Champaign County Balloon Festival kicks off this weekend: Culture: Smile politely

September is a month filled with festivals, and this year there will be a new one on the calendar. Champaign County’s first Hot Air Balloon Festival will “launch” this Friday and Saturday, September 24-25 at Dodds Park in Champaign. Balloons over Vermilion has been a popular event for the past few years, and Centralia has an annual festival, but this will be the first for CU.

John McDaniel and Chris Diana of Twin City Realty are two of the people running the event. While this is something that will appeal to all ages, Diana focuses on providing an exciting experience for children with disabilities. They work with Midwest Balloon Rides, an Indiana company that offers wheelchair accessible hot air balloon rides. The basket is larger and has a perspex door so a wheelchair user can see out. There is also a device in the basket that will securely hold a chair in place. Organizers are working with OSF Healthcare to schedule children for captive rides, which will take place on both afternoons of the festivals. Then the rides will be open to anyone who wants a little taste of what a hot air balloon ride could be, but a little closer to the ground. As Diana says, “These don’t take off into space…that won’t make sure you’re okay for a [full] hot air balloon ride, but that might make sure you’re not!”

The captive rides are just part of the two-day festival. Professional aeronauts (that’s the name of a hot-air balloon pilot, thank you Google) will be present to perform a balloon launch on both days of the festival. Hot air balloon pilots are fully licensed and approved by the FAA, and they’re a bit of a club of sorts. They often travel together and appear at the same events. There will be pilots coming to the festival from at least six other states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri. Many pilots stop at the champagne festival en route to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta next week.

There will be approximately 15 balloons in flight each day, although it depends on the weather. “Balloons are a bit finicky. They need very good weather. They can’t tolerate a lot of wind,” says Diana. Hot air balloons usually take off very early in the morning or early evening. It is then that the winds are more favourable. Diana says even a 15mph wind, which isn’t very dramatic, can keep a ball on the ground. Balloon launches are carefully monitored by the FAA, there will be a representative on hand to perform flight control. Fun fact: balloons are the highest priority planes. They cannot be steered, so they have priority over planes.

The hot air balloon rides are scheduled for 5 p.m. each day, and they’ll play a game where one balloon drops a marker, and the others see how far they can drop their markers. Once it gets dark enough, the balloons will “glow”. Says Diana, “The balloons are attached to the ground, but they turn on the burners so they light up like big light bulbs.” It will also be an opportunity to get closer to the balloons.

Hot air balloon activities are the main draw, but there will be a full carnival at the event, complete with rides, a children’s tent and fair food. Joyful Bubbles will be at your fingertips, and there will be face painting, kids games, balloon animals and a magic show.

This event goes beyond family entertainment it is also a fundraising event. Proceeds will be split among several organizations in the area: Crisis Nursery, Ambucs, Cunningham Children’s Home and CU Special Recreation.

A few logistical considerations: The main entrance to the festival will be the Mattis Avenue entrance. General admission is $10 for adults, and those 12 and under are free. Beyond that, be prepared to spend money on carnival tickets and food. Much of the festival will be located near the softball complex. Doors open at 4 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday. The festival will remain open until 10 p.m. You can find the complete program of events here.

If you want to get more involved, the organizers are looking for volunteers. You can register for the festival website.

Photo from the top of Midwest Balloon Rides.

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