Saturday, October 24, 2015

Feeling Deflated: A Review of the Great Midwest Balloon Fest

Remember that scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie is anticipating his visit with Santa and he's imagining how perfectly the whole thing is going to go? Instead, Santa chastises him for asking for a toy that will destroy his vision and then an elf's boot in the ass sends him careening down the slide?

That's kind of how the Great Midwest Balloon Fest was for me.

Maybe I'm being harsh.

Nope. Actually, the entire event has that carnie/gypsy/I just got screwed by the circus feel to it. In the words of a great friend of mine...I think we've been had.

And that stinks because this had so much potential. I love a balloon festival. Back home, there is a balloon glow and race associated with the Kentucky Derby every year. When Blue was about 18 months old, we took him to a glow and while it was breathtakingly beautiful, there is a 0% chance that he remembers it. Will he remember it now that he's 3? Probably not. But he mentioned something to me today that happened about 6 months ago, so...there's hope.

The entire fiasco started with the Balloon Festival 5K/Fun Run, which was scheduled for Saturday night of the festival. We had purchased our Haunted Ft. Leavenworth tour tickets about 2 hours after they went on sale (literally) so, as much as I wanted to race under hot air balloons drifting overhead, we were already committed. Suddenly (and after an early bird deadline had passed), the date of the 5K/Fun Run changed to Sunday morning at dawn. No mention of why the date changed or even an announcement that it had, I just happened to notice one day on their Facebook page that it said the 25th instead of the 24th. When I asked if I could receive the early bird price since it wasn't my fault they had changed the date (had it been Sunday, I would have registered immediately, thus securing the $25/person original price), I was told that they were sorry but it's all electronic. There was nothing to be done. I could pay the $30/person registration fee before race day or pay $35/person at the door. More than a little grumpy about the whole exchange, I had to sit on it for a couple of weeks before ultimately agreeing to do it anyway (because, again, I'm a sucker for hot air balloons and the allure of being with them in one form or another is just too great). In another unfortunate turn of events, when I went to register for the race, I used the registration address on the festival's website for my GPS and that took me to an attorney's office 1 block over. And they would only take cash or check on-site. However, 5K registration came with wristbands to enter the festival for free. So, we cleared our calendars for Friday night.

Gates opened at 4 PM on Friday and after leaving the house, going back for the wristbands and then leaving again, we arrived around 4:15. Our GPS brought us straight down 4th Street and I think that probably is the most direct route. If you attended the Renaissance Fair last month, you know exactly where to go. There were plenty of volunteers on hand to direct us into a parking lot and then into a parking spot. Since we arrived right after the gates opened, we were about 6 rows back from the entrance but, as with any well-attended event, the later you arrive, the further you must walk. There is VIP parking available, but several people complained on the festival's Facebook page that it was not much closer and in the grass (as opposed to the pavement that was promised). I'm not sure that's worth the $10 price tag.

As you approach the main gate, there are several vendors set up outside the festival, including Dunkin Donuts, an artist drawing caricatures, a jewelry designer and a representative for Thirty-One. If you have not pre-purchased your tickets online, there is a ticket tent to the right just before the gate. (I use the word gate loosely. It's really just a couple of volunteers standing at the entrance checking wrist bands and tickets and handing out festival maps.) I've heard from others that the credit card fee is pretty steep...ranging from $7-9/ticket, depending on whether you buy them online or on site. However, apparently MWR has tickets with no fee.

As you enter, you are standing at the bottom of a slight hill and near the top, directly in front of you, is the stage where polka and jazz bands performed all evening (having the soul of an 87-year old woman, I really enjoyed the music but I can see how the younger crowd would fall asleep from boredom). At the top of that hill and to the left is the balloon field. The queue for tethered balloon rides is to the left of the entrance, between the Acura tent and the Beer Garden (again, "beer garden" should be used interchangeably for "tent" or "table with Sam's Club canopy over it"). Riding in a hot air balloon is on my bucket list, but those things sometimes hit power lines and fall out of the sky so I'm perfectly content with being tethered to the ground while I check that one off the list. We knew something wasn't right, though, when we saw a line of eager bucket listers but no balloons. And no festival staff to give us a hint of when we could expect a balloon and pilot to show up. So, we decided to cruise the rest of the event and come back a little later.

