First Annual Hot Air Balloon Festival Heads to Champaign

A one-of-a-kind festival will debut in Champaign, with proceeds going to charities serving children with disabilities.

The Champaign County Balloon Festival will take place September 23-24 at Dodds Park in Champaign, featuring hot air balloons from all over Illinois and other areas. Although this is the first time the fair has visited the community, organizer Chris Diana said the event was originally set to take place before the pandemic hit.

“2019 was the year we were shooting for, and we had additional logistical delays, and then 2020 and 2021 went through COVID-19,” Diana said.

He said the festival has multiple functions, but it is primarily a charity event.

“The goal is to be a fundraiser for children’s groups, primarily children with disabilities, and to bring family entertainment to the Champaign-Urbana community,” Diana said.

This year’s proceeds will benefit Crisis Nursery, Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation, Cunningham Children’s Home and AMBUCS, a membership organization that aims to help people with disabilities improve their mobility and independence.

Diana said he and the other organizers have worked with children’s organizations and charities before, which is how they choose this year’s donation recipients.

“A lot of good charity work and good child health work is also happening in this community,” he said. “We have a lot of support people in the organizations here to lean on.”

He predicted that hot air balloon launches, hot air balloon rides and balloon glows will be the most popular events at the festival.

“The Balloon Glow, which is just after dark, is where all the balloons are anchored to the ground, but they’re running around,” Diana said. “They’re inflated, and they’re running the burners, and they’re glowing like big light bulbs, which is quite mesmerizing to watch.”

He said the balloonists will also have a little race during the balloon launch, where the balloons will take off and try to drop a marker near a target placed a few miles away.

“So it will kind of fill the air with the balloons taking off, which again is one of the things people love most about watching balloons,” Diana said.

The rides will start around 5 p.m. on both days of the festival, but the first two or three hours will be spent giving rides to children with disabilities, he said.

“These are specially fitted balloon baskets that can anchor wheelchairs, for example, and they have a perspex door so even if the kids are in the chairs they can see well,” Diana said.

Diana said the weather played a role in the decision to hold the festival in September, as it is one of the “best months for lack of rain and fairly balanced winds”. But he said the time of day matters too, which is why the festival’s balloon events take place in the morning and evening.

“Weather balloons can only fly in a limited wind,” he said. “A lot of balloons happen early in the morning or late in the day, so we also incorporated other things, like carnival… which people can do during the day while waiting for the balloons to take off .”

The balloonists are “adventurous people,” Diana said, and while many of the festival’s balloons will be from Illinois, some are from Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

“The balloonists are kind of a tight-knit bunch,” he said. “It’s easy to spread the word within organizations, and most states have their own associations, etc. So we kind of work through the network.”

Apart from balloon-related activities, the festival will feature carnival rides and games, food vendors, and a children’s play tent, including face painting, games, balloon twists, and a magic show.

Diana said the most rewarding part of planning the fair is working with sponsors, local organizations and others who help prepare for the festival’s debut.

“It’s amazing how many people are willing to step in and do things for free or do things at a significantly reduced rate,” he said. “It’s always been a great community for that kind of stuff.”

For those interested in learning more about the Champaign County Balloon Festival, visit champaigncountyballoonfestival.com. Adult and teen tickets are $10, and children 12 and under can enter free with a paying adult.

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