2012 Cactus League Baseball

by Bob Hoelscher 7. May 2012 20:15



During the second half of February, the “Boys of Summer” traditionally report to training camp in either Florida or Arizona to get in shape and hone their skills for the upcoming Major League Baseball season. March, however, features a full schedule of “practice” games which allows managers and coaches to evaluate their minor league talent and determine which “rookies” are likely to best complement the team’s established major leaguers.

Nobody takes these “Grapefruit League” and “Cactus League” contests too seriously. The weather is not only nice, but fans can also get relatively close to their favorite stars. Consequently, the annual one-month spring training season has been the primary reason underlying a tourist “migration” for decades. 

This spring I was able to make a substantial number of Cactus League games, all held in ten different stadiums throughout the Phoenix “Valley of the Sun” area, due in part to accompanying groups for tour operator friends who offer packages featuring their favorite teams. Attendance in general this year appeared to be up substantially over last with numerous “sell-outs” being recorded. Major attractions included Albert Pujols, the top slugger lured away from the St. Louis Cardinals by a $240 million, 10-year deal by the Los Angeles Angels, the unexpected success of the home-town Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the 2011 National League Western Division Championship, as well as the sometimes laughable but ever-lovable Chicago Cubs, who, other than the aforementioned “D-backs,” can apparently claim the biggest Arizona fan base.  

A disappointing situation that came to light, however, unrelated to baseball, is the apparent passing of any value in using the once universally popular Traveler’s Checks due their advertised capability of being “easily replaced if lost or stolen.” One of the members of a Mayflower Tours group that I assisted was a charming and well-spoken older lady from Chicago, who encountered nothing but grief in attempting to get an American Express Traveler’s Check cashed, not in some place like Outer Mongolia, but in a major U.S. city!  First, I found it strange that the Hampton Inn where the group stayed for five nights declined to cash the T.C. for a registered guest. 

Next the nearby local bank refused to do anything for someone who did not have an account there.  Finally, her last option was the branch of a national bank (Wells Fargo), which would only cash the check for a 10% service fee ($10 on a $100 T.C.!), which, at least in my humble opinion, is outrageous. Has our society really sunk to the point where common courtesy and modest service to one’s fellow man (woman, in this case) have taken back seats to indifference and corporate greed?  I sure hope not!


Pickoff Play at First Base


Troy Tulowitzki Awaits His Turn at the Plate


Here Comes the Pitch

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Springtime in the Southwest

Hoover Dam no longer a desert bottleneck

by Bob Hoelscher 7. May 2012 20:13



If you haven’t been to Las Vegas recently, you may be unaware that the monumental traffic jams that formerly accumulated on U.S. 93 at Hoover Dam are now a thing of the past. In the fall of 2010, the extremely impressive Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge opened over the gaping chasm, about 3/10 of a mile downstream from the dam. This replaced the narrow, winding and steep two-lane roadway that descended into Black Canyon, crossed the dam and ascended on the opposite side. 

The original road itself was definitely on the challenging side, since you had to contend with tourists, local traffic and security measures that bogged things down even further. Unless one planned to travel across the dam well after sunset, a delay of a full hour sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic could almost always be expected. On top of that, motorcoaches traveling to or from such points as Phoenix or the Grand Canyon weren’t even allowed to cross the dam, but were detoured about 23 miles out of the way via U.S. 95, NV 163, and AZ 68 through Laughlin. It was a bad situation.     

Now, traveling past the dam area is a breeze. Unless you are particularly observant when traveling by auto, or have access to elevated motorcoach windows, you’ll never even know that you are passing the dam, since high walls have been erected on the bridge to make sure that “rubbernecking” tourists don’t drive their cars into the canyon while attempting to get scenic views from above.

 The good news is that a convenient parking lot, accessible only from the Nevada side, has been built for visitors wishing to experience the spectacular panorama of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Black Canyon and the Colorado River, almost 900 feet below the bridge. From the lot, it is an uphill but relatively easy walk to the 1,900-foor-long, six-foot-long sidewalk that extends the bridge’s full length on the other side of the aforementioned “high wall,” facing north. There is no better place to get the full measure of the dam and its surroundings.


Visitors on the Bridge Walkway


Informational Plaque along the Walkway

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Springtime in the Southwest

Las Vegas welcomes the Smith Center

by Bob Hoelscher 7. May 2012 20:00



Despite the numerous visitor attractions for which Las Vegas is famous, one thing that the city did not have until recently was a first-class performing arts complex. This March all of that all changed with the opening of the $450 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts, located at Symphony Park, a new downtown development that was formerly occupied by extensive railroad yards. I got to visit this truly impressive facility this spring to explore the Smith Center’s performance venues. 
   