The path to the festival's carnival area is lined with booths promoting area businesses (think Ford, not Minsky's) and some food trucks (think carnival food at the state fair kind of food trucks, not Pigwich or some other gastro-pub on wheels). As you enter the carnival, the KC Kite Club should have some monster kites flying on the hill to the left. We are dorky kite people, too, so we took a record number of selfies with a massive whale whipping and dipping behind us.
Saving this one for the wedding slide show, Blue! 
The clouds finally started to give way but the wind was still strong enough to keep a whale of a kite high off the ground. It wasn't looking good for glowing balloons. 
As the novelty of city bus-sized kites finally started to wear off, we wandered into the carnival area. Blue, having just turned 3 a couple of months ago, has never showed much interest in carnival rides. As his helicoptering mother, I was totally fine with that. But after passing the Tilt-a-Whirl, swings and the Dragon Wagon, he began pointing wildly at a merry-go-round type ride with cars instead of horses. We were told the ride was 3 tickets and the tickets could be purchased at the kiosk a few feet away. Each ticket was $1.00 so for $3.00, Blue got to ride round and round for about 2 minutes. When it was over, we coaxed a reluctant (OK screaming) Blue off the ride and tried to explain to him that doing it "3 more times" was equivalent to at least a small set of Legos. 

It was also about this time that I realized I had forgotten to have the "please don't make eye contact with the carnies" talk with Blue. His eye was drawn immediately to a pool of yellow rubber ducks that stood about 36" tall...just waiting to be picked up by a toddler and paid for by a parent. The crowd was light so he drew a lot of attention from everyone who had something to win. "C'mon, handsome! Bring your mommy over. I've got something for you." I had forgotten how creepy carnival people are. And how tight-fisted we are. If we're going to play a game, Blue, let's at least make sure the odds aren't stacked against us. 

Suddenly, he spotted a train ride. Admittedly, even he was a bit old for it, but we caved because we didn't see many other rides intended for his age. The train crept around in a tight oval about 5 times and then it was done. $6 down, $34 left. 

With promises to "maybe come back later...we'll have to see" (with those words I've officially become my mother), we headed out of the carnival portion and back toward the festival. We stopped at the Ford tent to register for a free car because someone has to win, it may as well be us (and if not, at least I'm pretty sure Neal gave them a fake email address) and then by the Nevada French Bulldog Rescue tent. While some booths hung cheap-looking hot air balloon toys from their awnings, this booth featured fabric, hand-sewn hot air balloons of all different colors and sizes. The balloon is placed inside the fabric and then blown up and tied off and...VOILA! Your very own mini hot air balloon! I was in love. 
Even better, all proceeds benefit the Nevada French Bulldog Rescue, which was founded by the lady in the booth. She simply has a big heart for French Bulldogs and tries to find ways to fund her efforts. She showed me a picture of one of her most recently rescued babies. He was badly neglected and quite sick. $3000 later, he is the picture of health and ready for a loving home. Yes, of course, I will buy a balloon. If Neal wasn't here, I would probably buy 10. So, Mommy got to pick out the balloon and Blue got to pick out a "pilot" from a bin of random figurines. My son picked out Cinderella because she's a princess...just like Mommy. Word.
Unbelievably crappy cell phone picture that does not do any justice to the beauty and sturdiness of these balloons. 
A quick search of the rescue's website shows me tons of merch for sale but no hot air balloons so I have a feeling this is an event-specific item. If you go on Saturday, grab one then. I don't think they are available online. 

So, in all fairness, we did get to see one hot air balloon tonight. It was time for dinner. 

The main fare for the balloon fest is quite average carnival food. Hot dogs, chicken fingers, corndogs, brats, German sausages and fries. Blue and I split a plate of chicken fingers that had been battered and fried for optimal heart failure and a handful of fries that nearly sent me into immediate hypertension. (Sadly, I'm not exaggerating. Neal actually sucked the salt off of Blue's fries before he ate them because we just don't do that much salt in our house. Ever.) Neal and I split an Oktoberfest beer and Blue chugged on the water we brought with us. (They say no outside food or drinks...but no one is really checking. Don't roll in with a Yeti and you should be able to get away with some snacks and water in your hobo bag.)While we ate at the 6' tables placed near the food trucks (there was ample seating but it wasn't as crowded as it's likely to get on Saturday so I would suggest a blanket or some camping chairs if you want to guarantee yourself a seat), they held the pumpkin pie contest (with 2 contestants) next to us. With the sun setting and dinner done, we headed up to the balloon field, filled with fading hope. 

