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Friday, August 15, 2014

Midwest Balloon Fest 2014

When I told Mo I was taking her to Midwest Balloon Fest (I'd scored some free passes), I expected her to say 'no.' It's her stock answer to anything that's not YouTube, Fruit Ninja on her tablet, and the 'garage sale store' (thrift store).

She surprised me by saying yes. Not a one-off fluke yes, either. Each time I brought it up, she was down with the plan.

I remember a few years ago taking the girls to a similar deal in Gardner, though it was free to the public (all it cost was coping with the parking situation when 30,000 people visited a city park in a town of less than 30,000 people).

This one had an admission charge (if you didn't have a client offering passes), a pretty steep one at that, but drew at least as many people. They held it at the Kansas Speedway, which was genius because there's plenty of parking and plenty of room for balloons to set up, take off, land, etc.

This is a venue that can accommodate 72,000 race fans, many of whom bring enormous RVs with them, it's a hard venue to overwhelm.

The one in Gardner in 2010 had an impromptu feel to it, and all there was to it was balloons. I can't recall if they even thought to bring in portapotties for it, the hordes may have had to make due with Celebration Park's permanent restrooms.

This was more like a state fair invaded by dozens of hot air balloons. Kettle Corn, motorcycle dealers, carnival rides, meatballs on a stick the whole thing.

When we got there, I heard the guys on the PA talking about the tethered balloon rides that were $10 a person. Well, I knew it wasn't going to be much of a balloon ride, but it's more balloon ride than I've ever been on.

And I knew at that price, the line would be epic and it was. Molly and I got in line about 6:30, a line that wrapped around the tethered balloon, out past the Star Motorcycle huxters, back down through the Christian radio station tents, and around a row of outhouses.

Two and a half hours later, we were finally at the front of the line and they ran out of propane. Well, sort of. There was more on the grounds, but the eight 100-pound tanks the balloon operator had were drained and there was a mad scramble to get them refilled. A guy further back in the line came up and started to lose his shit at one of the volunteers running the tethered balloon ride.

We could all feel his frustration. We'd all been standing around for hours waiting for this. And if anyone should be pissed, it's me, the guy who had gotten his money out and stepped up to the table, only to have to step back so they could wheel the empty propane tanks to a golf cart. I was there, damn it, and I didn't know for sure if I'd get to go now. But I wasn't chewing on the help.

Not to worry, the gas was at hand pretty quickly and in fact one of the operators came and told the girls at the table, 'Keep selling tickets, we're not done.'

Then there was a call for two riders. As in, they needed a pair to round out a party, and I put up my hand and me and Mo went and stood where we were told until the pilot got a look at us and said, 'No, two smaller people.' The woman who had recruited us ahead of a few people seemed embarrassed, apologized for not being able to guess our weights. He needed two people of average size, I weigh 275 lbs, Mo is easily 200 herself, so we probably add up to more like three people if you're calculating ballast.

Ain't that America?

Anyway, when we finally got in the gondola, there was some ring around the rosey action where we had to get on one at a time while the previous party got off one at a time because that's how balloons work.

The burners were startling. Felt like they'd burn my eyebrows off, maybe set fire to my hair. How many BTUs is that? I was told 22 million per burner (there were two burners). Yikes, I have a King Kooker that runs 200,000 wide open (and I can ice up a 20 lb propane tank running it that way, drain it in less than two hours). That's like the pilot light on this sucker.

I'd seen in the news while waiting in line that Secretary Kerry was lecturing African countries not to develop more farmland, even in areas where one out of four people is starving to death, because it might lead to more climate change, CO2 emissions and all that. I wondered how it looked to people from these impoverished, starvation plagued countries, to be lectured on carbon dioxide emissions by a country where they burn thousands of pounds of propane for the amusement of overweight Americans like myself.

And then I realized the ropes were pointing down to the ground, we were up in the air. Maybe 50 or 75 feet. I could see a lot more of the Speedway grounds anyway. I didn't even realize we'd taken off when that skull-roasting burner went off. The burner is dramatic and violent, but the liftoff is so gentle you don't even feel it.

I guess the balloon ride was anticlimactic, it couldn't help but be with two and a half hours of buildup. And it was over so fast. I can see how people get hooked on this, though. It's not a cheap hobby, you're looking at more than my house cost just to buy a balloon, and then there's pilot training to do, and on top of that you have to be solvent enough to fuel the damn thing. Sport of the gods, perhaps, but more aptly the sport of robber barons.

Darth Vader, the balloon they used to promote the event most, that guy is from Belgium, so he's evidently solvent enough to pay high European tax rates, plus have enough leisure time to drag the Sith all the way to Kansas.

There was also Sharkey, who was huge, and Elvis, all kinds of balloons. The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe was there but she was behind the shark and Elvis, and by the time we were done with the tethered ride and could walk around they'd already put her away.

I went by the Plumber's Union tent to thank the client who gave me the tickets, and Mo spotted the carnival rides. She'd been all about going to the car until that moment, and all of a sudden she was dragging me, literally, toward the carnival.

She'd been such a sport about waiting in line for the balloon, I bought $20 worth of ride tickets and we went and waited in more lines. By the end the lines thinned out, but by then it was getting to be closing time. $20 worth of ride tickets really doesn't get that many rides at a carnival, but I left with a dozen unused tickets because they'd shut down for the night.

No complaints, though. It was a great outing with my youngest daughter (who just started her Senior year of high school and thus is too cool for such outings most of the time). That's pretty damn near priceless to me at this stage of parenthood. Without the free passes, I probably would have talked myself out of going, but it would have been worth every penny even if I'd paid the gate.

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