By Claire Gaskill
It’s not every day you see one hot air balloon. At the Carolina BalloonFest, however, you can see handfuls of these helium filled flying baskets. This event entertains families with over 50 balloons the third full weekend each October. Located at the Statesville Regional Airport in Statesville, North Carolina, this festival is grand to say the least; it attracts locals, visitors, and sponsors for a three-day event by holding a variety of scheduled activities centered around hot air balloons and families. That being said, timing arrival to the festival with the scheduled events is essential and preplanning is a requirement to truly maximize the experience.
Tickets can be purchased online, and it is important to do so in advance. We learned the hard way that the event times will sell out, especially during balloon lightings and lift off. Therefore, a pre-purchased ticket well in advance will ensure you get the most out of your experience. We were disappointed to have missed the Evening Glow Window event (where the balloons are lit up during dusk) due to tickets being sold out. Furthermore, the balloon launch occurs only twice a day at most (weather conditions can alter the schedule), so if that sight is one you are seeking, planning attendance during the short window where balloons take flight is essential. However, do not fret if you cannot arrive during your ideal time. The festival has a variety of activities and a packed schedule. No matter your arrival time, you will find something exciting to fill your festival visit.
When we arrived at the festival at 10am on Sunday morning, we were by no means the first ones there. The crowd, seemingly early risers, was vast and parking was already a hike from the event itself. Multiple entrance gates and parking lots funneled into the open field at the airport that housed the event. The informal setting was contained by a radius of sponsor tents along the near side and vendor tents (which included food and crafts) along the far side. In addition to the variety of tents, the perimeter also included an alcohol section, featuring booths from local wineries and breweries, and an area for children with bouncy houses and other carnival games. Inside the circle of tents and vendors, the festival was fairly bare. There were two balloon activities and a stage for the performers who were scheduled to join later in the day. A colorful carpet of picnic blankets also covered the dewy grass where parents sat watching their kids play in the open field. Immediately, we were drawn to a tent selling fudge and candied apples. After laughing with the friendly vendor about the lack of fresh fudge around Elon, we decided on a flavor and continued exploring.
Beyond wondering through the maze of vendors, visitors also had the opportunity to wait in one of the two lengthy lines to spend $5 for a chance to go for a small lift in a tethered hot air balloon. Given this was the only way to truly experience riding in one of the balloons at the festival beyond scheduling a pricey and limited private flight, the line was extremely long. We decided to save the time and money and skip that opportunity. There was also an additional hot air balloon that visitors could pay for the opportunity to take a picture inside.
Since we were trying to save our money after paying for the admissions ticket, we were surprised by the lack of activities available to us through the ticket purchase. The number of sponsors in comparison to vendors and the additional cost of many of the attractions was a surprise. We did, however, have the free opportunity to watch a hot air balloon be set up. This process allowed us to see how the balloon goes from being rolled up in the back of a truck to taking flight. That was a really interesting and unique experience; it was the highlight of the festival for us!
As we pulled out of the parking lot and drove down the narrow dirt road exiting the airport, we reflected back on the experience a little disappointed by the lack of opportunities a general admissions ticket furnishes. If we were to do it again, we would really consider the schedule of events before going. We felt that it was not worth visiting if there was not an event you were really interested in happening. For future trips, we decided the best way to maximize the experience is to purchase a ticket well in advance for a time period when the balloons are scheduled to take flight. After coming to these conclusions, we were back on the road to our next destination.