“I love the excitement of the Rose Parade.”
Christine Susa of Visit Pasadena gets animated when she talks about her city’s signature celebration. “There is a growing buzz when parade time is coming and everyone across the city is preparing to welcome the thousands and thousands of people who descend on Pasadena,” she said.
That sentiment is echoed by destinations across the United States that host bucket list events, among them the Kentucky Derby, Cheyenne Frontier Days, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Dayton Air Show.
Travel planners have been designing itineraries based on these and other calling card events for decades. Such celebrations not only offer an itinerary anchor but also allow groups to experience a significant part of a city’s heritage and learn more about local culture.
Read on to learn more about what makes these five signature American events special for groups year after year.
Planning a tour in the U.S. based around an outdoor parade in January might seem like a bit of a stretch, but it works well if that parade takes place in sunny Southern California.
“People have been drawn to the Rose Parade for more than 130 years, and it doesn’t hurt for those in attendance or people tuning in around the world to see sunshine and roses on New Year’s Day,” said Susa, director of marketing and communications for Visit Pasadena.
The parade follows a 5.5-mile route through the streets of Pasadena, which is 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The iconic event includes marching bands from the U.S. and other countries, equestrian units and, of course, the floral-themed floats.
“The floats are so fantastic,” said Susa. “Hundreds of people come together to create them using flowers and other raw and organic materials. They design and create them all year long so that we can experience them on January 1.”
There are a number of other things taking place across the city on New Year’s Day that visitors can enjoy. After watching the parade, Susa said, “you can experience the marching bands and the equestrian units and walk alongside the floats.” Groups also can attend the Rose Bowl football game that annually brings together two of the top college football teams in the country.
Dating back to 1875, the Kentucky Derby, known as “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” is the longest continually held sporting event in the United States. The Derby has routinely averaged more than 150,000 spectators over the past decade, which also makes the race on the first Saturday in May North America’s largest sporting event.
“There is a general excitement that the Derby provides around the city,” said Jordan Skora, marketing communications manager for Louisville Tourism. “It signals the coming of spring, and it creates an energy that makes Louisville such a special place to visit during that time.”
Skora said there are different levels of ticketing and services available for groups heading to Churchill Downs on Derby Day, ranging from the infield experience to Millionaire’s Row.
“Groups can book tables in all-inclusive areas such as Millionaire’s Row that include all your food and beverage and your own server,” he said. “It is a covered area with access to your own private balcony overlooking the track.”
The Kentucky Derby Festival offers a range of activities leading up to race day. The two-week-long event kicks off with Thunder of Louisville, a day of music and food along the waterfront that culminates with a major fireworks show. Other festival components include a steamboat race dubbed the “Slowest Two Hours in Sports,” the Chow Wagon wine and beer fests, and the Pegasus Parade.
Groups can also head over to Churchill Downs and tour the Kentucky Derby Museum. They can enjoy an introductory movie, “The Greatest Race”; check out two floors of interactive exhibits; and go on a 30-minute guided tour of the racetrack. The museum offers VIP experiences that include the Backside Breakfast and the Bourbon and Bridles Package.
Cheyenne Frontier Days
Each year, nearly 200,000 people head to Wyoming’s capital city to enjoy Cheyenne Frontier Days. The nine-day event kicks off in late July and pays tribute to the city’s many Western traditions.
“You’ve got the best summer rodeo in America — it includes the biggest prize money and has the best cowboys and offers great entertainment,” said Jim Walter, vice president/director of sales marketing for Visit Cheyenne. “You combine that with Western shopping, a modern-day carnival and an Indian village with members of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes telling their stories and sharing their dances, and you get a range of Western history all in one place.”
This year marks 125 years of the popular event, and the music lineup, which features Garth Brooks, Thomas Rhett, Kane Brown, Blake Shelton and Eric Church, is worthy of the anniversary.
“For groups seeking a VIP experience, there is a rooftop patio overlooking the arena that they can book for an event night,” said Walter. “It is best to do that a year in advance.”
There are a number of programs geared for groups that take place in conjunction with Frontier Days. Participants on the behind-the-chutes tour head down to the arena floor and get to stand close — but not too close — to bucking bulls and horses. Groups can also charter a trolley and go on a Wild West history tour around Cheyenne.
Walter wants travel planners to contact the staff at Visit Cheyenne about those and other specialized options.
“We love to create customized things that they wouldn’t know about,” he said. “For instance, we can do a catered chuck wagon dinner for a group at sunset out on the high plains for a cool Western experience.”
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
There are a lot of traditions associated with the American Thanksgiving holiday, but perhaps none set the tone for the day quite like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“It has become this cultural tradition since starting in 1924,” said Rick Pomer, creative director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “It grew fast and took on a life of its own. Then, when broadcast came into the picture — both radio and TV — it kept growing and became this event that is part of family traditions in virtually every home in America and around the world.
Over the course of three hours on every Thanksgiving since then, attendees lining the streets of New York City and the global viewing audience are treated to a feast for the senses. They see the artistry of the elaborate floats and the live musical performances from well-known entertainers and marching bands.
The parade, Pomer said, in addition to offering all that pageantry, often reflects what’s happening in the entertainment industry that year.
“I believe it is a pop culture moment more than anything,” he said. “The parade has always been a snapshot in time of what’s happening in pop culture and the world, from the characters in the sky — showing who or what’s relevant — to the entertainers, including Broadway performers, or the celebrities that are releasing albums that year.”
He urges people to check out the event in person rather than taking it in on the small screen.
“There is so much energy at the live parade, completely different versus the televised parade,” he said. “It’s just an incredible event to be here for, one to put on the bucket list.”
Dayton Air Show
Known as the Birthplace of Aviation, Dayton, Ohio, is a city that knows how to take things to new heights. And that is certainly true when it comes to the southwestern Ohio destination’s signature festival: the CenterPoint Energy Dayton Air Show.
This summer event, which takes place in late June or early July, brings a variety of aviation-themed activities to the grounds at the Dayton International Airport that would make Dayton pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright proud.
“The thing I really enjoy the most is that the action never stops,” said Jacquelyn Powell, president and CEO of the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau. “From the moment the four-and-a-half to five-hour show starts to the last performance, there is constant action and energy.”
In addition to the featured jet team performance, which alternates annually between the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds, other aerial acts — the AeroShell Acrobatic Team, the Army Golden Nights and a group of World War II Tora! Tora! Tora! re-enactors — take to the skies.
On the ground, travelers can check out the extensive group of displays and activities, which include exhibits covering different eras of flight and commercial and military aircraft they can board and tour.
Groups can round out an aviation-themed tour of Dayton by visiting the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which includes a museum with an original 1905 Wright Flyer that Orville and Wilbur used during early flight testing.