With humble beginnings in 1972 when thirteen balloonists met to fly together in celebration of a local radio host’s birthday, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta has grown to become the world’s biggest balloon event. Occurring annually since 1972 for nine days every October (except in 2020 when the pandemic forced its cancellation) crowds come to witness mass balloon ascensions and marvel at air shows, fireworks, chainsaw carving, and other events. Attendance in 2021 was down by twenty percent due to COVID concerns, but the fiesta still attracted around 600,000 attendees and 543 balloonists, a relaxed crowd that allowed for more space to move around. To see one of the mass ascensions requires getting up hours before dawn to be at the park when the sun rises, the best time to launch.
The fiesta is run by a non-profit organization, not the city, and takes place at a city park named for the fiesta. A museum dedicated to ballooning is also nearby and run separately from the fiesta. The fiesta and museum rely on thousands of volunteers from many local civic organizations to make the magic happen.
If you plan to attend, stay at least three days and preferably more. Mass ascensions are not scheduled every day. But they always plan to fly on the two weekends and on one weekday of the fiesta. Then, the weather needs to cooperate. If there is rain or the winds are not right, a “red flag” goes up indicating balloons cannot fly. So, the longer you stay, the better chance you have of seeing a mass ascension.
In 2021 I attended a “glow” event when balloonists fire up their balloons but do not leave the ground. This beautiful event takes place after sunset. The light from the fires provides warmth in the chilly autumn night air. The balloons are a spectacle, each its own design, and many in shapes of animals, rocket ships, and other various characters. My personal favorite was sponsored by a bug extermination company. The balloon had a spider on the side that appeared to crawl as it was part of the balloon’s air cavity. There is truly no comparable event anywhere.
A friend who only decided to attend close to the time of the event found that RV sites are booked for miles around. Hotels start to fill up a week in advance. Restaurant reservations become tight. And locals must drive defensively as drivers tend to look up at the balloons instead of keeping eyes on traffic. Another friend had tickets and planned to attend but could not get to Balloon Fiesta Park in time due to traffic.
If you plan to drive, leave extra time for long traffic delays arriving and plan to spend about an hour in traffic to exit. You may have to walk twenty minutes from parking to the park. Shuttle buses are available from locations in town, but you must buy tickets in advance. The buses take you directly to the park. Even then, lines are long to board the buses.
More expensive tickets are available for special seating areas at the park, but visibility is good from general admission locations. You can also view the field from a slight distance at the Balloon Museum on the periphery of Balloon Fiesta Park.
Tickets are non-refundable, but you can use a day ticket on any day if you haven’t had it scanned as entering the gates before.
If you don’t want to pay to enter the fiesta grounds and are a gambling type, a highlight for some balloonists is when a balloon barely touches the Rio Grande that passes close to the park in a stunt called “kissing the river.” It’s a difficult maneuver because the pilot only really controls a balloon’s rising and falling. So, the wind must be just right, and a pilot could easily miss the river or make too big a splash. There is a park on the river off Alameda Road west of 2nd Street that you might scope out.
It’s all about having fun and not getting too upset if the weather conditions don’t allow the balloons to fly. Enjoy.