult to award points to one over the other. However, the Branson location opened in 2006 and the Pigeon Forge location opened in 2010.
The winner? It’s a tie. We love the Titanic Museum no matter where it is.
10. Feudin’ dinner shows
So, I will admit to some disappointment when I learned the Funny Farm Dinner Feud was not based on the 1988 Chevy Chase vehicle “The Funny Farm”.
Surely, I had also held out a brief hope that it was some kind of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” deal. I would pay a lot of money for a dinner theater based on Cuckoo’s nest.
Alas, this show is another “Hee Haw” derivative in which we take a bloody war between generations of mountain families and turn it into musical entertainments featuring “hootin’ and hollerin’” performers testing their abilities at a variety of “hilarious Hillbilly skills.”
In Pigeon Forge, the comparable show is the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show which does have the advantage of superior name recognition, but it’s not enough to push it over the top.
This feud is a draw and ultimately, the only loser is our dignity.
I award no points and may God have mercy on your soul.
11. Aquarium at the Boardwalk vs Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Man, I love a great aquarium. In fact, I find watching fish do fish things to be quite relaxing.
The Aquarium at the Boardwalk in Branson is really cool. There’s a giant octopus climbing over the building that makes for great pictures. In addition, it has similar exhibits to the ones at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg.
OBJECTION! Gatlinburg is not in Pigeon Forge.
Overruled. Your objection is noted, McCoy, but I’ll allow the reference in.
Ripley’s Aquarium has penguins. Those penguins march through the aquarium and it’s the cutest dang thing you ever saw.
When penguins win, we all win.
Point Gatlinburg … er sorry. Point Pigeon Forge for being close to Gatlinburg.
12. Axe throwing, tours and other touristy things to do
It is the boon and the curse of the popular destination that whenever tourists show up with the money, a bunch of enterprising entrepreneurs will show up to try to get them to part with it.
Both Pigeon Forge and Branson have outlet malls, axe throwing, arcades and whatever else people might spend money on.
Are we in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Gulf Shores or Myrtle Beach? Who knows? Now, throw that hatchet and let’s get out of this escape room, we’ve got a helicopter tour in 30 minutes.
It’s a tie.
13. Helicopter tours
Speaking of helicopter tours, both towns have multiple options with tours starting in the $30-range. At least a couple of them decided a yellow helicopter serves as the perfect advertisement at the storefront.
Winner? No one. It’s a tie. Actually, it’s not even that. It’s an endless loop. Like a go kart track with no exit ramp, endless spinning into oblivion.
14. Cave exploring
We always thought one of the best things to explore in the Smokies is underground.
The truth is, the Talking Rocks Cavern has mini golf and gem mining and is a more fully developed tourist attraction.
More so than the Forbidden Caverns ever hoped to be.
It’s Ok, Missouri, you win this one. You had me at “Crack your own geode.”
15. Dollywood vs Silver Dollar City
We could go back through Herschend Family history when it purchased the former Rebel Railroad in Pigeon Forge, aka the former Goldrush Junction, and rechristened it Silver Dollar City, making a sister park with its operation in Branson.
We could talk about the shared history, the partnership with Dolly Parton, the push in both parks to become more than a theme park, adding thrill rides and more.
However, in the end, Dollywood has Dolly Parton. American legend, world icon and galactic force for good. Silver Dollar City? It’s based on a bunch of outlaw bandits and vigilantes who hid out in a cave and wore funny hoods.
Winner: Dollywood and America.
Point Pigeon Forge.
16. Dinosaur based attractions
Both Branson and Pigeon Forge have dinosaur based attractions.
In Pigeon Forge, it’s the Jurassic Jungle Boat. And it is not even a contest. The boat ride is a cheesy little endeavor with a couple of light jump scares. The animatronics are Chuck E. Cheese level. Neither thrilling nor overly educational.
In Branson, it’s the Dinosaur Museum. Let us be clear, the Branson location isn’t exactly the Smithsonian.
It’s got 45-life-sized dino replicas that seem to have been developed in our 1980s understanding of dinosaurs.
So, If you really want to learn some true ancient history, you’re better off coming to Pigeon Forge and driving up to the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, TN.
Still, point to Branson. Don’t be sore.
17. Andy’s Frozen Custard
Both places have dozens and dozens of delicious dining options suitable for any palette. How do you possibly choose between the two?
For years, the answer was easy. Branson had Andy’s and Pigeon Forge did not. However, Andy’s has come to Sevierville, close to Pigeon Forge, with much fanfare and hosannas. Our long nightmare is over.
What is Andy’s? Andy’s Frozen Custard has been delivering the world’s greatest frozen custard for almost 40 years now. The Branson location, at 76 Country Blvd., is an icon. It is an institution.
Of course, Pigeon Forge has a lot of great places to eat. There are a lot of places to get ice cream or frozen custard. However, none of them competes with Andy’s.
Point? It’s a tie. We all have Andy’s now.
18. Escape rooms
Escape rooms have increased in popularity in recent years, and more and more locations are popping up all over the country.
A quick search for escape rooms in both towns reveals that Pigeon Forge has more options in this category.
For simply quantity alone, the point goes to Pigeon Forge.
19. Old Time Photos
There are several locations of Old Time Photos in both Pigeon Forge and Branson.
How could both places support this number of similar attractions? It’s a mystery we may never understand.
It’s a tie. No points.
Central vs Eastern time zones
Look, I don’t to be cruel, but the central daylight time zone stinks.
When we lived in Alabama, it was central time. In the winter months, it got dark at 4 pm. It was a nightmare.
Branson is a little further West so I suppose the light hangs on better but it’s still awful. Sure your primetime TV viewing is a little more manageable, but in the age of streaming, does that even matter?
Finally, I have it on good authority that in the netherworld, the Devil keeps it on central time.
That’s enough for me.
Point Pigeon Forge.
Where the rubber meets the road, how’s the drive?
First of all, if you have to drive through Arkansas to get to Branson, don’t do it. The roads in Arkansas are the worst I’ve ever driven on, like being on a vibrating bed for six hours straight.
Pigeon Forge, however, is located at the confluence of several major interstates. They are in good condition and within a 12-hour drive of much of the Eastern United States.
Yes, Branson does have an airport the Springfield-Branson National Airport with flights to 15 cities. But it’s about as far from Branson as McGhee Tyson is from Knoxville, and McGhee Tyson is bigger.
I will say this, getting north and south on the interstate system in the southeast is awful. If you’re coming up to Pigeon Forge from Georgia, Alabama, Florida or South Carolina, expect some delays. It’s not as bad as driving in Arkansas, but it can be frustrating.
Point to Pigeon Forge.
So there you have it. It’s so simple when you break it all down scientifically.
If you’re choosing where to spend your vacation days and dollars between Pigeon Forge and Branson, it’s Pigeon Forge easily.
We might be a little biased.
Have you visited both Branson and Pigeon Forge? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!