Felix Baumgartner said it best: “Sometimes you have to go really high up to understand how small you are.” Although guests of the Chester County Balloon Festival won’t be traveling into the stratosphere like Baumgartner, they can get a taste of how big the world is from the comfort of a hot air balloon.
On September 10, 11, and 12, the county will host its annual Chester County Balloon Festival for the 14th year. People can witness and experience the joys of aviation, whether that involves hopping on a balloon flight or simply enjoying the beautiful balloons up close.
The festival’s administrative director Debbie Harding, and the operations director Rick Schimpf, told Delaware Valley Journal they hope the festival brings people close as a community, especially after the year the country has experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We did change the venue before 2020 so it had nothing to do with the pandemic,” Harding explained. “We were at an airport in southern Chester County, and now we’re at the beautiful rolling hills of Willowdale Steeplechase which is 101 East Street Road in Kennett Square. So, it’s a gorgeous property and we think it’s perfect under the current circumstances. It’s an outdoor venue and people don’t have to breathe down each other’s necks. There’s plenty of social distancing room.”
Schimpf said that while the change of venue wasn’t related to COVID, the change of the date was definitely because of the pandemic.
“Our normal date is the weekend after Father’s Day,” Harding explained. “So, we did back it up in 2020 to September and still did not feel comfortable doing it in 2020. So then we put it on for June 2021 but still did not feel comfortable that soon. So we pushed it back again to September 10th, 11th, and 12th.”
Harding has a master’s degree in social research and development, which she notes has nothing to do with entertainment. Still, she has owned and operated a commercial hot air balloon ride business for almost 30 years.
“It was a kind of natural progression to get involved in events and planning,” Harding said. “One thing that was affected by the pandemic is we usually have between 20 and 25 balloonists come and they come from pretty far distances. This year it’s mostly local pilots and we’re in the 17-19 range.”
Hot air balloon rides are also available to guests who want to experience flight firsthand. The ticket prices are $225 for the morning flight or $250 for the evening flight. There are only two flight times a day, just at sunrise and two hours before sunset.
According to Schimpf, the flights can range from 40 minutes to an hour and a half. To enjoy a hot air balloon ride, guests are required to sign a waiver. All passengers need to be at least 48 inches tall, and children who need to be held aren’t permitted on the flight.
In addition, the festival will follow CDC guidelines for masking and social distancing. Signage will be posted for requirements with hand sanitizing stations located throughout the festival.
“We have a zipline, monster truck rides, and the reverse bungee,” Harding said. “We are contemplating bringing in a bounce house. We’re kind of questioning that because of the pandemic, of course. Kiki Vodka is providing sanitizer that we could spray on the bounce house every half hour.”
Both Harding and Schimpf explained everything they do involves local vendors who give back to the community and support other entrepreneurs.
“We’ve got bands. We’ve got a beer garden. We have vendors who sell different foods. We’ve got crafters. We have commercial vendors. Ziplines,” Schimpf added. “All sorts of different entertainment for different folks. There should be something for everybody. We have a nice grassy area where people can put down a blanket and listen to music.”
“The main showstopper, though, is we do balloon glows. So, just at dusk, the balloons after flying, come back and re-inflate their balloons and stand on the ground and light up their burners and it’s like big Easter eggs glowing in the evening. We’ll also do tethered rides and we have an area for the kids to walk through a balloon to kind of get an idea of what the fabric is made out of and the basic science behind it.”
Since the festival will be taking place on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Harding and Schimpf say there will be a tribute to the heroes of that day.
“It is 9/11, so we are going to have a memorial for the heroes of 9/11 and one of the ways we’re doing that is we’re having a big American flag special shaped balloon,” Harding stated.
The festival is also hosting a local high school marching band that will pay tribute to the lives lost on 9/11.
“Downingtown High School Marching Band was chosen out of all of the marching bands to represent the East Coast at this year’s Rose Bowl parade,” she said. “So, they are going to be volunteering. They’re going to have a tent set up, collecting donations, and also performing Saturday evening right when the flag balloon is standing up. They will probably do a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America.”
Harding and Schimpf say their main hope is that the festival brings back a sense of community and connection that was lost during the pandemic.