Before dinner, Blue and I had approached a cluster of important-looking men wearing important-looking badges. 
Excuse me, are y'all with the festival?
Ummm...sort of. We're with the FAA. 
 Hmm. OK. I'll take that. Will there be tethered rides tonight?
See that flag? When it's red or the American flag, these balloons aren't leaving the ground. 
That flag is definitely red.
Bummer. So, here's a little tip that no one from the festival bothers to mention anywhere. There is a flag (much like the ones you see at the beach) near the balloon field. If it's red or the American flag, there will be no rides, tethered or otherwise. Yellow is iffy. Green is go. Apparently, this holds true for the glow, as well. Another tip: if it's windy enough for the kites to fly, the balloons won't. Big red whale was still soaring high. 
With heavy hearts and a curse or two for the cold front that pushed through this morning, we decided to head home. The Great Midwest Balloon Fest was going to keep on keepin' on, though. The pilot trick-or-treat would proceed as planned with pilots, who were all sitting in their baskets with fires lit overhead, being asked to blast propane in time with the music. At the end of the Star Spangled Banner (which only a handful of people stopped to honor...which kills my milspouse soul a little every time), all of the pilots lit up the sky with their burners on high and the temperature rose a degree or two instantly. Russell Stover candy was being dispensed to the young and young at heart but we decided that one trick or treat per year is enough. We came to see the glow but were warmed by fires instead. Time to call it a night. 
As we made our way against the crowd still entering, we heard volunteers offer to stamp tickets for free re-entry into tomorrow's festival. Promises were made about perfect weather and being worth the wait. I don't blame The Great Midwest Balloon Fest for unpredictable and uncooperative weather conditions tonight. However, I do view the marketing team as a group who over-promises and under-delivers. As an Army wife, I'm used to plans changing, events being canceled or rescheduled and mass chaos resulting from decisions made that are completely out of my control and I'm cool with all of it, as long as my expectations are managed. My husband learned this about me sometime around the second date and he's done a marvelous job of keeping me in the loop and preparing me for what to expect as often as possible. So, when it all goes to hell, at least I knew there was a possibility of that happening. All of the Facebook posts by the festival team promised great weather, balloon rides and a glow. A balloon pilot told me before a festival staff member that the glow would be canceled. As I buckled Blue into his car seat around 8 PM, I heard them announce that the glow would be canceled tonight. Well...duh. There is a difference between the power of positive thinking and making sure that you manage expectations, especially when people are paying money and driving upwards of an hour to attend your event. 

My only other concern about this event is where the money goes. Their website says that they are a not-for-profit and the money raised benefits many other not-for-profits. According to the festival website, the 2015 festival will benefit Wounded Warriors, City Union Mission, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Lansing Kiwanis and Heart of America Barbershop Chorus. That is a lot of non-profit organizations. And when someone gave the festival 1-star on their Facebook page and cited expense as the biggest complaint, a staff member immediately called attention to the overwhelming price tag that is attached to an event like this; from paying the pilots, to renting the space to providing restroom facilities. I'm not sure what's left over for these charities at the end of the day. 

So, it seems I'm a little down on the Great Midwest Balloon Fest and I think it's because I expected more...which has nothing to do with a canceled glow or a red flag. I think about how phenomenal this could be. Ditch the carnival rides and food and focus on the inherent magical nature of a hot air balloon. Spark the imagination and provide quality over quantity. Make it all about the hot air balloons, from balloon-shaped cookies to hands-on experiments demonstrating lighter-than-air physics to a photo op with the old guy from Up. Now, that I would pay to see. 

We still have one more Great Midwest Balloon Fest event left. We will be heading to Bonner Springs at dawn on Sunday morning to walk the 5K with balloons overhead. Hopefully. May it finally be as wonderful as they promise. 

If you go: 
1. It's located at the Ag Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs. 
633 North 130th St, Bonner Springs, KS in your GPS should get you there. Then follow the crowd. 
2. Price is $15/adult, $8.50/child and 4 and under is free (but some people mentioned that last year the price jumped to $20 at the door)
3. The festival on Saturday runs 2 PM - 10 PM with the special characters inflating around 5:30 and the standard balloons inflating around 6:30. It was dark enough for a beautiful glow by around 7. 
4. There are tons of port-a-potties but not a single changing table to be seen. They were clean and well-stocked but I only used one and it was 30 minutes after the gate opened on the first day. I would keep some tissues in your bag as someone complained last year of restrooms running out of toilet paper early on Saturday. 
5. We started with $40 cash and bought 6 tickets for 2 rides, 2 meals and 1 beer and left with $13. 
6. Tickets are $1.00/each and each ride is 3-4 tickets. There is only one kiosk that sells tickets and one person in that kiosk. Plan accordingly. 
7. Look for the flag near the balloon field to determine wind conditions. 
8. You can bring strollers, camping/lawn chairs and blankets. If you plan on staying the day, that's probably a good idea.
9. No coolers or bottles or pets. 
10. We parked easily with a Prius and it wasn't at all muddy when walking around, despite having rained all day. Should be perfect tomorrow.
11. The carnival is small and could get crowded. There are several "step up and win it" booths plus 2 or 3 rides for toddlers and about 6 or 8 rides for older kids/adults. In general, I despise carnivals but the small crowd and lack of lines made Blue's enthusiasm for it this time more enjoyable. I can't speak for Saturday. 
12. If you just can't bring yourself to pay admission, you can still enjoy the balloon glow from across the street. Technically, I think you can park in the festival parking lot and get right up to the gate without actually having to pay anything. And hot air balloons, when fully inflated, are huge. You'll have a great view for free and without the crowds.
13. As a "consolation prize", if you attended tonight's festival and got your hand or ticket stamped, you can re-enter tomorrow. Hopefully, the winds from the west will have died down a bit. 
I hope this is helpful to anyone on the fence about attending or needing more info about the event. If you know me, you know I try to find a silver lining in everything although usually events we attend are well-organized, fun and interesting. Tonight we met an amazing woman doing great work for the animals she loves and helped to fund her passion. And Neal got to eat some meat on a stick. 


