This post is sponsored by the Tempe Tourism Office. All opinions are my own.
For sports-lovers, spring means one thing – baseball season! My family loves watching baseball games, so attending baseball spring training has been high on our travel bucket list for quite awhile. Luckily, spring training games in 2020 started a bit earlier than usual, making it possible for us to spend the end of our Presidents Day week vacation in Arizona watching our favorite teams play in the Cactus League.
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Baseball & Cactus League Spring Training Basics
If you don’t follow baseball super-closely, let’s start with a few basics. Spring training is a time when all the Major League Baseball teams gather to warm up, playing games against each other daily to prepare for the regular season.
MLB spring training takes place in two places in the United States. The East Coast based teams play in central and southern Florida in the Grapefruit League. Game locations stretch from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando and Tampa. All the teams from the West and Midwest head for equally sunny Arizona. The aptly-named Cactus League is concentrated in the greater Phoenix area.
Spring training runs for about a month, usually most of the month of March. In 2020, Cactus League games were scheduled from February 21 until March 24 in Arizona (of course, the season was ultimately cut short in 2020). In Phoenix, a total of 15 teams play in 10 different stadiums across the region.
The reason many fans love going to spring training is to have the chance to see their favorite players in a more relaxed and intimate atmosphere. And for anyone who lives in a cold weather location looking to to escape the winter doldrums back home, any excuse to travel to Arizona or Florida is a good one!
How Spring Training Will be Different in 2021
Our last trip as a family before the world shut down last year was our visit to Arizona for spring training. There has been a lot of consideration over whether spring training in 2021 would even be possible. But with a lot of preparation and significant precautions, the games are going forward this year.
If you do decide to catch a Cactus League game, here’s what you can expect in 2021:
- Games run February 27-March 30, 2021 (a bit later start than usual).
- Capacity in each stadium will be extremely limited (most to no more than 25%). Pod style seating will be used to separate parties from each other, including on lawns.
- Physical distancing measures will be in place elsewhere in stadiums, with arrows and markers to control crowd flow and queues.
- Maricopa County, the home to all spring training stadiums, has a mask ordinance. Stadiums will require face coverings at all times except while eating and drinking. Face shields or vented masks may not be permitted.
- Stadiums have been equipped with numerous hand sanitizer stations.
- Stadiums are going as contactless as possible. Some will require credit/debit cards only and be cash-free. Game tickets will be delivered digitally on the MLB app and not available for physical pick up.
- Many stadiums will have a no bag policy to reduce contact at security screenings. Exemptions may include: diaper bags for infants, medical devices, small clutches, blankets, and water bottles.
- While the Cactus League has worked with local health authorities to devise detailed guidelines, each team has some discretion on exact implementation. Expect minor differences among stadiums. Always be sure to read the detailed rules for the specific stadium you will be visiting.
Tips for Cactus League Spring Training in Arizona for Families
(Editor’s Note: The following tips were drafted based on our experience last year. Not every attraction or offering mentioned will necessarily be open or working quite the same this year. Always check official websites for confirmation to avoid disappointment!)
Whether you are a baseball super-fan or just someone looking for a family-friendly vacation in warmer weather, I can highly recommend the Cactus League. My husband and I traveled to Arizona for spring training many years before we had children, but were so thrilled finally to take kids along.
Our family attended two games – a night game at Sloan Park (home of the Chicago Cubs) and a day game at Hohokam Stadium (home of our hometown Oakland A’s). The kids got autographs from a few players, hit up the snack bar way too many times, shopped for souvenirs and merchandise, and participated in all the activities that each stadium had set up. Of course, we watched a little baseball too.
If you are thinking of traveling to Cactus League games this year and in future years, here are the tips we picked up to help other families (including a few we learned by making some mistakes along the way!):
1. Book Tickets Early
Spring training tickets go on sale for some teams much earlier than you might expect. Watch your favorite team’s site closely in the fall and mark the on-sale date in your calendar if good seats are a priority for you. Some teams started selling tickets in 2020 as early as the beginning of December, while others didn’t go on sale until early or mid-January. If you are a season ticket holder for your home team, you may be able to get priority access to ticket sales.
While neither of the games we attended were ultimately a sell-out, we were able to select prime seats for both of them by planning early. Tickets now work on the MLB app on your phone, so get an account to streamline the process.
2. Arrive Early to Games
Cactus League baseball is about more than just watching the game. A big part of the fun of spring training is what happens beforehand – tailgating, seeing players warm up, getting autographs, and taking part in the activities in the stadiums. For that reason, I highly recommend arriving early to games.
We arrived an hour and a half before the A’s game we watched, and never had a dull moment before game time. The kids bought some A’s gear and lined up for autographs with the always-friendly Liam Hendricks. We then did a complete loop of the stadium to take in all the entertainment. My daughter set the pitch speed record for the 12 and under girls at one booth, and my son had a blast in the Stomper Fun Zone (the kids play area).
