(Editor's note: This was published in The Eagle before the Tulsa game)
T-town, H-town, O-town and the Big D – here we come.
If you are a Wichita State University men’s basketball fan, you likely believe the Shockers upgraded their competition by joining the American Athletic Conference this season. If you’re a traveler, too, then you might feel newly inspired to follow the team on the road to explore some of the other 12 conference opponents’ cities.
I’m the type of traveler who can find interesting things to do in any city, so no offense to Missouri Valley Conference cities such as Des Moines, Iowa; Springfield, Mo.; Peoria, Ill.; and Terre Haute, Ind. But with the AAC schedule this season, we have a chance to follow the Shockers and explore several easy-to-reach places (Tulsa and Dallas), the fourth largest city in the country (Houston) and one of the most visited cities in the U.S. (Orlando).
We’ve highlighted three games and the conference tournament, all of which happen on weekends, that you might consider during this inaugural year or in future seasons. Where applicable, we’ve noted official Wichita State University Alumni Association events happening in each city; you can also visit shockeralumni.org for more information.
vs. University of Tulsa, 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 13 at Donald W. Reynolds Center
Tulsa should be familiar to many WSU fans. As a former Missouri Valley Conference foe it is also the closest AAU opponent to Wichita, about 180 miles to the southwest, making it a good option for a day trip as well as a weekend getaway.
Since leaving the MVC in 1996, the Golden Hurricane has a new home arena: the on-campus, 8,355-seat Donald W. Reynolds Center. The university campus is just three miles east of downtown.
Stay: Less than a mile down historic Route 66 from the arena is The Campbell House, a luxury boutique hotel in a 1920s building. They have 26 uniquely themed rooms inspired by Oklahoma history. Rates start at $139. The nearby downtown district is also home to many hotels.
Play: Since you’ll be driving Route 66 to get to the game, you should take some time to explore Tulsa’s section of the Mother Road – one of the longest stretches in a metro area. Get a copy of the Tulsa visitors guide and follow the included map to attractions along the road, including art deco buildings, old service stations, vintage signs and museums. You’re probably going to want to stay indoors if the weather continues its cold streak, so we’d suggest visiting two of Tulsa’s most popular museums: the Gilcrease Museum, home to the world’s largest museum of art and artifacts from the American West, or the Philbrook Museum of Art housed in a historic 1920s mansion (there’s also a satellite location downtown). On the second Saturday of each month, Philbrook offers free admission.
For other indoor entertainment, consider the Oklahoma Aquarium, Margaritaville Casino and Restaurant at River Spirit Casino Resort or a performance. Theatre Tulsa is staging “Evita” from Jan. 12-21 at John H. Williams Theatre or guitarist John Hiatt performs at the Brady Theater on Sunday, Jan. 14.
Eat: Based on a recent visit to Oklahoma, I can confirm that chicken fry should be the state food. You can have what readers of USA Today voted the best chicken fry steak in Oklahoma about a mile from the arena at Tally’s Good Food Café. It has a 1950s roadside diner feel and serves breakfast all day. Tally’s is on Route 66, as is another close food option: Ike’s Chili House. Believed to be Tulsa’s oldest operating restaurant, Ike’s is celebrating 110 years of serving up the same family recipe. The WSU Alumni Association is hosting a pregame event from 3:30-5:30 p.m. at McNellie’s Public House in downtown Tulsa’s Blue Dome District; no reservations necessary.
vs. University of Houston, 11 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 20 at Health & PE Arena
The University of Houston is playing its home games this season at Texas Southern University (the two campuses are within a mile of one another) while renovations continue on the transformation of Hofheinz Pavilion into the Fertitta Center. The campuses are about four miles south of downtown Houston and about 20 miles from George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Houston is a 600-mile drive from Wichita or United Airlines offers direct flights from Eisenhower National Airport. The average high for game weekend is in the low 60s.
Stay: The University of Houston has an 86-room Hilton on campus that is used as a teaching facility for hotel and restaurant management students. Hotel guest get access to the campus rec center. Rates start at $129.
Play: While on the Texas Southern University campus, visit University Museum to see a large permanent collection of art by African and African-American artists. On the UH campus, Blaffer Art Museum has two contemporary exhibits. Both college art museums are free.
Two miles east of campus is the pedestrian-friendly Museum District, with 19 cultural attractions ranging from the Houston Zoo to the Children’s Museum of Houston to a handful of art museums and art centers. Some are free every day, including The Menil Collection, a large and diverse private collection known for its Surrealist holdings. One of the most visited of the attractions is the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which includes a planetarium, Imax theater, butterfly center, a dozen permanent exhibits and traveling special exhibitions. A 30-minute drive south of the city will take you to the Smithsonian-affiliated Space Center Houston, where you can visit a museum full of space artifacts and exhibits and tour NASA Johnson Space Center.
