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21st Annual Hot Air Balloon Festival


The full title is a bit of a mouthful but worth saying: the 21st Annual Arkansas Hot Air Balloon State Championship and Festival occurs September 9-11 in Harrison. During this fun weekend of activities, balloonists engage in aerial challenges including the Hare and the Hound Race, in which one balloon is pursued by the rest, and a Key Grab, with balloonists maneuvering as close as possible to collect a key from atop a pole. The competitions are thrilling to watch, but Saturday evening is a special time for the public to enjoy and appreciate the hot air balloons up close, with tethered balloon rides and the balloon glow after dark. Knowing what to expect for parking, catching a tethered ride and general safety around the balloons will help you enjoy your evening.

1 Banner Photo Harrison Hot Air Balloon Festival Balloon Glow

Last year my family and I were among the multitude of over 4,000 who flocked to the banks of Crooked Creek near downtown Harrison for the festival. We were familiar with the area, which meant we had little trouble getting there and parking around 5:30 p.m., while the CASA Kids Fest was in full swing. Ample parking is provided at the Anstaff Bank Soccer Complex, but by the late evening, it can be hard to find a parking spot. Additional parking is located at the old driving range across from First Baptist Church, about a five-minute walk from the field. After parking, my mission was to figure out how to secure a ride in a tethered hot air balloon. The event website states a limited number of rides are available, so I expected to find a tent selling tickets. My search took me from one end of the field to the other and I talked to several different volunteer groups before learning the setup.

Fifteen giant squares were painted all over the field and those who wanted a ride were instructed to stand around the perimeter and wait for an event volunteer to bring a stack of waivers and collect $5 per person. I lined up with my 11-year-oldsidekick Cassie around 6 p.m. at the Harrison Regional Chamber of Commerce balloon. While we waited, we talked with the gaggle of people waiting with us. Like Cassie and me, the others were first-time attendees, visiting from Branson, Bentonville and the Little Rock area, and we commiserated about trying to figure out how to receive balloon rides. The couple from Bentonville had a little girl who was delighted that we were wearing dresses the same shade, chartreuse, and a Little Rock resident was irate at a lack of available information, but we were all relieved to be on the right track to getting a ride.

When the balloon square we were waiting at began setting up, we noticed the basket was rather small. I stepped forward to ask a team member if the pilot would take two at a time up, and the reply was that it depended on the size of the two people but, in general, this basket would only take one passenger at a time. We were advised to seek out a balloon with a larger basket in order for us to ride together, and the volunteer mentioned the Re/Max balloon nearby. At 6:30 p.m. we ran to the Re/Max balloon square, where the team had just begun unpacking their balloon equipment to set up, a process that seemed to take each of the teams 20 to 30 minutes.


2 Harrison Hot Air Balloon Festival Inflating Balloons

A dog with a tail shaved like a lion, tufted at the end, trotted out to accompany the Re/Max team. His owner, a tall middle-aged man, tossed a ball for the dog to catch as he began pulling out the heavy basket and folded balloon. Soon, the dog began helping by hauling ropes to tether the balloon. We watched the process of unfurling and spreading out the nylon fabric of the balloon, and the dog’s antics, with interest. Long shadows were cast from a nearby tree line, stretching across the edge of the field to eclipse our group at the Re/Max balloon. In my chartreuse dress and sandals, comfortable for the heat of the day earlier, I felt chilly. A volunteer with a clipboard began walking down the line, collecting money and signatures on the waiver sheets. At 7:04 p.m., the Re/Max team began inflating their balloon, slowly at first, shaking the fabric to spread the air out evenly, but after two minutes the fan’s power was increased. Once the balloon began to inflate, it was only a few minutes before it was airborne. As the sun began to set, the hot air balloons across the field began to rise.

The Re/Max balloon was ready to take a rider up first, at 7:15 p.m., and two teenage girls at the front of the line stepped forward. They clambered into the tall basket with help from members of the Harrison Goblin football team. As the balloon went up, the dog remained on the ground with his face pointed skyward, monitoring the well-being of the pilot, his owner, who threw the ball down for the dog to catch. The balloon hovered about 20 feet in the air for a minute and then descended to the ground. The next two people went 30 feet or more in the air, and I timed their trip at almost two minutes. Next to us, a balloon in patriotic colors was taking riders twice as high as our Re/Max balloon.

3 Harrison Hot Air Balloon Festival Re_Max Balloon and Harrison Goblins

It was cold and dark at 7:50 p.m., the time Cassie and I had our chance to ride. I kept my skirt collected around me as I was hoisted into the basket by a linebacker. Finally, we were leaving the earth behind. It was a relaxing sensation to float away, and the heat of the balloon’s blower warmed me. At our greatest height, the pilot, who told us his name was Joel, used my phone to snap a photo of us. The quality of the photo was poor due to the darkness and uneven lighting from the blower, but the feeling of buoyancy above Earth with Cassie enjoying the adventure beside me will stick with me regardless.

4 Harrison Hot Air Balloon Festival Two Colorful Balloons

After our ride, which seemed all too brief after hours of waiting, we retreated a distance to watch the balloon glow. Balloons returned to earth and relieved themselves of passengers. As one, the 19 balloons ignited their burners. The crowd gasped and snapped photographs, but one balloon, unfortunately, caught fire from the burner, and the billowing fabric deflated and collapsed from the spreading flames. The team worked quickly to isolate and eliminate the fire. Such an incident helped us keep in mind that the squares painted around the balloons are for our protection—remain a safe distance from the balloons so they can operate safely without injuring anyone, and, in case an emergency happens, so the team can respond efficiently.

5 Harrison Hot Air Balloon Festival Beautiful Balloons Long Lines

Keeping basic safety guidelines in mind, arriving early and being patient while finding parking and exercising patience again while waiting for balloon rides should help festival-goers enjoy their evening at the 21st Annual Arkansas Hot Air Balloon State Championship and Festival. Beginning at 5 p.m., let children enjoy inflatable structures, pony rides and face painting at the CASA Kids Fest while waiting to see the balloons inflate for the evening of tethered rides and a glow. If you’d like to get more height, helicopter rides are available starting at $25 and afford a bird’s eye view of the glowing and bobbing balloons below. The festival is subject to weather conditions, so check the website in advance.

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Adria English is a professional writer and a casual artist with a penchant for doodling. She currently resides in Mountain Home, Arkansas with her husband, Garrett, their daughter, Nenive, and two black cats. By foot, drone, car and kayak, Adria enjoys exploring and experiencing the Natural State.

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