T&C’s own Megan O’Malley gives the local’s perspective on Houston’s biggest event

Few things make a Texas girl swoon more than good BBQ, country music and fried food on a stick. February is here, which means it’s time to dust off those cowboy boots and get ready for the biggest festival in Houston, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Since it began in 1932, the Rodeo has grown into a 25-day event that includes carnival rides, finger-licking good Texas foods, livestock shows, shopping, a wine garden, musical performances and of course, the Rodeo itself.

Leading up to the Rodeo is the world’s largest BBQ cookoff that includes more than 250 international teams smoking and grilling famous Texas brisket, chicken and ribs. In addition to attracting more than 2.6 million spectators, the Rodeo also welcomes nearly 500 cowboys who compete for $748,000 in prizes and a spot in the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas.

Country music legends

Legends like Gene Autrey, Reba McIntyre, Elvis Presley, Roy Rogers and Garth Brooks have all graced the Texas-sized Rodeo stage. More recently, the Rodeo has introduced artists outside the country genre with performances from The Chainsmokers, Cardi B, Fifth Harmony and OneRepublic. This year, “King of Country,” George Strait, will close down the show alongside special guests Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen.

Diverse heritage

Despite stereotypes, the Rodeo draws a crowd as diverse as the Bayou City itself with events like Armed Forces Appreciation Day, Black Heritage Day, First Responders Day and Go Tejano Day. Leading up to Rodeo season, the City of Houston hosts Go Texan Day where people of all industries don cowboy attire to work. JJ Watt, the local NBC news team, Mayor Sylvester Turner and a crew of Whataburger employees were just a few to join the fun.

Commitment to education

Although the great music and good times are what draw many people to the Rodeo, the show is about so much more than wearing boots and having fun. Since it began, the Rodeo has given 19,000 student scholarships and donated $475 million to Texas education. More than 31,000 volunteers on 90 committees work year-round to maximize the Rodeo’s contributions to students.

As a member of the Rodeo’s Lamb and Goat Auction Committee, I work alongside 260 people to raise money for students in FFA and 4-H. Each year, our committee raises nearly $3 million by hosting fundraisers, securing donors and selling lamb and goat meat packages. Although our monetary impact is impressive, the most rewarding part is meeting the boys and girls who work tirelessly to care for these animals leading up to the auction on March 8.

I’m thankful to work for an agency like Thompson & Company that shares my dedication to voluntarism and believes in giving back to our local communities. As a born and raised Texan, I’m passionate about supporting education across the Lone Star State and celebrating Western heritage. Joining a Rodeo committee has been an invaluable way to invest my time and given me a behind-the-scenes look at the Rodeo.

Rodeo Insider Tips

Here are some insider tips that everyone should know before going to Rodeo Houston.

Dress the part

“Rodeo attire” is a crucial part to every Texan’s wardrobe. This western style clothing includes cowboy boots, a big hat and lots of fringe. Also during Rodeo season, turquoise is considered a neutral. Boot Barn and Cavender’s Boot City offer the basics at a bargain. Splurge for fine western attire like ostrich boots and hand-crafted turquoise jewelry at Pinto Ranch or Lucchese. For trendy Rodeo pieces, visit boutiques like Hemline and French Cuff. Of course, there are also countless vendors on site at the Rodeo and the best are inside the NRG Center.

Park smart

Houston Rodeo parking is a pain. Consider using one of the many park-and-ride services or the Metrorail. If parking off-site, bring cash because most lots cost $10-20. Lyft is the official rideshare sponsor and offers live music and free snacks while passengers wait at the Lyft Lounge in the Green Lot. Be prepared for surge pricing and lines, if leaving right after a show ends, around 10 p.m. on weeknights. However, I prefer to let the crowds die down while sipping on a glass of rosé at the Wine Garden.

Get a badge

My favorite Rodeo experience has been joining a committee. There are two types of committees, sales and service. The sales committees work predominately during the year to raise a minimum donation to the Rodeo. The service committees volunteer a minimum number of hours during the Rodeo. Once committee members earn their badges, they receive free admission to the fairgrounds and concerts with a guest and parking pass.

Visit the Wine Garden

Each year, the Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition draws nearly 3,000 entries from 20 countries. The winning wines are then available at Carruth Plaza, located between NRG Stadium and the NRG Center, throughout the show. Listen to live music in the secluded garden while sampling one of the 70 wines.

Best bites

If it’s not fried or on a stick, during the Rodeo, I’m probably not interested. Each year, more than 100 local restaurants face off at the Houston Rodeo Best Bites Competition. Many of those same vendors are also set up all season at the show. Fried What! is known for crazy concoctions like fried Twinkies, ice cream and strawberry shortcake. New this year is Cowboy Kettle Corn, Puffy Tacos with Texas Wagyu Beef, Brisket Deep Fried Nachos and Banana Cream Pie Funnel Cake. Call me crazy, but I’m always a fan of the fried Nutella, fried butter and traditional chopped beef baked potatoes.

Learn about western heritage

Guided tours take school groups and visitors through the fair grounds and Livestock Show to learn about western heritage. Art galleries with works from students as well as famous artists are on display throughout the NRG Center. The Livestock Show teaches visitors about Texas’s wildlife and agriculture. Talk to the students who raised steer, lambs, goats and other animals or visit the birthing center to see newborn piglets and calves or watch chickens hatch under heat lamps.

Cook Off

The World Championship BBQ Cookoff is always held Thursday through Saturday prior to the Rodeo kickoff. More than 200,000 people flock to the decorated tents on the NRG fairgrounds for dancing, drinking and indulging in Texas BBQ. Although free concerts and sandwiches are available to anyone with a general admission ticket, the real fun is inside the private tents. Buddy up to someone with passes to a committee tent or purchase a ticket to the Jack Daniels BBQ Tent.

Rodeo Hidden gems

The best-kept secrets of Rodeo Houston are hidden in plain sight. Escape the big crowds by slipping into the lesser-known on-site bars and clubs. The Hideout is a honky tonk in an outdoor tent near the NRG Arena. It’s free to enter once you’re inside the gates and open to anyone 21 or older. A Corral Club Membership gives committee members access to three private clubs at NRG. Stockman’s Club in the NRG Arena has live music and overlooks some of the smaller Rodeo competitions. Committeeman’s Club is located at the NRG Center on the second level. The Cantina and Chute Club are located inside NRG stadium. Gold badges get committeemen into these clubs with a plus one. Once inside, drinks are sold for a reduced price.

The shows

The Houston Rodeo lineup for 2019 is one of the best yet. Brooks and Dunn, Cody Johnson and Tim McGraw are at the top of my list. Make friends with a committee member, and enjoy free access to the shows or purchase Houston Rodeo tickets from the official provider AXS. To make buying, selling and trading even easier, get the Rodeo Houston app.

Know the lingo

Howdy, y’all! The Rodeo is here and there are a few terms everyone needs to know. “Mutton Bustin'” is where children ages 4 to 7 learn the art of bull riding by practicing on mostly harmless sheep. It is hands-down the most adorable part of the Rodeo. A “ten-gallon” is a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. The “calf scramble” is a chaotic event where 30 students chase 15 calves into a secure area. The determined students who catch a calf are rewarded with scholarship money to buy their own calf. A “bronc” is an untamed horse used for events similar to bull riding. “Bareback” is how some tough cowboys ride a bronc sans saddle. Learn about steer wrestling, barrel racing and more from Rodeo Houston.