I'm in the Sacramento airport right now, waiting to catch a plane back to my school after spending the past two days in Davis.
I've been convinced that Davis has a strong physics program overall, and there are a number of faculty here who I would be happy to work with, most likely in the fields of condensed matter theory or complex systems. It also has a pretty nice location, but that was true for every school I applied to! Yet Davis was also my safety school, and it's going to be hard to pass up offers from my other schools, especially Berkeley, which was probably my first choice going in.
Davis got me to visit here through some strategic choices in terms of notification dates. I spent some talking with Daniel Cebra, chair (co-chair?) of the admissions committee. Davis's strategy is to target the people they want most and try to send them letters as soon as possible -- I got mine within two weeks of the application deadline, and I think that was the norm. Out of 300 applications, this year they are aiming for a class of about 15-20 students, a bit smaller than the longer-term average they will shoot for in the future (25) and the average in the recent past (maybe 30 with high variance).
So far they have admitted 40 applicants, all domestic, and 21 of us were at the visiting weekend. I definitely got the sense that along with a few others there who had also gotten into top 10 schools that I was probably a stronger candidate than most students. People also were there from all sorts of schools, many from essentially no-name schools in physics, or at least schools I hadn't (or had barely) heard of. But that doesn't mean those students weren't well qualified, as nearly everyone I talked to had research experience of some sort, and one of those students from a school with one physics professor (a lurker on this site) had research experience at SLAC and Davis and had gotten into Caltech, Cornell and Stanford. Still, it's an interesting perspective on admissions, and overall I was impressed by how it seems that committed students can get in from all sorts of schools. Your undergrad institution is not going to hold you back.
For those of you who are still hoping to get into Davis, the plan is to apparently admit about 10 more students sometime soon and then waitlist 20 more students, which depending on funding and enrollment may be able to be accepted later. Those 10 students will include all of the international students, which they expect to be only about 20% of the class (this is because the UC system has strong funding disincentives against international students).
Also interesting is that all of us at the visiting weekend had received a $5000 "department fellowship." This is a one year "signing bonus" to encourage us to come, and is only for the first year. A couple years ago when they tried to save money by dropping this bonus they ended up with only 12 students enrolled. I think a lot of schools offer these incentives, but it's important to keep in mind that unless explicitly noted otherwise, they probably don't last past the first year -- definitely ask. They also don't make a long term difference in terms of funding, so it's worth averaging them over the 5-6 years to get a PhD compared to TA or RA compensation.
I'll be at University of Washington next weekend and at Berkeley (most likely) April 2-3, and I'll share my thoughts on those schools when I come back. I'm still waiting on Caltech and Santa Barbara, and if I get into either of those I'll try to visit, too. I may go to San Diego, too, where I was last summer, but right now I'm holding off because Santa Barbara would be a preferred choice for me and they have the same date for the visiting weekend. Also, purely on superficial constraints (e.g. location) they're a lower choice than Berkeley and UW for me. Since I'm still not sure what I want to study (leaning towards theory or computational physics and more "table-top sized" fields like condensed matter), I basically chose to apply to top physics schools filtered by location, since I wanted to get back to the west coast.