By Heather Rolph
At 6:30 a.m. on the first day of September in Colorado Springs, the sun has just risen. Although the temperature will be in the 90s by midday, the morning is still somewhat cool, and downtown is still relatively deserted. In the warm golden glow of early morning, even Pikes Peak looks almost majestic.
Southeast of downtown, near Memorial Park, it’s a different scene entirely. Frantic people fill the streets in cars and on foot, with drivers struggling to find parking spaces along curbs lined by cars. Neighborhood streets lined to the park are entirely blocked off, with signs advertising $10 parking.
It’s the second day of the Labor Day Lift Off, the annual balloon festival that is one of Colorado Springs’ most attended events. In past years, an estimate in excess of 150,000 people have attended.
Even this early in the morning, there are crowds milling around the grass fields of the park. The line for the Dunkin’ Donuts stand alone is hundreds of feet long, and an announcer keeps up a steady commentary from a center stage.
At precisely 7 a.m., the first hot air balloon takes off, accompanied by cheers from the crowd, and drifts slowly eastward with the prevailing wind. Soon after, a low roar fills the field as the rest of the balloons — previously just bundles of fabric on the ground — begin to inflate. Soon the entire field is a colorful maze of balloons, interspersed with people who wander the scene taking pictures and selfies.
Once the balloons are fully inflated, their fuel is ignited, causing hot jets of flame to heat the interior of the balloons as they slowly rise off the ground. Amid loud whistles to clear the airspace and shouts from the crowd, they’re released from their tethers and join the ever-growing crowd of balloons in the air.
While the majority of the balloons are typically ovoid and colored in a variety of rainbow shades and patterns, there are also “special shapes” on display. These specialty balloons include a green penguin called “Snobird,” a giant green dragon named “Oggy the Friendly Dragon,” a large frog-like creature called “Buzzy,” and an enormous lion’s head called “Lion.” Even some of the more commonly-shaped balloons get creative. The newest balloon on the field is called “Save the Storks” and is decorated with white storks on a blue background, while another, called “Still Flaming,” shows yellow flames around the base of the balloon.
Started in 1977, the Labor Day Lift Off is the largest such event in the entire Rocky Mountain Region, and it draws in balloon pilots from around the country. Nearly 70 balloons take off each morning from Memorial Park during the three-day festival.
The first day, the “Xfinity Day,” is accompanied by free yoga, a skydiving demonstration, donut eating competitions, an axe-throwing competition, live music, and tether rides. The second day, “Olympic City U.S.A. Day,” has a similar lineup of events, while the final day, “Military Appreciation Day,” includes music by the Fort Carson 4th Infantry band and an air show. Balloon lift off begins at 7 a.m. each morning, and “balloon glow” — when the balloon flames are lit without releasing the balloons from the ground — occurs between 7 and 8 p.m. on each of the first two days.
The festival is free and advertised as a family-friendly event; the numbers of young children toddling along the paths and being pulled along in wagons attest to the effectiveness of that advertising. Later in the day, once the beer garden opens and the live music starts, an older crowd shows up to watch the nightly balloon glow. Regardless of age, however, the Labor Day Lift Off is an iconic Colorado Springs event and a celebration of the end of summer.