The latest stop on our venue visiting tour brought us to Houston, for what is the final piece
of the city's goal to upgrade and improve their pro sports facilities. With the opening of
Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) in 2000 and the completion of Reliant Stadium in 2002,
the Toyota Center completed the quest to give each of Houston's first class franchises an
ultramodern and state of the art facility to call home.

Getting to the venue

The Toyota Center is located in what is known as the Eastern Corridor of downtown
Houston and can be accessed rather easily by car, as I-10 and I-45 both have exits that are
just a few blocks away from the venue. Parking here is plentiful, with a number of surface
lots within a short walk of the venue, and parking rates ranging from $5-$10 for the most
part. Adjacent to the venue is a parking garage, south of the arena with a walkway
connecting to the suite level. Some street parking can be found with a little searching and
the desire to walk a bit further... meters aren't monitored on evenings and weekends.
Public transportation is not a fan friendly option here, so plan to drive.

Outside the venue

As downtown venues go, there isn't a whole lot in the immediate vicinity of the arena in the
way of entertainment and eateries. Mostly vacant lots sit to the building's west  and east.
Off to the north is the Brown Convention Center and still further north is Minute Maid Park.
With the construction and completion of these major facilities, the Eastern Corridor has
begun to see a revitalization taking place and it appears that the Toyota Center will only
augment that. The first sports bar in the neighborhood just opened across the street, and
there is a promise of more to come. Some nice spots near the ballpark if you want to walk
up that far.

PS...a stark testament to the huge disparity in economic class can be found in nearby Holt
Memorial Park, where dozens of Houston's destitute citizens can be found just a short walk
from the Arena.

The concourses

The main entrance to the facility is at its northwest corner - a gleaming glass atrium that
gives the fan a striking view of Houston's downtown. Clean, wide, and brightly lit, with white
being the dominant hue, these concourses have a distinctiveness to them, as the floor of
each of the four sides of the main concourse has a mural with the direction labeled on it.
i.e....the south concourse has the word SOUTH inscribed in enormous lettering.

Also near the main entrance is one of the longest escalators in pro sports to take fans to
the upper deck.....let's say this time honored phrase again....."everything's big in Texas"!!!

And another thing, this being the Toyota Center, there are plenty of actual Toyota car
models on display throughout the main concourse here.

Concessions

A wide variety of concessions here at Toyota with suitably named stands such as
H-O-U-B-B-Q, Space City Dogs, Clutch City Pizza, and Baskets Grill (we should nickname this
place the Corolla, the Tundra or something like that, by the way) featuring all kinds of ethnic
foods whether it be Italian, Mexican, and of course Asian. Come here hungry......you will not
be disappointed..

A restaurant called the Red and White Club is located on the club level in the south end of
the arena. This restaurant features Houston's largest wine cellar and is open to all patrons
of the arena to enjoy a buffet meal in an elegant setting while the game goes on in the
background.

The seating bowl

Two levels of red colored seats sandwich two levels of suites on the sidelines and there is
the same effect sans suites on the baseline. Unlike its predecessor, the Toyota Center
does have a scoreboard hanging above center ice/court and boy is it a doozie!!! Its lower
portion is a four sided video screen, and its upper portion has an eight side LED board that
shows most of the graphics and  in game stats. Just like its predecessor, there is a
scoreboard on the wall high atop each baseline with the same technology as the main
boards in the center of the arena.

As is the case in most new arenas, there is an LED ribbon board that encircles the seating
bowl at the second suite balcony/upperdeck balcony. Amazing how what was absolute
cutting edge for arena/stadia in 2000 is now virtually expected in a major pro sports venue
in 2004.

Premium Seating

Club seating here is located along the sidelines of the lower seating bowl. Fan in these
areas have exclusive access to their own club concourse at the top of the seating bowl,
which is separated from the main concourse which rings the exterior of the building. At
ground level is the Lexus Club, another premium area with 14 "courtside suites" (no view
of the playing surface) all very plush and elegant. Eight suites ring the seating bowl
between lower and upper decks. Another interesting feature here is the "Tundra Party
Suite", where an actual truck is parked in the suite and on display. Reclining seats and wide
screen plasma TV monitors are just two of the nice amenities for suite holders. From what
we could see, the parking deck and sky bridge is set up for suite and club seat holders only.


