The three-day Labor Day Lift Off this holiday weekend isn’t solely about the hot-air balloons that light up the nights and dot the morning skies, but they’re what draw the crowds.
About 150,000 people flock to Memorial Park every year to see them.
Some years, pilots float in from foreign countries to show off their elaborately decorated balloons to oohs and aahs, but this year is an all-U.S. affair, organizer Scott Appelman said.
The 66 pilots are coming from Utah, Texas, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Ohio, Kentucky and, of course, Colorado, to wow crowds and promote ballooning, he said.
Event-goers will even have the chance to experience the thrill of lift-off for themselves.
Appelman, who owns Rainbow Ryders Inc. out of Albuquerque, will offer commercial rides for $275 per person. Reservations can be made by calling 800-725-2477.
Taking to the skies is not as scary or dangerous as people might think, 28-year pilot Dave Bair said.
Recent reports of crashes, some fatal, seem to turn many would-be adventurers away. The fiery crash in Texas last year that claimed former Colorado Springs residents Lorilee and Paige Brabson and killed 14 others especially left a scar.
But that’s the anomaly, Bair stressed.
“Ballooning is remarkably safe,” he said. “Accidents are very rare but tend to get lots of media attention.”
Since ballooning depends on fair weather, pilots work to ensure the safest rides by consulting several weather reports each day, Bair said. If they remain grounded, it likely means winds topped out at more than 10 mph or precipitation was in the forecast.
The “safety first” motto is how Colorado Springs has maintained a Labor Day balloon event for 41 years, even though it’s changed ownership, Bair said.
The event was on shaky ground three years ago, when the organizers behind the then-Colorado Balloon Classic announced it would not return to the city in 2015. They’d been running it since 1977.
Hot Apple Productions, also owned by Appelman, took it over, with support from the city and $90,000 in “seed money” from the city’s tax on hotel rooms and rental cars.
At the time, Appelman said he hoped to make the event self-supporting in three to five years, and he pledged to be transparent in how tax money is spent to demonstrate a return on the city’s investment.
Figures on how much money the event has brought into Colorado Springs over the past two years have not been calculated, said Tom Osborne, of partner group The Sports Corp. But he says he knows the impact is “tremendous.”
Hotels already are filling – in part because the weekend also promises to bring in about 9,000 Air Force Academy families for Parents’ Weekend – and restaurants and gas stations should see a boost, Osborne said.
If the main event doesn’t float your balloon – er boat – then spectators can try out one of the festival’s other features.
Watch the U.S. Air Force parachute team Wings of Blue perform. Catch the latest tricks as wake-boarders glide across Prospect Lake. See chainsaw masters chew their way through a carving competition. Or, join in the fun and compete for your own victory in doughnut eating or paddle boarding events.