Monday, October 12, 2015

We're Down With OP: A Review of Pumpkin Hollow at Deanna Rose Children's Farmstead

*Just an FYI for readers who have been with me since day 1: These posts are meant to inform the families currently stationed at Leavenworth, as well as those who will arrive in the coming years. It's a challenge to know what's worth it and what's not when you only live somewhere for 11 months. These are just my opinions on local events and activities and will hopefully guide families in making educated choices on how to spend their time here. 
The Deanna Rose Children's Farmstead (named for the first female police officer in Kansas to die in the line of duty), has kicked off its annual Pumpkin Hollow event. The fun and games will continue daily until Saturday, October 31st. Located in Overland Park, Kansas, it's a solid 45 minute drive from Ft. Leavenworth with about 3 large construction zones along the route. However, we have been almost every day except Saturday and we've never lost more than a minute or 2 in these zones.

Admission to the farmstead is free Monday - Thursday and $2 per person Friday - Sunday. Parking is free and ample, even on a busy Saturday. There is a cafe near the entrance where you can purchase snacks, drinks and ice cream and a concession stand in the back (near the pigs, turkeys, butterfly garden) where you can buy brown bag lunches. For kids, the brown bags include a hotdog or pb&j (an Uncrustable), chips, gummy snack, drink and a small, plastic farm animal for $5.00. Although I don't love the nutrition values in the sandwich, we only visit about once every couple of months and it's a treat that he'll stop and eat when there are so many things to do other than eat lunch. For adults, there is a similar brown bag meal that can include a pretty tasty BBQ or turkey sandwich, chips and a drink (no toy, sadly). While you are not allowed to bring outside food into the farmstead, you can use one of the many picnic tables (most with shade) near the parking lot to eat anything you brought. And re-admission to the farm after lunch is easy.

In general, we adore the farmstead, especially as a family who doesn't have easy access to local farms. It's a phenomenal and educational experience for everyone. And I could easily spend an entire post describing the many activities available just on the farm, but for now, I'm going to stick to Pumpkin Hollow, their annual autumn event that begins on the other side of the ponds, just past the playgrounds.

The thrill of October begins right at the front gate with an enormous inflated black cat (whose head moves side to side, much to the delight of our son) and some banjo-picking good-ole skeletons. There are several other Halloween-themed inflatables around the entrance. Near the front restrooms, there is a haunted train with a vampire who raises and lowers out of his coffin. There are also several ghosts which, apparently, look a lot like punching bags to any boy under the age of 34.
Signs for everything will guide your way as soon as you enter. There is also a large map to the right of this sign. If you get lost on the farm, you are doing it wrong. So hang a left after the gate and continue down the path, past the playgrounds, over the bridge and hang a right. You'll see the Pumpkin Hollow admission booth on the right.
Goats on the left...
Now, let's go ahead and announce the purple elephant in the room so you can either quit reading now or see what all of that money gets you. Admission into Pumpkin Hollow is $8 per person and children under 1 are free. Do I think $8 is a little steep? Yes. Is that crazy talk for many of the 5-8 person families on post? Definitely.
8 x  8 = 64
64 > reasonable for a couple of hours climbing on hay bales

And that's not even common core math. BUT that price includes a horse-drawn wagon ride to and from the games (reins are wrapped in bells so you can jingle all the way) and a pumpkin of your choosing. OK so a family of 8 gets 8 pumpkins, like it or not. But hey...
8 pumpkins = canned pumpkin for life

In a perfect world, you could pay less (say $4 per person) and opt out of the pumpkin. But that's probably more bookkeeping than is physically feasible on a gorgeous, fall Saturday in October.  So, just to make sure we are all on the same page, if you go to Pumpkin Hollow on a Friday - Sunday, it will be $10 per person. Now you can't say I didn't warn you.

