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Postcard from Pasadena: My discount trip to the Rose Bowl

  • 8 min to read
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The Rose Bowl does card choreography like nowhere else.

The Frontier Airlines flight attendant knew about winning over a plane full of impatient passengers. And the flight from Madison to Las Vegas on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 29, wasn’t the first time she had addressed a group of gleeful Wisconsin travelers.

“Gotta lotta red on this plane!” she sang into the microphone.

I was far from the only person who opted to travel to the Rose Bowl via Vegas this year, though my journalistically ethical wardrobe of earth tones didn’t mirror the cardinal-and-white hoodies, jerseys and hats surrounding me.

It’s fun to travel to a common destination with sports fans. There’s no need to conjure up an icebreaker with your seatmates and the mood is fun and light. Optimistic! How ‘bout those Badgers?

Add to that the particular air of superiority that bargain hunters carry and good vibes proliferate. Rose Bowl travel packages that promised hassle-free airfare, hotel rooms, game tickets and even ground transportation were available for over $3,000 almost immediately after the University of Wisconsin received an official invitation in early December. But those of us jammed into Frontier Flight 2055 were paying much less and adding some adventure to the trip.

That was the crux of my pitch for this assignment. What if I took the road less traveled to Pasadena? That way, I could interview a Vegas bookmaker, stay in an Airbnb and explore an L.A. neighborhood in addition to writing about the actual football game.

It went pretty well. Until the end.

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The Golden Nugget Casino on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas

I had never been to Las Vegas. That came as a surprise to many of the people I encountered at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino during my 15-hour stay.

Unlike nearly everyone else at the Nugget, I’m not drawn to gambling. But the hotel offers quite a spectacle if you’re interested in walking around and taking it all in. Unlike many of its neighbors downtown on Fremont Street, the Nugget prioritizes food. There are multiple restaurants in the hotel and casino, including the Chart House seafood restaurant that surrounds a 75,000-gallon aquarium (the smaller of two on the property).

By the time my shuttle bus delivered me from the airport on Sunday night, it was past 11 p.m., Madison time, and I was starving. I found an open bar stool at Grotto, the Nugget’s Italian restaurant. There I enjoyed a glass of Chianti, recommended by the bartender, and a chicken and pasta dish that was perfectly prepared and served quickly.

Dining alone can be awkward, but it’s not really uncommon in Vegas and, since nearly everyone is a traveler, people are chatty and interested in hearing about where you’re from and what your favorite game is. And on a football Sunday, the casinos are full of people dressed in team gear who love to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Green Bay Packers.

Outside the Golden Nugget is Fremont Street, the heart of downtown Vegas and home to other old-school casinos like Binion’s and the Four Queens. Two blocks of the street are covered by a roof that serves as a projector for animated patterns and advertising. I stepped outside to check it out and encountered a cover band playing a Def Leppard classic on a huge stage with dozens of spectators taking advantage of the city’s liberal open container policy.

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On Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

After a Monday morning interview, I picked up a rental car and headed to Los Angeles. I expected the drive through the Mojave Desert to be monotonous, but the mountain views were, at times, dramatic and I had no problem staying alert.

Just a few days before my trip, on the morning after Christmas, Interstate 15 was closed near the California/Nevada state line due to heavy snowfall, stranding some drivers in the small, remote towns along the route. Plenty of snow remained as I drove through the Cajon Pass and some motorists were stopped at wayside rests to take photos. The drive to Highland Park, in northeast Los Angeles, took about four hours and finished with a vivid sunset just as I was descending from the San Bernardino mountains.

While the real estate in this part of L.A. can be exorbitant, the prices for most Airbnb rooms I found were pretty reasonable at right around $100 per night. The house I settled on was midway between downtown L.A., where the Rose Bowl media center and fan headquarters were located, and the stadium itself in Pasadena. In a city notorious for its traffic, I was situated to avoid the worst of it.

After a press conference with Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and Mario Cristobal, his Oregon counterpart, on Tuesday morning, I didn’t have much on my schedule and my original plan was to find a coffee shop or bar with a view of the ocean where I could do some work.

“Don’t do it!” cautioned the L.A.-dwelling daughter of a friend a few days before I left Madison. “You’ll spend hours in the car.”

She referred to Highland Park and nearby Eagle Rock as “the best part of L.A.” and advised me to check out nearly any establishment in either of those neighborhoods. So I met up with a college friend to do just that.

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Highland Park Bowl

For drinks and snacks, we ended up at Highland Park Bowl on North Figueroa Street. It’s like a steampunk bowling alley, with elaborate light fixtures and furniture made out of old pin-setting machines. It has the requisite extensive tap list and a fun menu, catering to families in the afternoon and the hipsters who roll in after dark alike.

For those who are, like me, plagued by impostor syndrome while traveling, Los Angeles can be intimidating — like walking into a place will result in a scratched record and all the bleach-blonde surfers pushing their sunglasses down to stare at the pasty rube from the flyover.

The truth, of course, is that L.A. is an enormous city with everything, including plenty of doofuses who moved there from Wisconsin. And if anything, there’s some truth to the cliche about everyone being so into their own thing that they’re not paying attention to anyone else.

