PHOENIX - It's a reunion 12 years in the making. Since hosting the 1996 Super Bowl, Phoenix and its suburbs have been preening and preparing for the return of the NFL's biggest game.
The last crucial piece finally fell into place in 2006 when the state-of-the-art University of Phoenix Stadium opened in Glendale, west of Phoenix.
Bob Sullivan, president of the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee, knows the pressure is on to not only put on the "world's largest neighborhood party," but entice the NFL to come back a lot sooner than 12 years.
"We have the potential to get another game in the future. We're not going to get another game if we're not putting our best foot forward this time," Sullivan said.
Tourists comprise the other audience Arizona wants to win over. For the last year, the committee has been pushing a "come early, stay late" campaign. The 150,000 visitors expected to travel here - pumping an anticipated $200 million into the local economy - are being urged to stretch their trip to take in some sights.
"Go up to Sedona, go to Tucson ... experience more of what the state has to offer than its ability to put on a Super Bowl," Sullivan said.
While the city will temporarily be the hippest, hottest place to be seen, the region has typically been thought of as where Grandpa and Grandma go to quietly retire. The dry weather and 200-plus manicured golf courses create a real oasis in this desert valley. Although many "snowbirds" flee the heat each summer, residents say the mild temperatures year-round make living here worthwhile.
Visitors of all ages, however, can find a strong pulse in the beating night clubs of Scottsdale or Arizona State University hangouts in Tempe. In this 2,000-square-mile metropolis, it is possible to see the urban and the rural in less than a day. Travelers can have their pick of chic, artsy enclaves and four-star restaurants, and cactus-dotted landscapes rich with the history of the Old West and American Indian culture.
FOOTBALL: For the 17th year, an interactive theme park will be part of the event. The NFL will hold the NFL Experience Built By The Home Depot next to the stadium Jan. 26-27 and Jan. 31-Feb. 2, http://www.nfl.com/superbowl/nflexperience. (Only Super Bowl ticket-holders will be admitted Feb. 3.) Among the activities fans can choose from: recording a voice-over commentary of memorable NFL plays, scoring a touchdown while tethered to a bungee harness, and throwing passes at a target. A nighttime party for adults, NFLX After Dark, will take place Jan. 31.
On Jan. 27, some NFL players will sign autographs at an international youth football clinic at Copper Canyon High School in Glendale as part of the Arizona-Sonora Bowl II. Students from schools in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, will then play a football game.
Visitors looking to make their trip a bit educational can attend the Sports Career Expo & College Fair Jan. 31 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, http://www.whynotsports.org/sports-expo.htm. Professionals from different aspects of the sports industry will discuss various career opportunities with students.
ARTS: Clusters of high-end galleries make up much of the art scene in metro Phoenix. Scottsdale's arts district will hold a special edition of its swanky, weekly art walks with the Scottsdale Super ArtWalk Feb. 2, http://scottsdalegalleries.com/artwalks2.html.
Aside from browsing at galleries, visitors can listen to local musicians along the designated route and sample food from local restaurants.
The downtown Phoenix Art Museum has 60 paintings, sculptures, etchings and watercolors in a new exhibit on 19th century French artists, "Masterpiece Replayed: Monet, Matisse and More," http://www.phxart.org. The museum also currently has works on display by photographer Richard Avedon, known for his fashion photos and celebrity portraits.
MUSIC: From "Diddy" to Dogg, a variety of musical artists host outdoor, high-priced concerts in Scottsdale. Sean "Diddy" Combs will perform Jan. 31 outside of Axis Radius club. The club will also put on concerts for the Anheuser-Busch Bud Bowl - rapper Snoop Dogg on Feb. 1 and Kid Rock on Feb. 2. Tommy Lee and Dave Navarro are slated to rock out at a block party for club e4 Feb. 2.
However, there are some more affordable, indoor shows.
On Jan. 26, a free, ticketed Super Fiesta in Phoenix at the Dodge Theater will have a Latin music lineup, including Mexican rock singer Alejandra Guzman.
Jobing.com Arena, next door to the University of Phoenix stadium, will be the site of the two-night Pepsi Smash Super Bowl Concert Series. Mary J. Blige and Maroon 5 take the stage Jan. 31. Mexican pop group RBD will perform Feb. 1.
Singer Patti LaBelle will headline the 9th Annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration Feb. 1 at Symphony Hall in Phoenix.
Visitors can also enjoy a free concert and fireworks Feb. 2 at "Super Bowl Saturday Night" at Tempe Town Lake in Tempe, a town typically milling with ASU students.
FOOD: Foodies with $500 to spare can get a ticket for this year's Taste of the NFL on Feb. 2, which raises money to fight hunger, http://tasteofthenfl.com. More than 35 chefs representing cities with NFL teams will cook up a special dish. The food-and-wine fest will also have musical entertainment and an auction.
Glendale has also moved up its annual Glendale Chocolate Affaire. Chocoholics can nibble on confections made by local chocolatiers in downtown Glendale on Feb. 1-2. A 300-pound chocolate football will also be raffled off.
NIGHTLIFE: Already a clubgoer's paradise, Scottsdale will be taken over by private VIP parties in the days leading up to the big game.
Maxim magazine will contribute to the extravaganza with a Feb. 1 party at the Stone Rose Lounge at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.
Other hot tickets will be Playboy's Super Saturday Night Party at Rawhide Pavilion and the Penthouse Desire Super Party, at Venue of Scottsdale - also with Snoop Dogg appearing - on Feb. 2.
Carmen Electra and John Travolta, who both led parties at last year's Super Bowl, will again put on their party faces for the Leather & Laces Party on Feb. 1 and the Saturday Night Spectacular Feb. 2, respectively. Both will be at the Scottsdale Galleria.
Meanwhile, from Jan. 30-Feb. 3, the downtown waterfront area, as part of the 944 Magazine Super Village, will become a nocturnal playground featuring a mini-Las Vegas strip, fireworks and live music including Wyclef Jean on Feb. 1 and Velvet Revolver on Feb. 2.
OTHER SPORTS: Football won't be the only sport sweeping the Sonoran desert Super Bowl week. The FBR Open, touted as one of the most popular PGA Tour events, will take place from Jan. 31-Feb. 3 at TPC Scottsdale. Admission prices start at $25. Barring any weather or playoff delay, the tournament winner is to be crowned by 4 p.m., 20 minutes before Super Bowl kickoff.
THE DESERT: Out-of-towners looking for a slice of the Southwest landscape can check out the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. More than 130 rare and endangered plant species thrive at the 50-acre exhibit. Near the garden is the Phoenix Zoo, home to more than 1,200 animals.
There are also ample hiking opportunities at South Mountain Park and Preserve in south Phoenix. Hard-core hikers can try the summit trails on Camelback Mountain, situated between Phoenix and Scottsdale.
A tour of Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural marvel nestled at the foot of McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, also serves as a serene diversion from Super Bowl mayhem, http://www.franklloydwright.org/.
Those wanting to venture farther out can make the two-hour drive north from Phoenix to Sedona and gaze upon spectacular red rock formations. A drive the same distance southward will lead visitors to Tucson. Slightly more laid-back, the state's second-largest city also offers hiking, resorts, golf and local attractions such as the Sonoran Desert Museum.