Eat: Calhoun’s Rooftop Bar and Grill opened in 2014 as the first full-service restaurant and bar on the UH campus. It has a sports bar vibe with 7,000 square feet of industrial metals, reclaimed wood and concrete along with a rooftop view of the campus and downtown skyline. Another campus fav is The Nook Café, which serves Cougar Blend, the official house coffee of UH, along with other specialty coffees, pastries and donuts. Among the city’s 10,000 restaurants, you’ll find more than 70 cuisines represented and several restaurants run by James Beard Award winners and nominees. The WSU Alumni Association is hosting a pregame event the night before the game. Join other Shocker fans from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 19 at Chuy’s River Oaks location (9350 Westheimer Road); no reservations necessary.
vs. Southern Methodist University, 1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 24 at Moody Coliseum
SMU is in the residential neighborhood of University Park, five miles north of downtown Dallas. A 360-mile drive south on I-35 from Wichita, Dallas can also be reached on an 80-minute direct flight aboard American Airlines to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Expect average high temperatures in late February to be in the low 60s.
Stay: There are many familiar hotel brands within five to 10 miles of SMU, many offering free shuttles to campus. Visit smu.edu/Admission/Visit/WhereToStay for a list. The closest is Hotel Lumen, an upscale boutique property in a former 1960s motel directly across the street from campus. Among the hotel’s amenities are free bike rentals and complimentary car service to downtown Dallas. Rates start at $299.
Play: SMU’s campus is home to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes the Bush Institute as well as the Bush Presidential Library and Museum set on a 15-acre park featuring native Texas grasses and wildflowers. Plan to spend at least 90 minutes touring the museum’s permanent exhibits, from an exact replica of the Oval Office to an interactive theater and artifacts, such as twisted steel beams from the World Trade Center that visitors may touch and the bullhorn President Bush used to address the crowd at Ground Zero following 9/11. Also on campus is Meadows Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of Spanish art outside of Spain.
About four miles west of campus is the Frontiers of Flight Museum, a 100,000-square-feet building on the corner of Love Field. It has more than 30 aircraft and space vehicles and 13 galleries and exhibits. You’re also not far from downtown Dallas, where you can visit many museums and attractions, including the eight-story Dallas World Aquarium that has so many birds, reptiles and mammals it feels like a small indoor zoo. Since the Shocker game will be over by late afternoon, you could also catch the NHL’s Dallas Stars take on the Winnipeg Jets at 6:30 p.m. at American Airlines Center.
Eat: You’ll find everything from cheap college student eats to fine dining near campus. Olivella’s is known for Neapolitan style pizzas; Peggy Sue BBQ will satisfy your craving for oak-smoked, dry-rub barbecue and fried pies; while Digg’s Taco Shop serves Tex-Mex dishes filled with gulf shrimp, brisket and more, plus margaritas on a stick (popsicles). Voted best steakhouse in Dallas by D Magazine, Knife is a concept from John Tesar, a James Beard nominated chef who competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” The restaurant is inside the The Highland Dallas - A Curio Collection by Hilton hotel and features all-natural, Texas-raised meats, including specialty cuts. The WSU Alumni Association is hosting a pregame event from 10 a.m.-noon at The Nodding Donkey; no reservations necessary.
AAC Tournament, March 8-11 at Amway Center
No more annual trips to St. Louis for the MVC “Arch Madness” Tournament. The AAC Tournament changes locations via a bidding process. The 2018 event is at the Amway Center in Orlando; 2019 is in Memphis and 2020-22 is in Fort Worth.
The Amway Center is a downtown arena that hosts concerts and the NBA’s Orlando Magic. There are no direct flights to Orlando from ICT in March, though you can get there with one stop on American, Delta, Southwest or United. March high temperatures are typically in the low 80s and its peak season for spring breakers.
Stay: The alumni association is offering three-night air and land travel packages (wsualumnisportstours.com) that do not include game tickets. Accommodations are at the Courtyard Orlando Downtown, which officials say is close to the team hotel. Priced separately online recently, the Courtyard only has one-bedroom suites available at $519 per night. There are other downtown hotels (at higher and lower rates) and more than 400 in Orlando proper; I’d suggest browsing visitorlando.com based on whether you want to be close the arena or are looking for a specific amenity or price point.
Play: If you’re on vacation in Orlando and you hear people talk about downtown, they are likely talking about Disney Springs, an entertainment district that was once called Downtown Disney. There is in fact a downtown Orlando that is the city’s central business district, and I spent some time there in November. Besides walking around or paddling swan-shaped boats at Lake Eola Park, looking for the district’s eight public art sculptures and grabbing a bite to eat, I did not find much to do there during the day. In the evening, there are more options for bars and performance venues. But just jump on the interstate and you’ll be able to fill your non-basketball-watching time with theme parks and more. And don’t miss Disney Springs. We found several hours of free entertainment on two separate visits. Admission to the area is free, but this is Disney, so there are many entertainment options with fees, as well, along with shopping and unique dining options.
Eat: In 2014, Orlando became the first U.S. destination to surpass the 60-million-visitors mark. With so many tourists, the city is a magnet for celebrity chefs (Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and Emeril Lagasse, for example) and offers an overwhelming variety of global and regional cuisine.
Disney Springs alone has more than 50 options. We liked the lively atmosphere at Planet Hollywood Observatory, where a 4,500-square-foot immersive video wall keeps the beat with fun music and the other walls are full of celebrity memorabilia. The menu includes a section of burgers and sandwiches developed by Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Another favorite at Disney Springs – even if you just walk in to look around at the cool space – is Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar. It’s an aviation-themed, family-friendly lounge named after the fictional pilot for Indiana Jones in the adventure films starring Harrison Ford.