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A Highland Park bungalow.

The Rose Bowl stadium is as iconic a sports venue as there is in the world. That’s due to hosting Super Bowls, World Cup soccer and, of course, the namesake postseason college football game.

But its stunning location and elegant simplicity has just as much to do with its status. During the week of the game each year, a riser is set up just to the south of the main entrance where TV reporters record pre-game shots with the famous rose logo over their shoulders. They call this the “beauty shot,” and it lives up to the billing.

With the San Gabriel Mountains looming in the distance, there’s nothing like the setting on a sunny day, and fans of both Oregon and Wisconsin were taking full advantage by the time I arrived, about three hours before kickoff.

To the north and east of the stadium is Brookside Golf and Country Club, which serves as a parking lot and lush tailgate venue. Small knots of fans dot the fairways between larger alumni club gatherings that can draw hundreds paying hundreds to sip beer and wine with their fellow fanatics.

To the southeast of the stadium is the general parking lot, and that’s where I found Devon Hamilton and his crew of Los Angeles-based UW alumni. Before moving to L.A. from Madison last year, Hamilton was known as one of the “Food Brothers,” a trio of African American community leaders focused on nutrition issues in the pockets of poverty. He’s also an accomplished grill master who hauled an impressive barbecue setup onto the Rose Bowl grounds.

“We’ve got burgers, my special veggie burgers, hot wings, black-eyed peas for the New Year for good luck, bacon-wrapped jalapenos, Brussels sprouts with lemon pecan sauce,” he said, while pointing out various foil pans lined up on a series of tables.

Hamilton was part of UW-Madison’s Posse Program, a leadership program for diverse students. Posse’s presence in L.A. is strong and he estimated 50-60 members would join him for the pre-game cookout. There were rumors that some former Badgers football players, led by L.A. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, might swing by.

Hopefully Badgers fans will remember more from the experience of attending a Rose Bowl than just the final score (Oregon prevailed, 28-27). Before the game, during the playing of the national anthem, spectators were instructed to hold up cards that formed a stars-and-stripes pattern throughout the stadium. Nobody’s better at this card choreography than the Rose Bowl and they’ve been doing it for decades.

As great as watching a Badgers game at Camp Randall Stadium can be in early October, when the sun is bright and the air is crisp, seeing a game at the Rose Bowl is a rare treat. While the Badgers have been there seven times since 1994, Minnesota hasn’t played in Pasadena since 1962. So many fans I know have never made the trip, perhaps believing that there will always be another opportunity.

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The "beauty shot" at the Rose Bowl.

In order to get back to catch my flight home from Las Vegas, I was up by 5:30 on Thursday morning, in the car by 6, cruising into the mountains — and a welcoming sunrise — a half-hour later.

The drive back to Vegas couldn’t have gone smoother. I dropped off the rental car, caught a shuttle and was at my gate a full two hours before my scheduled flight.

Grandma Joyce was fond of traveling and gambling, and when she combined the two on trips to Vegas she made a practice to play one last slot machine at the airport on the way out. She once won $500 on a nickel machine in Reno. I was not so lucky with a Wheel of Fortune setup near my gate.

I was less lucky moments later when Frontier Airlines pulled the rug out from under my best laid plans for a bargain trip to the Rose Bowl.

Discount airlines can charge what they do by cutting out services offered by the full-service airlines. That means you’re going to have to pay extra for anything other than your seat and a small, personal bag. You’re also not going to get as much attention from agents at the airport.

About an hour before my flight was supposed to leave, I received an alert on my phone warning that it may be canceled. Others near the gate got the same alert and we gathered near the unoccupied desk. An announcement on the loudspeaker instructed us to head to the main terminal (a shuttle ride away) for information. The agent there offered two choices: book a seat on the next available flight — leaving Sunday — or take a full refund for the return flight.

Everything I learned from her I could have learned on the Frontier website without schlepping my stuff out of the secure area and to another terminal. I should have stayed put, bought a ticket on another airline and requested a refund online. Dealing with the trip between terminals and waiting to talk to an agent cost me seats on at least two alternative flights.

Frontier has not replied to a request for comment.

With the help of some very efficient and friendly Delta agents, I was able to get on a redeye flight through Detroit. I ended up getting in to Madison about 16 hours after the canceled Frontier flight was supposed to land.

Worth it? That’s hard to say. Adding up my flight out, a night at the Golden Nugget, the rental car, three nights in an Airbnb and the Delta flight home, expenses were $1,507. That’s seven bucks over my self-imposed budget. I used a media pass to get into the game (I was working, after all), but tickets were widely available on the secondary market for just over $100.

All that means it was possible to make this trip for roughly half the cost of the official travel packages. And hey, if I would have hit on that slot machine in the airport, I might have come out ahead in the deal.

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Jason Joyce has lived in Madison for over 30 years, starting as a student at UW-Madison. After working at Isthmus for 15 years, where he oversaw digital operations and wrote a sports column, he took over as news editor at The Capital Times in 2013.