The first alarm went off at a quarter to 4am. After staying up a little late the night before chatting with friends, I couldn’t help but hit snooze. As I lay there, I felt the camper wiggle as my daughter was buzzing around, she was too excited to stay asleep. Pretty soon all four of us joined her and got ready for the early morning ahead. As tired as we were, we stepped out of the house around 4:45am into the cool air and headed for the shuttle bus. After a year of excitement building, we were about to help launch a balloon!
Fulltime Families Balloon Fiesta Rally
But, let’s take a step back and talk about how we ended up here. We went fulltime in June and when October rolled around, the Fulltime Families Facebook groups were abuzz with posts and fantastic pictures of hundreds of hot air balloons and balloons flying over RVs. I knew in an instant that I wanted to join the fun.
It took two years of changing plans for us to finally make it. We were very excited to finally be able to attend, but we were ecstatic when we were able to join Fulltime Families for a mini-rally (called a Hangout at the time). Events are fun when you’re on your own, but especially fun when the kids and us get to reconnect with friends and make new ones.
There are a few camping options for the Balloon Fiesta. You can either stay on the fiesta grounds (who wouldn’t want to stay on an old dump site?) or you can stay at an RV park in the Albuquerque area. After my experience staying on the grounds and seeing the traffic around the fiesta, I wouldn’t bring myself to even consider an off-site RV stay.
On the Fiesta grounds, you have a couple of options for campsites. The most expensive is water + electric sites that overlook the launch field; these are crazy expensive at something like $175/night! Next is dry camping that is close to the launch field. I can’t really justify the cost of these sites as they do such an excellent job with the shuttle service.
Over across the road, they offer water + electric sites for people who are simply unwilling to consider dry camping. (Though, don’t fear it! You’ll have lots of friends helping you get through.) And then you have 2 levels of dry camping: Box View surrounds an open area where balloon pilots may land and Standard sites for everybody else. I’m not sure the Box View sites are worth the extra $10/night as you can always just walk down. Feeling adventurous? Go help CATCH balloons as they land. The pilots love the help.
The Fulltime Families rally were Standard sites. Affordable and surrounded by friends. That’s the way to go.
Dry Camping with Friends
We went from solely using RV parks with full hooks to dry camping for 2 weeks at the Fiesta. And let me tell you, we went into it with an air of trepidation. To prepare, I had done some upgrades to the camper to be better prepared for dry camping (additional batteries, bought a generator, got a fresh water bladder, and got a sewer bladder. A nice part about camping with friends is the range of experiences all around – from the folks who just showed up with no preparation at all up to the families who have solar on the roof and built-in generators.
If you haven’t dry camped before, don’t be afraid. Worst case, the Balloon Fiesta offers water fills and tank dumping for a fee. Best case, the true community of Fulltime Families shines through. Families helped each other from everything from refilling fresh water tanks to working together to empty gray and black tanks (yep, the poops!).
Heck, you want to know how crazy awesome the Fulltime Families community is? One of our members LITERALLY HAD A BABY AT THE FIESTA IN THEIR RV (with a bit of help from the other families)!
Wait, What About Helping to Launch a Balloon?
That’s right, that’s how I started this post – the early morning that we were up and out by 4:45am where my daughter and I were going to get to help launch a balloon. Fulltime Families was in contact with the Carried Away balloon team who was looking for a crew to help launch their balloon, chase it, and then catch it. And better yet, they let everyday Joes and Janes sign up to help!
So, what’s that like?
It starts with a training/overview session. Here you meet the pilot and crew chief (aka, his wife). They explain the process of launching the balloon from setting out the ground cloth to configuring the basket, about Zebras, and what to do once they’re up in the air.
Morning of Crewing
You start stupidly early in the morning and it’s incredibly cold at that time of day! The days warm up as the sun gets higher in the sky, so be prepared with layers. The grass had frosty dew giving the littles cold tootsies.
Crewing can be a lot of “hurry up and wait”. You hurry to your spot but may have to wait for your wave of launches. Then once your wave gets called, you may have to wait for your turn to actually be launched.
The hurry up is where the fun lives, though.
Setting up the balloon is a matter of putting out a ground cloth to protect it. Next, you get the basket out of the trailer and start to configure/set it up. While that happens, some other folks start to unroll the balloon itself out onto the tarp. From there, the balloon’s top needs to be affixed (lots of colors + numbers that have to be matched up between two pieces). Once the balloon is attached to the basket, the task of inflating (not “blowing up!”) the balloon begins. One lucky person gets put onto the guideline from the top of the balloon to control it while it’s being inflated: just imagine that you’ve lasso’d a … well … hot air balloon!
Once the pilot launches, the ground cloth needs to be folded up and put back into the trailer. The chase crew then loads up in the truck to follow the balloon (mostly using apps like Glympse and texting back and forth). Once the balloon lands, this smaller crew helps safely stow the balloon and basket back into the trailer.
By the time you get home, a nap sounds mighty fine! Because it’s a rally and you’re surrounded by friends, you need to be well rested for any festivities that occur.
Pro-tip: look for things to do; just start doing and helping. The morning my daughter and I helped, we were busy most of the time. My daughter even helped the neighboring pilot. We walked away in love with the experience. Another family wasn’t as proactive at finding tasks and expected to be asked to do things. Unfortunately, I heard them complain that the experience was a huge letdown.
The Launch Field
When you aren’t crewing, you can pay for entry to the launch field. We bought our entry passes in packs from Costco at a discount vs. what individual tickets cost. If you don’t have a Costco membership, don’t fret- the FTF community pulls through there also with people buying for others.
The launch field has a row of tents along one end. These tents have everything from food to gear. We ate at quite a few of the tents and really didn’t have a bad meal.
The southern end is the most crowded with people because that’s where the entrance is. It gets a bit wall to wall at times. The further you get from this area, the more the crowds thin out.
It’s absolutely remarkable how close you can get as crews inflate and launch balloons. You get to be right under them as they pop into the sky.
The crowd whoops and cheers each time a balloon takes flight!
Even if you don’t head over to the launch field, you may luck into a show of the Albuquerque Box which is where the balloons launch and fly at a low altitude south over the RV park. Once they fly for a spell, they then increase their altitude and will be pulled back north.
Some years, the balloons fly over the park only a couple of days over the span of the Fiesta. We lucked into a year that it happened almost every morning.
On the days that they fly overhead, you can’t help but be drawn out of your camper by the noise of the burners and hearing the voices of the pilots talking to RVers. It entices you out like a mermaid’s song. Heck, you might find yourself on the roof of your rig for a better look!
Fulltime Families Rally
As I mentioned, we joined up with the Fulltime Families rally while we were there. For us, it was great to see old friends and we even made new friends. It’s a mix of scheduled activities and a lot of spontaneous fun.
Some of the fun times we had:
- Nerf gun battles
- Potlucks + birthday cake!
- Dance party
- Games (teen and multi-age)
- Baby Born! (Ok, this one might not happen regularly…)
And simply, finding groups to hang out with. We spent some great time just sitting and chatting. I love the organized activities but treasure getting to know one another while sitting around the proverbial campfire (just without the fire due to Fiesta rules).
The kids play hard when at rallies! I know my son sure rests well by the end!
About the author: Doug has been a fulltime RVer with his wife and kids for the past few years. Before that, their family traveled and camped extensively. He started the site to help friends and family to get started RVing. Check out Learn To RV on the web, on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.