The Labor Day Lift Off is one of Colorado Springs best and most beautiful annual traditions. And while things will look different this year to maintain social distancing and follow public health protocols, the annual balloon festival will continue its streak of 44 years. Instead of the usual gathering in Memorial Park, this year the hot air balloons are coming to the people, with morning launches and evening balloon glows across the city.
The shift reminds me of one particularly unusual balloon launch from years past. It has been a longstanding tradition for my family to wake up early one morning of Labor Day weekend and head to Memorial Park to watch the kaleidoscope of hot air balloons take to the skies. It’s an inspirational scene to see those floating giants rise against the backdrop of Pikes Peak and reflect across the surface of Prospect Lake as they maneuver a skillful touchdown on the water. But the weather isn’t always so cooperative.
On this particularly blustery lift off morning, many balloons had remained grounded due to the worsening weather conditions. Others inflated, and festivities continued. But high winds ruled the day. As we drove home, we noticed one balloon drifting alarmingly low over the downtown tree canopy. This was not the typical southeastward flight pattern. This wayward balloon had made it up, and we wanted to see where it was going to come down. After following it for a few blocks, we turned a leafy corner to see the large balloon touch down successfully in someone’s yard as surprised neighbors helped the crew secure the ropes. It was an exciting finish to the usual festivities — or so we thought.
No sooner had we arrived at our own downtown home, we heard the familiar bursts of a hot air balloon burner. It didn’t take long to spot another helium giant drifting above the trees, and this one was coming down too. I grabbed the kids and headed around the block, just in time to watch the balloon float down into an empty neighborhood intersection. It was a magical moment for my young children. The balloons were here — in our neighborhood, on our block.
I imagine a similar sense of wonder with this year’s Labor Day Lift Off, albeit in a more organized fashion. While the modified format helps to combat the spread of the coronavirus, it also brings the inspiration of the balloons to neighborhoods throughout Colorado Springs. Spectators are encouraged to look to the sky — from the comfort of their homes, or parks or trails — between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., Sept. 5-6, to watch a spectacular array of balloons lifting off from 10-12 locations across the city.
“I am happy to see this beloved event continue to make a positive impact during this difficult time,” said Dewey Reinhard, Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift Off founder, in a press release.
The Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift Off is historically one of the largest balloon festivals in the nation and the largest in Colorado. This year won’t feature the usual lineup of 70-some balloons — expect numbers in the 35-40 range. But it’s one of only three balloon fests happening in the U.S.
Spectators can tune in for ballooning commentary and history on local radio stations Sunny 106.3 FM, Y96.9, My 99.9, Cat Country 95.1, 96.1 The Beat, 92.9 Peak FM, 107.9 KBPI South, and AM 740 KVOR.
Those wanting to take a balloon ride of their own can reserve a flight with Rainbow Ryders. The 45-minute to one-hour flight includes a celebratory toast — and, of course, spectacular views.
There won’t be any events at Memorial Park this year. Instead, you can find the closest balloons to you on this map of launch and balloon glow areas. But note that organizers are encouraging spectators to watch from a distance instead of gathering in crowds.
“Our goal is to create a unique community event that allows residents to continue to enjoy the tradition of the Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift Off,” said Tom Osborne, president and CEO of organizing Sports Corp.
With the unique format and a favorable forecast on tap, conditions look good for the soaring balloons — and plenty of wonder.