Spectators arrive by the thousands every fall — by car, bus, and even bicycle. The sun still tucked behind the Sandia Mountains, they gather on a 78-acre grass field where the hum of massive gas-powered fans push air into nylon canopies, morphing them into a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors.
Bundled in blankets and jackets, spectators watch in awe as those canopies take the shape of balloons and lift into the desert sky.
The dazzling show continues in waves until hundreds of hot air balloons fill the sky above Albuquerque. Those balloons float to areas across the city — and into Rio Rancho and the villages of Corrales and Los Ranchos — delighting those on the ground. Mother Nature and her morning winds decide the direction of travel until pilots decide to land.
Each year, for nine days in early October, these scenes repeat, making the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta one of the most unique (and most photographed) events in the entire world.
But a show this spectacular requires dedication from event organizers, city officials and thousands of volunteers.
It also requires money, both from public and private entities.
As the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta grows, so does the city. Balloons can be seen in neighborhoods and on morning commutes every morning they rise. (Photo by Ryan Lowery for Source NM)
This year’s Balloon Fiesta — the 51st annual, themed “A View From Above” — is set to welcome 546 pilots from 12 countries who will fly some 530 balloons. Many of those balloons will be a traditional tear-drop shape, but 107 are classified as a special shape, with 12 special shapes making their first appearance at Balloon Fiesta this year.
Laying out, inflating, and launching a balloon requires the help of several people, and when it’s time to land, those crew members navigate the crowded Albuquerque-metro roadways as they “chase” the balloon. Once the pilot finds a safe place to land, those crews help deflate the balloon and stow it until its next flight.
This year, around 2,000 volunteers will work as members of chase crews. This is on top of some 1,000 volunteers at Balloon Fiesta Park, including the famed “Zebras,” a crew of launch directors who wear black and white striped shirts.
Putting on an event of this magnitude requires not only help from thousands of people, but funding from both government and nonprofit sources.
The Balloon Fiesta is managed and produced through Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Inc., a designated 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies largely on sponsorships and donations in order to conduct its business.
The nonprofit also partners with the City of Albuquerque, for instance, by leasing exclusive use of the city-owned Balloon Fiesta Park throughout September and October.
51st Balloon Fiesta: Numbers From Above
546 hot air balloon pilots flying some 530 balloons
107 of those balloons are special shapes, including 12 making their first appearance at Fiesta
208 individual launch sites on the 78-acres of grassed field, which is comparable to the size of 54 football fields
12 countries participating, including: Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Mexico, Spain, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States
Nine countries participating in the Gordon Bennett gas balloon race, including: Austria, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States
Estimated 828,800 visitors last year
7,800 parking spaces
200 park and ride buses
286 picnic tables
38 food concessions
38 merchandise concessions
60,000 official Balloon Fiesta pins ordered
More than 1,000 Balloon Fiesta volunteers
More than 2,000 chase crew volunteers
Currently, the organization has a 25-year lease for the park, and the terms of that lease require Balloon Fiesta to provide $150,000 worth of improvements each year to the park.
Andie Mercer, a spokesperson for Balloon Fiesta, said the organization coordinates with the city to decide where that money should be spent, but the city ultimately approves projects.
“Even though Balloon Fiesta has over $1 million in improvement credit toward the lease, the organization continues to make improvements to the park,” Mercer said. “Over the many years, it has included milling parking lots, launch site improvements (and) retaining walls.”
Upgrades made for this year’s Fiesta include new bleachers on the west side of the field to offer spectators a place to sit while they watch balloons inflate and launch, as well as a new drainage system.
The area known as “vendor row” also received upgrades to the electrical outlets that power concession and merchandise booths, Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Director Dave Simon said during a Tuesday news conference.
“This is very important. This means that the coffee at this year’s Fiesta will be hot, and the burritos will be hotter,” Simon joked.
Last year, Balloon Fiesta drew an estimated 828,800 visitors over the course of the nine-day event.
While officials wouldn’t speculate on the potential number of attendees this year, the final Saturday of the event, Oct. 14, coincides with an annular solar eclipse.
With Albuquerque situated in the direct path of the eclipse, Fiesta officials are planning a special morning balloon glow. It is scheduled to take place during the eclipse, and the confluence of two rare events is likely to draw large crowds.
