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Let hot air balloons take you away

Bil Bowden
YorkDispatch

The thrill of seeing a hot air balloon hanging over York or Lancaster County never gets old.  The colorful upside-down tear drop floats silently over the Susquehanna River, sometimes becoming a silhouette in front of the rising sun. It's a spectacular sight.

Keep that in mind, but imagine watching 700 balloons in electric colors and amazing shapes rise over Sandia Peak in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The 45th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is over now, with just under a million people visiting the world-famous event.

Three York and Lancaster County balloon companies offer local rides. AE Balloon Flights is headquartered in Hallam, and claim to be the only company  'offering flights over and around the Susquehanna River'. The New Horizon Balloon Team is located in Intercourse, and says "The entire team flies for fun, not because it is a business. Everyone has another full-time job...enjoying the sport for its own sake." In Lititz, the  Susquehanna Valley Balloon Company says "Whether flying in a hot air balloon has been a life long ambition or a surprise gift, you will find it an exciting and memorable adventure."

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The Fiesta claims it is the 'most photographed event in the world', and with nearly a million visitors to the 365-acre park this year, it seems a valid claim. Everyone has a camera, either as a DSLR or a smart phone, and everyone uses it.  It is difficult to take a bad picture of these large, colorful and weirdly shaped balloons. By the way, check the website for some handy photography tips for the fiesta and nighttime fireworks.

Every morning, exactly at 6 a.m., a few trial balloons--the Dawn Patrol-- get started and lift off to check wind. Yellow-orange gas flame explodes into the balloons, making their colors even more spectacular.  At 7 a.m., the others take off in waves of color, maybe to land a few hours later. Some are the traditional upside down teardrop. Others are cartoon or movie characters, including Shrek, Darth Vader, Minions, Uncle Sam or Yoda. Then there's a huge brown cow, a bus, sun, helicopter, fish, Keystone cop, a rocket ship...   You get the point, it's all here.

To check other balloon festivals scattered throughout the U.S., check here

There are surprisingly few restraints to getting pictures here, despite these aerial monsters having flame blown into them just a few feet away from visitors. It's a kind of refreshing-- if you get too close and burned, run over by the gondola or tripped by the ropes, it's your fault. Thank you, I understand.

From the website-- "From its modest beginnings in 1972 with 13 balloons launching from a shopping mall parking lot, the Balloon Fiesta has grown to multiple events launching year-round at the custom-designed, 365-acre Balloon Fiesta Park. Our signature event remains Balloon Fiesta--which, with 700 balloons, is the largest ballooning event on earth, the most photographed event on earth, and the largest annual international event held in the United States."ID=92710964

When the grounds open, the place is packed with people, even though the sun won't rise for a long while. Vendors selling the usual tourist books, pictures and T-shirts have gone beyond the typical paraphernalia to hawking the festival's own skin cream and makeup. At 5 a.m., the hot dog stands are going great guns, the breakfast burritos are being sold quicker than they can be made.

Just a single mishap marred the grand eight-day event. On the opening Sunday, high winds caused two balloons to hit power lines, causing a small explosion and knocking out power to 1,200 residents. According to the Associated Press, the power company had to cut the gondola from the balloon to rescue the pilot and passengers. In 2004, a balloon truck a 50,000 watt radio tower. Two passengers and the 68-year old pilot had to climb down a 60-story tower to safety.

With all the people and a equipment packed into the fairgrounds, it's a salute to the organizers that mishaps like this-- or any others- don't happen more often. Each year, the fiesta improves in numbers of balloons, visitors and events. With next year's fiesta already planned and printed, it's a good bet next year will be even more impressive.

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If you are planning a trip to the festival, finding a place to stay in Albuquerque or somewhere near is a feat in itself. A million people have to sleep somewhere, and not all are locals who can haul themselves home. More than 50 countries had media here, and visitors from all over the world crowd through the gate. Get reservations in early-- now.

We had a 35-foot motor home to park, and because it was an open agenda trip, we couldn't make reservations. We found a place to stop in a sloped hillside casino parking lot for $60 a night-- no hookups-- not a problem. For each session-- there is a morning and evening session most days--the shuttle whisked campers from the casino to the balloon grounds for $10 apiece, each session. Once there, prepare to walk, walk and walk some more. For the handicapped, there are rental scooters available and after a busy session, even healthy legs are tired.

But it'll be a 'good' tired.