The cool dark morning held promise as we walked onto the grounds, surging forward eagerly. Excitement rippled through the crowds despite the ridiculously early hour; we had executed an intricate plan to ensure we wouldn’t miss a moment of spectacle. Like a hopeful pilgrimage, we shuffled onto the field to take in the sights of vendors, balloon-themed booths, and local foods to be sampled. Arriving well before 5 a.m. and having successfully negotiated heavy traffic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we were ready for the morning to unfold, much like the giant balloons we came to see.
This is Balloon Fiesta, a bucket list item for those captivated by the magical and dreamy sight of hot air balloons drifting through the sky. I have been enchanted by hot air balloons since first seeing one from my lawn as a small child. Attending a large gathering of hot air balloons became part of my ‘bucket list’ from the time I found out what the phrase meant.
It was thrilling to be amongst the group of visitors to the opening morning this year on October 7th. In its 51st year, this special celebration draws balloons and visitors from all over the world to enjoy the festivities. For those of us bundled up onsite, we had achieved the goal of being in place before the first balloons grew to size and rose into the sky.
Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta makes for a beautiful time in October, and the event hugely impacts the area’s economy. Last year, there were 828,000 attendees at the Balloon Fiesta. The total economic benefit to the area was over 203 million dollars. While weather conditions greatly impeded the event last year, this year’s opening weekend was a huge success.
As the crowds meandered onto the field to choose their spots, the crews were getting everything ready. The Dawn Patrol balloons are set up first in a row. These balloons go up first, to check the weather conditions above. Once they confirm all is optimal, the signal is given for Mass Ascension where the other balloons follow in phases.
The glowing light was accompanied by the whooshing sound of the upward rushing flames, allowing the progress to be experienced audibly as well. The first to lift off this year was the red Chick-fil-A balloon, to the cheers of a lively crowd. All balloon pilots are directed by the Zebras, so-called for their referee uniforms (one even wore a zebra head). The zebras safely coordinated the two-phase Mass Ascension.
The sun came up and the temperature dropped slightly as the light crept across the colorful landscape. Mass Ascension was an incredible sight to behold as hundreds of balloons filled the air. This dramatic spectacle had viewers chattering and taking pictures constantly as balloons came to life and lifted off from all over the field.
In multiple directions including above, there was so much to take in. In front of us were the Rainbow Ryders balloons out of Albuquerque. They have multiple balloons with larger-sized baskets that accommodate wheelchairs. These went up early on during Mass Ascension with eager passengers floating upward to fulfill their special wish.
Airabelle the Creamland Cow was behind us, and after Mass Ascension began, spectators were thrilled to see her being set up. This giant cow-shaped balloon, which takes a crew of 16, was carefully prepped and slowly filled, spreading out in several directions. Her hoof alone was so large it caused several people to relocate themselves and their chairs. Unfortunately, she began tipping and it seemed conditions were not right; Airabelle could not be fully expanded. After Airabelle was packed up, a standard shaped Creamland balloon was sent up instead. These balloons hail from British Columbia, Canada.
Other exceptional and fun shapes filled the sky as spectators pointed and exclaimed at each new delight. There was Master Yoda, a balloon from Belgium, growing in size next to Darth Vader, a balloon from Ohio. These two took off one after another into the bright chilly morning air. Several animal head-shaped balloons were up and away, including a panther, koala, baboon, and tiger to name a few. Baby T-Rex out of Utah, a dinosaur hatching from its egg went up, as well as a balloon shaped as an embracing bear and elephant. Smokey the Bear from NM, a Volkswagen bus, a sloth, and a moon were also among those balloons flying on the first morning. There were so many beautiful balloons in the usual shape, too, adding to the thrilling aerial scene.
This year’s theme is ‘A View from Above’ and there are 550 balloons participating. Of those, there are 107 special-shaped balloons. On the first day, the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett race began as well, with 17 teams participating. In addition to the Mass Ascension of balloons, there are other entertainments throughout the 9-day event. This includes the drone light shows, where tiny drones are configured into moving images, like a choreographed animation of lights. Visitors can also experience the different Balloon Glows, fireworks, a night skydive spectacle, and chainsaw carving.
The weekend was a magical time and exceeded expectations at every turn. If you haven’t already, I would add this to your bucket list. There are many ways to enhance your experience during the event, including taking a ride yourself to see Albuquerque from above. You can customize your visit in various ways, but it’s recommended to plan at least a few days. This allows the best chance to be sure you won’t miss out if the weather is uncooperative and gives you the opportunity to soak up all the fantastic fun to be had.
Of course, like with most memory-making excursions, it’s best when appreciated with loved ones by your side. And in the early hours of a fall morning, you may appreciate the nearby body heat as well as the companionship. See more at balloonfiesta.com
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