When thousands of people gather at Balloon Fiesta Park each morning, and often for evening events as well, several challenges arise, such as providing bathrooms and places for all those visitors to park their cars.
Event organizers address the former by bringing in 375 port-a-potties.
The portable toilets are paid for and maintained by the nonprofit behind Balloon Fiesta, with the exception of some portable toilets near the Sid Cutter Pilots’ Pavilion, which are provided by the city, in addition to existing restrooms inside the facility.
Though paid for with city funds, those toilets are still maintained by Balloon Fiesta, and the organization pays the city $50,000 per year to use the pavilion during Fiesta.
Balloon Fiesta Park, which encompasses 356 acres and includes a 78-acre grassed area, currently has parking for about 7,800 vehicles.
A special shapes balloon from the 2022 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta rises from the horizon as a couple children watch. (Photo by Ryan Lowery for Source NM)
A proposal to lease seven acres of the land to the New Mexico United soccer club for a new stadium would take up 280 of those parking spots, but the stadium project would also add 1,100 new spaces for a net gain of 820 parking spots, city officials said during the Tuesday news conference.
Through partnerships with Albuquerque Public Schools and Rio Rancho Public Schools, Balloon Fiesta operates a park and ride service that allows visitors to park at places like a shopping mall, then ride a bus into the often congested Balloon Fiesta Park area.
In order to have enough buses for each event session, Fiesta organizers work with the school districts to coordinate the use of buses, but the organization contracts with the bus companies separately to pay the cost of fuel and drivers.
“This process includes seeking permission from the Albuquerque Public Schools and Rio Rancho Public Schools to approach their transportation vendors,” Mercer said. “Balloon Fiesta then negotiates a separate contract with the respective school bus companies.”
One often overlooked way to get to Fiesta is on bicycle. Fiesta operates a bike valet service. Accessible from the bike trail along the AMAFCA North Diversion Channel, the valet is located north of the Balloon Museum.
Public safety is another concern whenever thousands of people gather in one spot, so Balloon Fiesta hires, and pays, 175 security personnel to work during the event, Mercer said.
The city also provides officers from the Albuquerque Police Department who patrol the area and manage traffic for the event. Supported by taxpayer dollars, multiple other law enforcement agencies assist as well, including the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and New Mexico State Police.
Albuquerque police said during Tuesday’s news conference that it will have an extensive presence around Balloon Fiesta Park this year, and that officers will be on the field in both uniform and plain clothes.
During last year’s Fiesta, a Friday evening Special Shapes Glowdeo event was disrupted by a lightning storm and heavy rain that prompted a shelter-in-place order, after officials first sent out a confusing, and ultimately erroneous, message that indicated the park was being evacuated.
Balloon Fiesta Park, which encompasses 356 acres and includes a 78-acre grassed area, currently has parking for about 7,800 vehicles. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced Tuesday the launch of a new cellphone alert system that is designed to send important messages only to people near Balloon Fiesta Park.
“This is a way to alert people within a radius of Balloon Fiesta of any issues that may be occurring, as opposed to alerting the entire county, or the entire state,” Keller said. “Even if it’s traffic-related, we can do it within a mile of the Balloon Fiesta.”
The ‘Cherry on Top’
This year’s Balloon Fiesta will feature the first ever University of New Mexico balloon, another example of mixing private and taxpayer money to achieve a common goal.
The university unveiled its cherry red, turquoise and black balloon during a Monday event on campus. Named Cherry on Top, the balloon is part of a nascent partnership with the hot air balloon ride company Rainbow Ryders Inc.
As part of a four-year agreement, UNM paid $20,000 in production costs to create the balloon, which is owned and piloted by Rainbow Ryders, Director Of University Marketing Ethan Rule said.
Under the terms of the agreement, the university will pay $72,000 over four years to cover the operational costs of the balloon. The funds come from the University Communication & Marketing department as part of an overall advertising budget.
“This investment will increase brand exposure while also bringing a unique experience to future and current Lobos,” Rule said. “Video and images of the balloon will also be used in marketing materials and on social media to highlight the University with a nod to New Mexico’s distinct hot air balloon culture.”
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