There are many once a year events that people try to attend, or at least put on their Bucket List. Times Square for New Year’s Eve, The Boston Marathon, New Orleans for Fat Tuesday, Pasadena for the Rose Bowl Parade, or the Super Bowl (any Super Bowl) comes to mind. If you have never heard of The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, consider putting it on your list! It is held the first week in October. This year the Fiesta’s tag line is Time Flies!
The Fiesta began in 1972 with 13 entries to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a local radio station. It grew in 2000 to 1,019 entries before they realized it had to be limited. In 2001 they limited the entries to 750 and in 2009 they capped entries at 600. If you are wondering if this is something you would enjoy I’ll give you four reasons to attend.
Reason One: It lasts for nine days! There are 14 sessions. It’s not a one and done thing. You have the opportunity to go to Fiesta Field and enjoy the festivities once, twice, or more than that, depending on your tolerance for crowds, traffic, and budget. Sure, like all of the above events, you ain’t the only one who has heard about this. It requires major planning. It is an outdoor event so it is weather dependent, there is that.
Reason Two: The variety!! Each day, the schedule of activities starts at 6:00 am and goes until 8:00 pm, with a break in the middle of the day. The Dawn Patrol launches predawn so the pilots know in which direction and at what velocity the wind is blowing. At 7:00 am on most days is the Mass Ascension. That’s when 559 balloons inflate and launch all at the same time. Well actually they go off in increments a few minutes apart in a very organized schedule, shepherded by The Zebras, officials dressed like referees. Surrounding the balloons on the field for each session are some 80,000 spectators. As each balloon lifts off, the crowds cheer and wave with delight. Within an hour the sky is filled with the most beautiful and colorful site you will ever see. This all happens again with the Mass Ascension later that afternoon.
On certain days the balloons are inflated just before sunset, tethered to the ground, and then lit up from the inside. This is called the Twilight Twinkle Glow. The countdown goes out: 5-4-3-2-1 and then the command for “All Burn!” The sight of these huge balloons glowing in the dark with the sounds of the jets firing to keep them at full size and glowing is just amazing! Glow Nights are followed by a fireworks show.
The most popular days are the Special Shapes Rodeo Days. There are more than 100 balloons in unique shapes like Darth Vader, Humpty Dumpty, elephants, bumble bees, a carousel, and the largest cow you will ever see. It’s as large as our motor home. Rodeo Days are so popular the schools are closed! On the first day they are inflated predawn and lift off in a Mass Ascension. On the second day they are inflated at dusk for a Twilight Twinkle Glow and more fireworks. A hobby for the children is collecting trading cards from every pilot who will give them one.
Other days are set aside for pin trading. It seems like everyone collects and trades commemorative colorful pins. They come is all shapes and sizes, some like the balloons you will see on the field, and are marked by year and also by designations like Dawn Patrol, Pilot, Chase Crew, and in our case Rainbow Riders. That is the booking company for anyone who wants to take a flight, which we did!!!
When you are not watching all this, there is a chainsaw carving exhibition, bands performing at center stage, skydiving exhibits, and a fly-in competition where pilots see who can get the closest to a target as they skim a few feet above the ground and then they land back on the field. And the booths and booths of vendors who sell Native American and Mexican crafts, every kind of Balloon Fiesta memorabilia, and food. Lot’s of food. There is the expected “carnival food” like funnel cakes, fries, corn dogs, and then stuff I never heard of before like fry bread topped with beans, onions, tomatoes and chili. (for breakfast at 9:00 am) Or a breakfast burrito. (at 6:00 am)
Reason Three: You can participate at the level your budget allows. Of course you have to factor in transportation to get here and the accommodations once you arrive, (you can even stay on the field in a tent) but after that, parking is $20 and admission is $15. Go once, go twice, or in our case three times. And you can find local parks where the balloons are most likely to land, which is free! We landed in Vista de Norte Park. On the days you don’t attend, the Fiesta is carried live on TV.
If you are into facts and figures here are the numbers from 2019: 886,037 attended; 559 balloons were registered; 104 special shapes balloons registered; from 17 countries; $173 million dollars went into the local economy; $40 million for overnight accommodations; $17 million for retail purchases; $19 million at the concession stands.
Reason Four: Attending the Fiesta is an experience like none other I know of. It’s not even about the sights and sounds, it’s the experience! Every one is smiling, happy, delighted, and having the time of their lives. I tried as best I could to put the experience into words, and if you check out the Post Cards 2021 Page, you’ll also see I tried to capture the experience with a few dozen pictures, but is just impossible to acurately portray the experience.
We’ve met so many people on this trip who say, “I want to do that someday.” Or, “I’ve always wanted to go there.” If that sounds like you, start making the plan to make it happen. If we learned anything from COVID and 2020, the time is now!