What began as a race between a small group of friends in Black Forest in 1976 organized by Dewey Reinhard with an entry fee of one six-pack of beer each and 100 spectators, grew quickly into the wildly popular Colorado Springs Balloon Classic. This event is held Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of Labor Day weekend in Memorial Park and features nearly 100 balloons.
Balloonists from not only several towns in Colorado, but also numerous other states and countries travel to Colorado Springs which is a prime location for flying hot-air and helium balloons because of the cool, thin mountain air which “allows balloonists to reach great heights while using less fuel and carrying heavier loads.” It is also a prime location because of the iconic backdrop of Pikes Peak which has inspired photographers and artists such as Lucille Damico to capture the bright colors and unique shapes of the balloons surrounded by cheerful families.
The Colorado Springs Balloon Classic became one of the five largest balloon exhibitions in the country, the largest air show in Colorado, and named among the top 100 events in North America by the American Bus Association. The festival grew from 100 spectators in its first year to an estimated 250,000 at its height, with spectators travelling from all over the state. The main event is the lift off of balloons in the early morning weekend hours.
For several years the balloons participated in a hare-and-hound race wherein one lead balloon (the hare) takes off 20 minutes before the main group. The “hare” lands and puts out a giant X on the ground that the rest of the balloons are supposed to drop either a bean bag or bag of seed as close as possible to the center of the X. Another tradition is the dipping of the wicker passenger baskets into Prospect Lake, although this tradition ended in 2019 when a blue-green algae bloom closed the lake.
Saturday evening the Balloon-Glo event is held. The balloons do not leave the ground, instead they fire up their engines and blow air into the grounded balloons which makes them luminate brightly in the low light of the park. Each year spectators have new favorite balloons including the Energizer Bunny, Dark Vader, a giant 7-Up can, Tweety Bird, a viking, and a Burger King Whopper.
In 2014, the organizers of the event announced that due to disagreements with the City Council over a mandate that for-profit events needed to pay for police presence for crowd control, that the Balloon Classic would no longer be held in Colorado Springs and would move elsewhere. The local community responded with outcry and voiced passionate support to keep the event in the city.
The event was saved by Scott Appelman who wanted to make the festival bigger and better than ever. His innovations included adding more activities for families to do in case the balloons were grounded due to poor weather. In 2015, the festival was renamed the Labor Day Lift-Off. Since the change over the event has drawn even more spectators and balloonists. Even COVID-19 couldn’t stop the event. Even though large crowds could not gather at the park, Appelman came up with the idea of 35-40 balloons launching at 10-12 location around the city so that local residents could still look up into the Colorado sky and see unique colors and shapes fly overhead.
Generously Submitted by Heather Poll, M.A.