Is the Lake of the Ozarks changing?
That’s the word blowing through the leaves of the black and scarlet oaks in Osage Beach. The massive man-made lake — it has more shoreline than the California coast — is seemingly having a moment. The boats are bigger, they say, and the new lakeside swim-up bars draw a new crowd.
It arguably started with the Netflix series Ozark, where Jason Bateman plays a mob-connected accountant fleeing a money-laundering scheme gone bad. It got some extra oomph from Bill Geist’s best-selling new memoir Lake of the Ozarks, where the humorist recounts his teen years among eccentric hillfolk. In August, the Missouri backwoods garnered a New York Times travel feature on “a laid back, watery place where you can boat up to the bar.”
As if on cue, in walks Jimmy Buffet.
In May, the rustic Tan-Tar-A Resort was reborn as Margaritaville, one more property licensed to the country crooner who has turned an alcoholic’s lament into an enviable lifestyle brand. There haven’t been any major infrastructure projects, but the vibe is a night-and-day difference. Along with a fresh coat of paint, new furnishings and updated food and drink offerings, there’s a new waterfront bar called LandShark with a strip of sandy beach. It’s not only the liveliest place on the property but also a bright yellow beacon to passing boats.
“It’s so much busier now,” says our waitress at LandShark. “It used to be — well, there were families, but it was like grandparents who just kept coming. Now, it’s totally different. New people are coming.”
That waitress characterizes Tan-Tar-A as “kind of dark and gloomy,” and says she cried the first time she saw the bright and cheerful new lobby.
Such changes weren’t easy given the long history of Tan-Tar-A, which was opened by a St. Louis-based developer in 1960. Early news of the rebrand suggested the property would be called “Tan-Tar-A, a Margaritaville Resort” to honor the history, but no one made a fuss when that fell away. Now, the only traces of Tan-Tar-A are little things they haven’t had time to change, such as the telephone directories.
They even moved a cemetery. Yes, Tan-Tar-A improbably had a graveyard for the Chenoweth family, who took possession of this plot by patent in 1859, occupying prime real estate. The new owners got permission from a distant relative to dig up the bones for reinterment by a nearby funeral home.
Although ostensibly named for a cocktail, and although the lakeside pool bars do have a party atmosphere, Margaritaville is also refreshingly family-friendly. There’s still miniature golf, an indoor water park and a large arcade, but there’s also a splash pad near the thatched-roof bars where the frozen drinks spin. My 4-year-old daughter loved our visit and has since been asking to return for more breakfast buffet waffles and skeeball.
And though Tan-Tar-A has been subsumed by globalist beach culture, there’s still a little old-time Ozark weirdness if you dig a bit. At one point, a staffer passed us a legend about a movie filmed on the little island just off the shore from the resort. They threw a horse over the cliff to get a shot, according to the story; the horse drowned, prompting a torrent of public outcry that led to the Humane Society overseeing the care of animals on movie sets. Indeed, anytime you see the “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer at the end of a film, it’s because of Henry Fonda’s 1939 film Jesse James — though no one remembers exactly where on the lake the scene was shot. Still, that story will stick with me, a song to know by heart.
GO: Margaritaville Ozarks, 494 Tan Tara Estate Drive, Osage Beach, Mo., 573-348-3131, margaritavilleresortlakeoftheozarks.com