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Family Travel: Rainy day doings in Springfield, MO

Springfield, Mo.—It’s 8 a.m. on the fourth day of the road trip and it is raining. Really raining.

The bright side is we are in Springfield, Missouri. The third largest city in the state and one blessed with indoor attractions to keep bodies busy and happy.

One such attraction is just a 10-minute drive from the hotel: the world’s first and still largest Bass Pro Shop. Even if you do not fish, there is something for everyone and every age inside this looming log-like structure that is the size of seven football fields.

In the golf department, kids and adults can pick the putter of their choice and play on the putting green using real golf clubs. The clerks encourage it.

It doesn’t bother Denise, the sales assistant in the NASCAR department, that children and parents are lined up to drive one of the three simulated stock cars in a 7-minute race. That’s why she’s there, she says with a smile.

If you have the inclination, take an archery lesson or stop by the laser shooting gallery to test your reflexes. To add drama to vacation pictures, get the kids to pose by one of the animal dioramas, maybe a Kodiak brown bear or a mountain lion. There’s even a daily fish feeding show in the Uncle Buck theater.

Built as four levels, there is so very much to see—from the Sportsman’s Gallery of Mounts to the White River Fly Shop, hunting gear to a fine gun room—we spotted one English shot-gun priced at $27,000. It was in a locked glass case. When I eyed the camping section and considered crawling into a tent to take a nap, I knew it was time to move on. And, it was getting near lunch time. So we headed out to Lambert’s.

Lambert’s Cafe is in nearby Ozark, about midway between Springfield and Branson. This family-friendly cafe has been supersizing portions since 1942. Cafe may be a misnomer as the seating capacity of the Ozark restaurant is 700.

As we followed the hostess to our table, we had to dodge dinner rolls that were being thrown from a server to guests seated at tables. Yes, if you want bread with your meal at Lambert’s you have to catch it; this is the home of the throwed rolls. It works like this.

A server wearing plastic gloves slings a basket over his shoulder much like a concessionaire would at a ballpark and chants “hot rolls, hot rolls” as he meanders through a lunch room—there are four lunch halls at this particular Lambert’s. When you catch his eye and raise your hand, here comes a roll. he tosses overhand, underhand, even side-armed.

The rolls are indeed hot and yeasty; I think they measure about 5 inches in diameter. Last year Lambert’s baked 520 dozen rolls per day (they are open seven days a week) for a total of 2,246,400 rolls. Our server said if they laid them end-to-end they would stretch 200 miles or the distance between St. Louis, Mo. and Memphis, Tenn.

Tables at Lambert’s are stocked with rolls of unbleached paper towels. Paper towels are used in lieu of napkins and bread plates. Tear a square for your lap and another for the “pass arounds” that servers hawk, calling “fried okra? fried okra?” or melodically reciting “soooooore-gh-um, soooooore-gh-um.” In 2006, they say diners spread 21,400 44-ounce cans of sorghum molasses on their rolls. Know this: The menu makes it clear that there is no sharing of plates or doggie bags, and no credit cards. Cash or checks only. That said, we were ready to eat.

“Pass arounds” are fixin’s that are presented to all diners. Say you order white beans and ham, well, adults can order three sides with that for $7.99. Sides like cole slaw (252 gallons of slaw a week are served) turnip greens, and the like. And still be served pass arounds, like black-eyed peas or fried potatoes and onions. There are only two desserts, cheesecake or cobbler, and both sell at $1.99. There is so much food served, there really is no room for dessert. Even when ordering from the kid’s menu.

Kids order from Little Scotty’s Kids Menu that offers an entree with two veggies and a drink for $4.49. Favorite choice? Bologna & cheese sandwich. Drink? A pint of milk.

The decor is just as much fun as the restaurant. There are colorful balloons tied to tables and the music of Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass fill the rooms.

After about an hour and a half, we had had our fill and were re-energized for the afternoon. We had two stops in mind—the Wonders of Wildlife Museum, adjacent to the Bass Pro Shop on South Campbell, and Fantastic Caverns, just out of town on North Farm Road.

The Wonders of Wildlife Museum, at Sunshine and Campbell Aves., has live and interactive exhibits that make conservation efforts from all over the world come to life. The museum experience starts upstairs with a walk in the canopy of a simulated Missouri forest. This first section is an open aviary with live birds in free flight; the trees are simulated wood, the three million fabric leaves were hand placed on the branches, which are made of copper. A rope bridge connects two platforms—President Jimmy Carter walked that bridge during his visit. When President George H.W. Bush visited, he practiced his fly fishing techniques in the casting simulator.

A 220,000-gallon saltwater aquarium houses fish that are only seen at sea or at dedicated world-class aquariums; the 140,000-gallon freshwater tank gives rivers and streams a run for their money. An outdoor writer was quoted as saying he saw more in one visit to the center that he would in a lifetime of trips in the wild.

That could very well be, but we were too busy with the sights at hand—like two beavers using their hand-like claws to snare snacks in the water—to think about it. The tanks are all Plexiglas so you can see above and below the water. By the end of the day, the tank walls are covered with finger prints and nose prints from pint-size visitors.

We weren’t able to touch much out at Fantastic Caverns, but our tour guide did invite everyone to touch the ceiling one time, just to get it out of our systems. “If you feel a drip of water,” she said, “that’s considered good luck as it is a cave kiss.” Amid giggles and rolling eyes, the red Jeep pulling our tram led further into the cavern formed eons ago by an ancient underground river. Fantastic Caverns offers the country’s only ride-through cave.

Our tour guide made plenty of stops to tell us about the stalactites and stalagmites. She also presented a timeline of lighting techniques from candles to oil lamps to today’s LEDs. We learned the origins of the cave and its formations, how to recognize soda straws, cave pearls, and draperies. She gave us ample time to duck our heads when there was a need—here’s a hint. If you can, sit on the “passenger” side of the tram; there’ll be head ducking, but less of it. One last warning from our guide: “Your glasses will probably steam as we leave the cave,” she said. “Inside it is a steady 60 degrees, but outside after the rain it is now close to 85.”

Did she say “after” the rain?  Rolling out into the mottled sunlight at 5 p.m., indeed she had.