Of course, the other bonus of arriving early is that you are likely to be able to snag some of the closer parking spaces. Most stadiums charge a nominal amount for parking ($5-10) but the difference is how far you’ll have to walk based upon your arrival time.
3. Seek Out Some of the Smaller Stadiums
When my husband and I first went to spring training 18 years ago, many of the MLB teams played in stadiums not much bigger than a high school baseball field. It was so easy to get up close to your favorite players back then, even from the cheap seats.
Spring training has exploded in popularity in recent years. That means lots of fans, especially those of the big market teams, flood into greater Phoenix to watch their favorite teams play. This has meant a major sizing up of stadiums.
We attended our first game at Sloan Park, home of the Chicago Cubs. It felt enormous – almost as big as a smaller MLB stadium. To be honest, it didn’t have quite enough of the spring training feel to us.
The A’s (being the scrappy small market team that they are) play in the much smaller Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. The stadium felt comparable in size to a lot of AA team stadiums and definitely had the intimate vibe that makes spring training so special.
So, this is a long way of saying that even if you are a fan of a big market team, I’d highly encourage you to go to some of their away games at the smaller stadiums. You are more likely to get up close and personal with your favorite players and experience the camaraderie that makes spring training unique. Bonus that the smaller market teams tend to charge lower ticket prices, so you’ll save some money too!
4. Pick a Strategic Place to Stay
A lot of first time visitors to Cactus League games may not realize how big the greater Phoenix area is and how spread out many of the team stadiums are. Driving between the various stadiums can take quite a while. From the most southeastern located stadium Hohokam Stadium to Surprise Stadium in the northwest, travel time can easily take an hour or more. For that reason, it’s so important to plan out the locations of games you will attend and pick a place to stay that is convenient to those games.
We chose Tempe for our home base because of its central location to the teams we’d be watching the most – our Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants. The A’s home facilities are located one town over in Mesa, and the Giants are headquartered in nearby Scottsdale, with Tempe in the middle. We made the Embassy Suites by Hilton Phoenix Tempe our spring training base. I never can argue with family suite accommodations and included hot breakfast buffet in addition to a central location!
The 6 teams with home stadiums on this same east and south side of greater Phoenix include:
- Oakland Athletics: Hohokam Stadium, Mesa
- San Francisco Giants: Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale
- Los Angeles Angels: Tempe Diablo Stadium, Tempe
- Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale
- Chicago Cubs: Sloan Park, Mesa
Tempe Tourism has a map of all the stadiums to help you plan your local touring plan.
5. Know What to Expect for Phoenix Airport Arrivals & Departures
Like a lot of Cactus League visitors, we flew in for our spring training travels. And like many spring training visitors coming in for just a night or a weekend, we had a short time between the end of the game we were watching and our flight home. For that reason, it’s so important to know what to expect at the airport so you can time everything just right.
The major airport in the area that most visitors will be using is Phoenix Sky Harbor. It has plenty of service from every major airline, with an especially large number of American and Southwest flights. I’ve always found the airport itself to be easy to navigate, with short walks to gates and fast baggage service.
But it does have one idiosyncrasy to keep in mind – a surprisingly long travel time on the rental car shuttle to and from the rental car center. This can eat up a lot of time upon arrival getting out of the airport. It also means I recommend travelers leaving more time for a departing flight than they might otherwise anticipate if they have to return a car (at least 1.5 hours, but preferably 2).
If you have TSA Pre-Check or CLEAR (we have both!), the security lines are a breeze at PHX, so that can save you some time. But expect heavier crowds on Sunday afternoons and evenings in the spring as the weekend visitor crowds head home.
Although Phoenix Sky Harbor is the major airport in the area, don’t forget about the much smaller Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport as a potentially budget alternative. Ultra low cost Allegiant Airlines is the major carrier there, with service from a lot of smaller western and midwestern cities. Budget Canadian carriers WestJet and Swoop also offer some service.
6. Do More Than Just Baseball!
Unless your kids are super-obsessed with baseball and are going to sit through multiple games with rapt attention, I highly recommend doing more than just baseball while you are in town for spring training (see more things to do in Phoenix). We were luckily able to spend three days before the games got started in the Tempe area and found more to do than we could possibly cram into 72 hours.
Check out my complete guide to Tempe with kids for more travel ideas and tips, but if you just need to hit a highlight or two, here are a few nearby activities that families will enjoy for excursions in between games:
- Legoland Discovery Center: Spend a few hours with younger kids in this indoor play space filled with all things Lego, including amusement park rides, a 4D theater, and plenty of spots to build.
- Phoenix Zoo: This large and well-kept zoo features some of the unique local creatures of the Sonoran Desert as well as animals from around the world.
- Papago Park: Hike or bike one of the many outdoor desert trails. With younger kids, the super easy stroll to the Hole-in-the-Rock is a must-do.
Have you taken your kids to spring training? Share your tips or questions in the comments.