Banners and retired numbers

Ahhh yess, The Rockets hang their back to back NBA Championship banners from 1994 and
1995 (has it really been TEN YEARS already??) along with the retired numbers of Calvin
Murphy, Rudy T, Hakeem, Clyde "The Glide" Drexler, and Moses Malone.

Minor league hockey's Aeros also have a renowned history with their retired numbers and
banners as well. (What became of the Comets' banners????)

Slam Dunks, Assists, Fouls

Assist... useless trivia question.....What franchise can lay claim to a WHA,  AHL, and, IHL
championship??.....yessireee Bob, those Houston Aeros. How about that!

Slam dunk... To the Rockets marketing campaign which revolves heavily around their
beloved YAO! Yao Ming is easily the most recognizable sports celebrity in Houston. Here at
the arena oriental food is easy to find, and during timeouts Yao offers fans today's lesson
in how to cheer in Chinese (this day's tutorial on the video board was the word "de-fense").

Foul... Ladies and Gentlemen (and anyone else)....we are now here to declare the karma of
the USRT to be dormant until further notice as the Rockets crash to their fourth loss in a
row by a 99-94 count to the deep and talented Sacramento Kings. If you haven't following us
lately, this was preceded by three other losses on official USRT stops.

Assist.....Clyde Drexler has a BBQ restaurant not too far from the arena, which seemed like
a cool place for us to hit after the game,  however....

Foul....it didn't appear to be open on this particular Sunday, doors appeared closed and
there wasn't a car to be seen in the parking lot. Next time, we hope.

Assist...Just a quick note of encouragement to Rockets color man Calvin Murphy as we
hope for all the best for him and his family. Calvin is a legendary sports figure back in our
area and we wish him well in resolving his current problems.

Slam Dunk....special thanks go to Rockets front office personnel Susan Newquest and Doug
Hall for giving so much of their precious time during our stay at the Toyota Center. Assist to
Rockets Media Relations guru Nelson Luis for setting us up with press credentials. Even
though we had game tickets in hand, it was an awesome experience sitting in the postgame
press conference room, and chatting up courtside with the likes of former Buffalo Braves
coach Dr. Jack Ramsay and even brushing by Sacramento Kings owner Gavin Maloof.
As usual the people of this fine city bring out the welcome mat like no other. Kudos to the
Rockets, and best of luck in your long awaited return to the NBA postseason!

Summary

One of the disappointments of this venue was the lack of visibility of the local Texas
culture... being visitors from up north, we almost expect to see the massive flag of the
Texas Republic dominating the rafters, the hints of country music, the cowboy murals. At
Astros games they sing and clap to "Deep in the Heart of Texas" during the 7th inning
stretch. At Reliant Stadium symbols of cattle brands line the concourses. So maybe a little
home cookin', how about the cheerleaders doing some line dance routines during the
breaks??? Something??? Anything???

Well they deliberately went away from the hoe-down theme, and instead the building has
more of a Chinese theme than a Texas feel. Yes this is Yao country and that is not too bad!

What you have here is bright, functional and pleasant arena. A nice addition to the Houston
skyline, one of the nicest seating bowls and great technological amenities, and a pretty
nice location. More development around the arena would be a real plus - still too many
windswept parking lots, although the gleaming Houston skyline beckons a couple of short
blocks away. All in all, the Rockets have a splendid new arena to call home.



SCORING

Architecture 5
Food and team store 6.5
Scoreboard and electronics 9.5
Ushers 7
Fan support 6
Location and neighborhood 6
Banners and history 6
In game entertainment 6
Concourses/fan comfort 5
Bonus:
4 for USRT red carpet treatment

Total: 61



Toyota Center
Toyota
Center         
                     
                     
               
April 4,
2004




Sacramento
Kings
at
Houston
Rockets