It’s 4:30 a.m., and the alarm is squawking. You are – on purpose – shaking the kiddos out of their warm beds as they moan and complain. Begrudgingly, they pull on warm layers and gloves while the grownups grab blankets and snacks.
“Is this going to be worth it?” you wonder aloud as you cajole the complainers into their car seats. Yes. It’s going to be worth it.
Once you’ve schlepped the gear across a dirt parking lot to the expansive field, you spread out a blanket on the grass, blow on the hot chocolate and hand out breakfast burritos. As you mop up the hot chocolate spilled on the blanket, you still question this plan to sit on the damp ground in a field where even the sun seems to be sleeping in.
But, just at that moment, the atmosphere yawns to life. Vans and pickup trucks roll in, and colorful silky piles of fabric begin to unfurl. Gondolas pop up all around while the kids snooze under a softening sky.
As the sun creeps up and the propane burners begin to roar, the lost sleep gives way to a buzz that sweeps through the sea of spectators. The kids sit up and rub their eyes, mesmerized by the flurry of colorful activity they’ve woken up to.
“It’s Darth Vader!”
“Ooh, look at that one. It’s all the colors!”
“I want to go look over there!”
The energy becomes more potent than caffeine as you stand, rotate a full 360 degrees and watch as a wave of hot air balloons begins to take shape and ignite at their hearts, almost simultaneously, creating a massive, blinking light string that warms the field and overshadows the sunrise casting the nearby Sandia Mountains in a cool shade of pink.
This is the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and yes: It’s worth it.
More than 800,000 fans descend upon New Mexico’s most populous city for the annual nine-day event, which fills the launch field at the 360-acre Balloon Fiesta Park with a spectacle and experience that is unrivaled anywhere in the world. The Balloon Fiesta (don’t call it a “festival;” after all, this is New Mexico) has been among the Southwest’s top events since it first took to the skies in 1972, when a local pilot assembled 13 balloonists for liftoff from a local shopping mall parking lot. An unexpectedly large crowd showed up, and the event has continued to evolve and expand, these days drawing close to 600 balloons of all shapes and colors with pilots from across the globe.
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Beyond the balloons are dozens of events that are suitable for sunrise seekers and night owls, including concerts and fireworks drawing crowds that dwarf the populations of most of New Mexico’s small towns. To that end, it’s wise to have a game plan.
Each day brings a new roster of hot-air balloon events, but the most popular – and probably the most photographed – is the Mass Ascension, which typically lifts off by about 7 a.m. on Wednesday and on weekends. As spectators gather around them, more than 500 balloons take their places on the launch field, creating a patchwork of controlled chaos. The sound of propane burners hissing across the field is chill-inducing, but despite all the hullabaloo, there’s still a hush and calm that permeates the atmosphere.
“What sets this event apart is that the balloons are quiet,” says Amanda Molina, Balloon Fiesta spokesperson and mom of three. “It’s just peaceful. And the overall vibe is so friendly.”
You can mingle with the pilots as the burners are lit and the colorful envelopes begin to tilt upright. They relish interactions with visitors and even hand out trading cards with information about their balloons. “The pilots are the stars of the show,” Molina says. Watch for the “zebras,” folks dressed in black-and-white stripes who help monitor crowds and assist with logistics.
Mass Ascension days and the first weekend draw the largest crowds, but the rest of the schedule is filled with plenty of balloon action.
“You’re going to get a good show no matter when you go,” Molina says.
Kids’ Day, Thursday, includes a special goodie bag. Thursday and Fri-day feature the Special Shape Rodeo, a young fan favorite. You might see a clown floating with a cartoon cow, while Yoda and Darth Vader stare each other down nearby. A flower, a penguin, a koala and even Vincent Van Gogh have taken to these skies. Attendees often forget, too, that the fiesta is also a ballooning competition, and Monday through Thursday, you can hang around a little later and watch the pilots fly onto the field to grab rings and other targets (the area is cleared of spectators for this event, but the sky is the stage).
For families, the event is economical (tickets are just $10 per person, plus $15 for parking), but you can check out VIP options to elevate the experience. The Gondola Club offers premium parking, a prime viewing area and gourmet dining options with an open bar (cost $110; $55 for ages 4-12). The Chasers’ Club offers a reserved viewing area, pastries and other perks (cost $45, free for ages 6 and younger).
Here’s the catch: Hot-air balloons are weather-dependent, and it’s possible that you might roll in for the launch, camera ready, only to discover that the balloons can’t go up. Because of the variability, Molina suggests that you manage expectations and have a couple of alternate days picked out (tickets are good for other days if events get canceled).
To tamp any disappointment (or after the balloons have gone up), families can amble over to the Balloon Discovery Center to see the working weather station where meteorologists give the thumbs up or down for the day’s liftoff, get lessons on how to identify the parts of a balloon, learn some hot air history and explore the interactive exhibits on the science of ballooning.
Nearby, the massive Main Street area is lined with arts-and-crafts booths and offers concerts and “street” performers (Native American dance, flamenco and other local artists). Kids can stock up on merch, including Balloon Fiesta T-shirts and other themed goodies. Trading pins (think Disney) are popular, as is collecting the Balloon Fiesta calendars.
Not a morning person? The Balloon Fiesta has events for you, too. Evening balloon glows on weekend evenings, usually beginning at about 6 p.m., deliver plenty of drama, even though the balloons don’t leave the ground (they don’t fly at night). After the burners are lit, photos have been taken and all the “oohs” and “ahhs” have been uttered, a fireworks show brings it all to a close.
If you catch hot-air fever, you can take a balloon ride during the fiesta (and during other months, too). Rainbow Ryders is the official concessionaire at Balloon Fiesta Park, but other companies offer excursions nearby. Prices are steep this time of year (usually starting at about $400) and often sell out quickly, so book in advance to find the best deals.
Afternoon typically isn’t balloon time, so after the morning launch, you’ll be left with plenty of time post-nap to explore Albuquerque’s kid-friendly attractions. The ABQ BioPark has a zoo with a new penguin exhibit, a small aquarium, a botanic garden and a lake with fishing and hiking. At the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, you can watch Native American dances and explore an array of exhibits honoring New Mexico’s 19 pueblos. Closer to the action is the sprawling Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, located at the south end of Balloon Fiesta Park. The hot-air balloon museum offers special programming and viewing options during the Balloon Fiesta – and even if you have to get up early, it’s worth it.
If You Go
Balloon Fiesta session tickets cost $10 per person (free for ages 12 and younger). Music Fiesta tickets cost extra. Parking is $15, or you can opt for the Fiesta Express Park and Ride, which has several pickup locations throughout the city (prices vary).
Hotels book up early, so flexibility and a willingness to try alternate options is helpful. The Visit Albuquerque website (visitabq.org) can often provide guidance for last-minute planners. Vacation rental sites often have rooms available, too.
For more information, visit balloonfiesta.com.
Carolyn Graham is a New Mexico–based freelance writer and mom of two children who have survived a few early Balloon Fiesta mornings.