It begins with a flurry of activity. Balloon operators prepare for lift-off, checking equipment and tossing ropes as spectators wander the grounds, observing the action. And then it reaches a new level: dozens of balloons take flight at once, filling the crisp December dawn sky with brilliant blues, purples, oranges, and reds that rival the colors around them. The Arizona Balloon Classic's orbs then set off on an aerial hare-and-hound race, drawing cheers from below as onlookers snap pictures.
For one weekend each year, visitors gather on the grounds to snap pictures and watch the balloons inflate and lift-off outside the Gilbert Civic Center for the Classic––a three-day festival celebrating hot-air balloon flight and culture. But the fun doesn't end with the descent to earth. After sunset the tethered balloons begin to glow, lighting up for the DESERT GLOWS portion of the festivities. Attendees browse exhibits and feast on treats from a variety of vendors, and children play in the Family Fun Zone. Last, on Saturday evening, sparks give balloons a run for their money, springing through the sky in a stunning fireworks display.
At 3,000 feet up, when all you can hear is the wind, the landscape takes on a magical quality. Using brilliantly colored balloons, Arizona Balloon Rides imparts that magic to up to 16 passengers at a time. The wind propels them as they float along for 45–60 minutes, up to 5 linear miles. Even children as young as 7 years old can peer over the top of the basket to scan the woodlands and fields for jackrabbits scampering, cows chewing grass, coyotes suing roadrunners in small-claims court.
Though a pilot mans each of Hot Air Expeditions balloon flights, the excursions are really guided by Mother Nature. The colorful balloons simply follow the wind, hovering above the cacti and coyote that call the Sonoran desert home before gently climbing breezes to give passengers a full view of the surrounding mountains and lakes. Groups can take morning flights year-round or afternoon flights from November through March, both of which offer spectacular photo opportunities, as well as time-sensitive challenges to any still-life painters on board.
The mutable nature of the flights mean they last anywhere from 45–90 minutes, after which, passengers will enjoy sparkling beverages and catered snacks, such as pastries. Each guest is awarded an official flight certificate as a memento of their aerial journey before boarding a courtesy van that returns them to the launch point. Though the actual flights last up to 90 minutes, groups should allow up to four hours for the entire trip.
Fire and wind: that’s all it takes to fly. Hot air ballooning’s sheer simplicity sparked pilot Scott Appelman’s interest in the sport 30 years ago. “In a lot of ways, it’s the exact opposite of the way the world is today,” says the Rainbow Ryders, Inc. founder. “And I think that gives it a certain degree of romance.”
Further evidence of ballooning’s inherent romance can be found in the number of proposals and weddings that have taken place aboard Rainbow Ryders’ fleet of 19 balloons, earning the company a spot on Yahoo’s list of top five places in the nation to pop the question. Even if engagement is not on passengers’ agendas, the crew still strives to ensure a memorable expedition. Guests can join the launch crew to help inflate the balloon before takeoff, and upon landing, pilot and passengers clink glasses in a champagne toast to celebrate another successful flight.
Though whimsy and romance may prove the biggest draw, Rainbow Ryders’ untarnished safety record is what ultimately keeps the balloons hovering. Since 1982, experienced pilots have safely floated 160,000 people over the Rio Grande Valley. Pilots not only helm top-tier equipment, but carefully monitor the region’s weather patterns to ensure smooth thermal drafts and minimize hitchhiking requests from migrating geese.
For just one day, Danielle Plaza will bloom with music, color, and tantalizing smells for the inaugural Pub n Grub Block Party. The festival celebrates local craft beer and street foods while raising funds to benefit the Arc of Tempe, which serves citizens with cognitive and physical disabilities. However, food and drink aren't the only attractions: throughout the day, an outdoor stage showcases live acts and tethered hot-air balloon rides let visitors soar in the sky after sundown. A family activity area even features attractions such as a 200-foot zip line. Because it's conveniently located in a parking lot, the festival will also include an exhibition of wax-shined Corvettes.
Plenty of couples meet online, but Adventures 2000 ensures they can also meet over a moonlit hike or an afternoon skydive. Though not a matchmaking service, the network connects singles aged 21–55 throughout the Phoenix area with a range of professionally organized events. These informal happenings are conducted in a low-pressure atmosphere, making it easier for participants to make new friends or meet someone special to adopt a highway with. Adventures 2000's staff coordinates 30–35 of these activities and events each month, from horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and rock climbing to dinner parties and game nights. They also organize outings to live concerts and theatrical productions, and plan excursions as playful as themed treasure hunts or as elaborate as week-long travel packages. To ensure a safe and carefree attitude of the events, the staff extensively screens all new members.