Like his other well-known projects, the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth and Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, the architect, David M. Schwarz, has designed the Smith Center in art deco style. For this design, he incorporated design elements that pay homage to the art deco features of Hoover Dam. No expense was spared in obtaining Indiana limestone for the exterior, fine Italian marble for the lobbies and foyers, plus custom fixtures, decorative artwork and sculpture, as well as state of the art technical resources. Crowning the center is a 47-bell Carillon Tower. Across the entrance driveway sits the lovely Symphony Park for another special outdoor events and exhibitions venue.  

The Smith Center intends to host a wide variety of performances, ranging from “Broadway” theatre productions (The Color Purple was in the midst of a one-week run during my visit), to popular, jazz, classical and “crossover” music artists, as well as other special attractions. Resident companies include the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre. 

An initial challenge with an overly “hot” sound (as the stage manager termed it) and the reported lack of bass response have apparently led to some mixed and negative reviews of the Reynolds Hall acoustics. However, the extensive efforts required to assure that any new performance space is optimally “tuned” are still underway, and the acoustics are sure to be improved as that process nears completion. Additional information is available through Amber Stidham, Public Relations Manager, who graciously guided me on an extended tour in early April.  Amber can be reached at astidham@thesmithcenter.com.


Exterior Art Deco Building Detail


Smith Center as Viewed from from Symphony Park


Reynolds Hall Lobby

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Springtime in the Southwest

Guadalupe Mountains

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:05



I decided to make an overnight stop at Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which, although authorized by Congress back in 1964, is still one of our least known parks. In fact, my motor home was the only one there that night, although a few more hardy souls than I were camped out in their tents nearby, braving a cold winter night (daytime was quite pleasant, as desert areas warm up substantially after the sun rises).  

Although this is primarily a hiking park for those interested in exploring this splendid mountain wilderness on foot, there are several features and short walks available to groups that make this a very worthwhile stop for groups traveling from El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns. In addition to very scenic views of the Guadalupe Mountains themselves, both along U.S. Highway 62/180 and at the Pine Springs park headquarters area, there is an excellent movie and small museum at the Visitor Center, plus restrooms and picnic facilities in an area where few visitor amenities can be found.

I would recommend exploring the park beyond the Visitor Center, however, as there are several points of interest that are very convenient to the highway. At “The Pinery,” one can visit the ruins of a mid-1800s Butterfield Stagecoach Station, while just up the road is the Frijole Ranch History Museum, a complex including an original ranch house, springhouse, schoolhouse, bunkhouse and barn which tells the story of the pioneers who settled in the Guadalupe Mountains area. 

I’d also suggest taking the short (.4 mile round trip) trail, which is wheelchair accessible, from the Frijole Ranch to scenic Manzanita Spring, unless your group has the time and stamina for the more moderate (2.3 miles round-trip) Manzanita/Smith Spring Loop Trail, which I enjoyed immensely, capping off a beautiful morning.


Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum


Manzanita Spring


Desert landscape from Smith Spring Trail

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Three Southwestern National Parks

Carlsbad Caverns

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:03



In January, I decided to visit some of the lesser-known, but truly outstanding national parks in the Southwest. One of these is the world-famous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, via a scenic seven-mile spur road from U.S. 62/180 at White’s City. By far, the most popular tour here for group visitors is the self-guided route through the spectacular Big Room, which is included in the standard park entrance fee. 

Rental of individual “Audio Guide” units are an additional $3 per person. This 1.25-mile round-trip, which begins and concludes with an elevator ride to and from the Underground Rest Area, follows a paved, mostly level trail, although there are a couple of hills which are short but relatively steep. Even individuals who tend towards claustrophobia will not be upset by their visit to the massive, eight-acre Big Room, which has a 255-foot ceiling and is filled with beautiful, delicate formations, as well as huge columns, stalactites and stalagmites. 

Highlights along the route itself, include the Lion’s Tail, Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit and the Rock of Ages.  Exhibits, a restaurant, book store and gift shop are also available on site. Quality group accommodations can easily be found in the town of Carlsbad, which is 27 miles northeast of the Visitor Center. I would no longer recommend staying in the motel units at nearby White’s City, which seems to have fallen on hard times during recent years.        

Groups interested in more extensive cave exploration certainly have a lot to choose from at Carlsbad Caverns. I enjoyed taking the self-guided (and no extra cost) route through the Natural Entrance many years ago, which is a 1.25-mile trip to the Big Room through a steep, roughly 800-foot descent from the surface. Guided tours are available for an additional charge of from $7 to $20 per person over the general park admission, and last from 1½ to 4 hours. Most require strenuous climbs and negotiation of ladders and/or dirt trails that may be rocky or slippery.

Two “Wild Caving” adventures are also offered, which both involve “climbing and crawling, tight squeezes, drop-offs” and a promise that participants “will get dirty.” Finally, in mid-summer, early-rising visitors can participate in the unique “Carlsbad Caverns Bat Flight Breakfast,” featuring the bats’ awe-inspiring return flight to the Natural Entrance at dawn.

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”. 

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at bobho52@aol.com or by calling (435) 590-1553.

 

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Three Southwestern National Parks

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