Campus History


When resourceful students borrow cafeteria trays to slide down snowy campus slopes, there’s just one unwritten rule: have fun!

Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

What happens when you combine winter weather, campus topography, and fiberglass cafeteria trays with students looking to blow off steam during a tough semester? A whole lot of fun.

Some students go “traying” head first, arms stretched out airplane style. Others go feet first, knees tucked in. And those who favor teamwork link their trays together to form a train (often at their own peril).

But while some trips down Bascom and Observatory Hills threaten to re-enact the “agony of defeat” vividly demonstrated by Yugoslavian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj during the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, often the outcome is harmless — a rush of cold snow up a pant leg or down the back of a jacket.

There are no formal rules against traying. UW police will ask trayers to return their makeshift sleds to where they found them, but officers also have been known to join in for a ride down the hill.

Sledding used to be a more organized pursuit. From 1886 until 1939 — before the construction of Elizabeth Waters Hall — there was an official UW Toboggan Club and a 600-foot-long slide down Observatory Hill that ended out on Lake Mendota.

When some universities, including Minnesota, recently removed trays from dining halls to limit food waste, some worried that traying was in danger. Thankfully, UW housing officials have no plans to go trayless, even though food service staff must continue collecting wayward trays — sometimes nearly fifty in one trip — as the campus enters its annual spring thaw.

Dining rooms at Chadbourne and Elizabeth Waters suffer the greatest tray losses during Madison’s long winters, and this was especially true in 2007–08, when the city received a record 100-plus inches of snow.

“The traying is quite hard on [trays]. Once they get a little beat up, we choose not to use them anymore,” says Brian Burke, food service manager for University Housing. “It has been going on for so long, I think everybody realizes that it’s not going to stop.”

Published in the Winter 2009 issue


  • Tim C February 1, 2011

    Great story! I have so many great memories of traying! One year nearly 50 of us trayed off of Observatory Drive by Elizabeth Waters early one Saturday morning until nearly 4 a.m. on a hill complete with a luge track, two huge jumps as well as a speed course that spit us out over the Lakeshore Path on to frozen Lake Mendota! It was crazy! Miss those days!

  • Betsy Ovitt ‘68 January 27, 2023

    I still have my tray!!

  • Judy (Saltzberg) Pitkofsky January 28, 2023

    Many of us “trayed down the hill following the blizzard of 1947. We borrowed them from Liz Warers!

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