Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Carolina Balloon Fest

What it is: Last weekend my family and I made the trek to Statesville for Carolina Balloon Fest. It was the 40th anniversary of the only North Carolina hot air balloon festival, and even though I've lived in this state nearly my whole life, I had never even heard of it until this year. Needless to say, even though the drive was long it was well worth it.

We got there late Friday afternoon. The festival runs the entire weekend, from Friday to Sunday. By the point we arrived at dusk, the big launch had already happened. Luckily, we were able to see the balloons as we drove in. If you decide to go next year, and happen to miss a launch for whatever reason, there are plenty of opportunities to park along the roadside and watch as they pass above you. This can be your best chance for a photo too. 

Even though we were late, we did grab some food at some of the many vendors and just enjoyed the sunset. Then we took advantage of a tethered ride. That's where you pay to get in the basket along with a pilot and then they fire it up enough so you rise straight up, while assistants on the ground keep you from floating away by holding on with long ropes. This was an unreal experience. It was $10 a person, and even though that seems steep, it was worth it.When I rose up, it felt like a giant was picking me up gently by the scruff of my neck. It was unlike any carnival ride or elevator or plane I'd ever been on - just floating in the air. The heat of the flame and the loud whoosh as it came on were so startling - but in the way that anything new is. Needless to say, both my parents and I were just as enchanted by this first time experience as the kids were. However, some balloons go higher and stay up longer than others so make sure you decide which one is better for you by watching the rides for a bit before you choose. A shorter line to wait may mean it's not as much of a real "ride".

We spent the following day at the Carolina Renaissance Festival (more on that in another entry) but couldn't stay away from the balloons so we went back Sunday. We got there as suggested early in the day, around 11, before the traffic and launches. There is a bit of a wait time as the many trucks come in to set up - we saw 24 balloons launch - but that wasn't a problem, because there was a lot of other things you could do. There was the typical fare food - sausages, ribbon fries, funnel cakes, shaved ice, kettle corn, etc. A friend who attended really recommended the donuts - said they were the best she'd ever had! The kids rides were great but we didn't take advantage because of the long lines. There were bounce houses, a video game trailer, a climbing wall, laser tag, and bungee jumping. For adults, there were crafts available, like a lot of cute hot air balloons for kids rooms as well as live bands and a juggler/mime. 

Even when we weren't eating, listening to tunes, or touring the booths and rides, it was very pleasant just sitting on a picnic blanket on the hill, waiting for the balloons to arrive. It was a lovely afternoon to just sit and visit with friends and family on a hillside adjacent to the airport. My toddler even napped as we relaxed with families all around us. 

But the main event was, of course, the majestic sight of dozens of balloons blowing up and rising in the air. They dwarfed us on the ground as both children and grown ups stared wide eyed at the colorful balloons going skyward. It truly was a sight to behold, and a real thing to check off on your bucket list. The many balloons that attended this year are pictured here, just to give you an idea of the variety we marveled at.

Be sure to mark this on your calendars for next year. You won't regret it!

What we liked:

The kids zone inflatables were free as was the parking! 

I didn't run the 5K or Fun Run, but am very interested in doing it next year. They say it runs along the balloons, but I'm not sure to what extent because the launches are unpredictable. The price is typical for races, and the fee includes admission to the festival all day ($10 value) and race t-shirt. The proceeds go to Relay for Life and in 2012 they raised $20,000 (the festival itself donates a portion of proceeds as well). Sounds like a great way to make the weekend ever better for runners out there. 

I also would have liked to see the Saturday night balloon glow, where they launch at night, lit up only by their flames. I can only imagine how magical it looks and thought to myself how perfect that would be for an marriage proposal!

If money wasn't an object, I would have enjoyed going on an actual untethered ride up in the sky. Rides were $225 and you would need to arrange it ahead of time. 

What We'd Change: The website is extensive but confusing, and the actual event itself has a bit of an unorganized feel for something that's been happening 40 years. 

It's understandable, but depending on the weather, the balloons may or may not launch. This could be disappointing for young children if they got their hopes up. That's why we combined this trip with a visit with relatives and the Carolina Renaissance Festival in Huntersville. Discovery Place's satellite museum is also in Huntersville, and I've heard it's great. Both are approximately 45 minutes away, and that way you'd still have other options in the unpredictable fall weather. 

If you buy your tickets in advance, it's only $15 for adults for the whole weekend, but if you want to play it by ear you'll pay much more, with Saturday tickets alone being $15 for adults and $5 for kids. So we'd do that to save money. 

Additionally, the prices for food and rides were a bit on the expensive side. They make you buy tickets instead of using money, so you're encouraged to spend more. 

Lastly, I may be a bit of a wine snob, but the wine tasting was unimpressive, with only very sweet North Carolina blends. They'd benefit from a more worldly selection. 

What you need to know:

Get details and buy tickets before you go at http://www.carolinaballoonfest.com/

Make a weekend of it and feel like a child again!

- Kat Benson, 2013

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