One of the benefits of being a 3-person family with 1 person in school 90% of the time is that this only cost us $16 but our neighbors paid $32. So, let's see what that gets you....
Aforementioned hay ride. The only rule is that kids have to sit in the middle, adults can sit on the edge. But I've learned from growing up on the river that you never let your legs dangle so it's the center for me, too. I'm not sure if Sharp's is volunteering their services or being paid (that could be part of your admission cost) but the driver was friendly and helpful, especially with getting little ones on and off the wagon.

A staff member is there to greet the group, give you a little lay of the land and remind you that it's best to save the pumpkin picking for the end. Also, there are no bathrooms out here. Just so ya know. Then the gate is closed behind you and the festivities can begin!

We visited on a Tuesday morning shortly after they opened. It was overcast but warm and we had maybe 10 other families in the field with us. I imagine that it gets a little nuts on the weekends so I would strongly suggest doing this during the week, if you can....especially if you have very little ones or they are timid around other kids. Also, I think maybe the max age on this would be about 8 or 9. This is the perfect autumn activity for toddlers, up to about 7 years old. If you have kids in a wide range of ages, there is something for everyone, but it's definitely geared more toward the younger ones.
"Horse" riding. Three wooden horses, in graduated size, are fitted with saddles and ready for adventure.

Connect 4. Or 6. Or 7. I thought this would be a bit of a bust but since we have the game at home, Blue took right to it and stayed for a little longer than I thought he would. (For reference, he's 39" tall.)

Shoe Golf. This is one of those things I'm just going to file under Genius Ideas I Wish I Had Thought of First. Mini golf club + toddler = Children's Mercy Hospital. But stick a shoe on it and it's less of a weapon, more of an innovative and challenging game. For the record, the Croc provides the most accurate putt.

Hay bale mountain with slide. At some point in the past 3 years, we have scarred Blue with playground slides and while he will climb up, he almost never slides down. Unless he's with one of us. So, just FYI, this slide is a little fast if you're weighing in at 175+ but perfect for the little ones.

Last weekend, we attended a fall festival in Des Moines that included a corn pool. It was, quite literally, an Olympic pool-sized area, full of corn. It was amazing for about 3 minutes and then Blue was bored and his diaper was full of corn. These corn bins are a better size and the center poles with holes lend themselves to experimentation and play.
But still enough corn to bury your friends, if that's on your bucket list.

The barrel train includes a ride through a tunnel, which is a nice touch and a little different from others we've ridden. Although, this train is for kids only. The barrels are "too delicate" for adults so if you have very little ones, they can ride in the lap of older kids or skip this activity.
There is a milking station near the front of the farmstead so I'm not surprised there is one in Pumpkin Hollow, as well. My 3-year old, thanks to Curious George and the Children's Farmstead, can sufficiently milk a cow...y' case this whole Army thing doesn't work out.
The boys loved this game more than I thought they would. Each side has a bucket with about 4 golf balls. There is a hole at the top of the maze and one at the bottom. They had fun "racing" each other and taking bets on whose ball would be first to the bottom. My only concern is that they are golf balls, but y'know...parental supervision.
Where else can you make a toddler-sized chicken lay a half dozen golf balls? Although I'm pretty sure Blue now thinks that chickens poop eggs instead of laying them. We'll save that lesson for another time.

Giant checkers and tic-tac-toe. It took a little while for the boys to make it over to these games and once they did, it only lasted a couple of minutes, but these would be great for the older kids. The biggest checkers set I ever played with as a kid was the one at Cracker Barrel so I'm sure this would have been a hit with Wee Ally.
The corn maze was perfect for younger kids because they could go in alone without getting lost. And yes, there was a minion made out of rolls of hay.
Other games included
 pumpkin hoops with soft, stuffed balls
 a toddler-sized tunnel
 adult-sized stilts...which I couldn't do and I'm going to 100% blame my foot surgeries last spring
 a short hay tunnel
and climbing hay bales

When you are all done, the patch of (already-picked) pumpkins is just past the curtain.
And then you can head to the exit and a wagon will meet you to take you back.

The boys loved Pumpkin Hollow and we stayed a little over an hour. We probably could have stayed longer but it was getting close to lunch and nap time. I have to admit, when I was told it was $8 for games and a pumpkin, I was a bit skeptical. However, a vote on the way home revealed it was Mommy and kid-approved! It is a great deal for a one-time visit and the memories we made with our friends were priceless.
$8 < priceless