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. 


1 comment:

  1. So ... what's a "glow"? and did you look them up on Charity Navigator? They will give you the straight scoop on how much moola actually goes to charity.


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