Situated in the heart of California’s lush Sonoma County, Windsor is a beautiful destination featuring attractions for all ages, outdoor recreation, and a variety of world-renowned wineries. Travelers in search of fun and unique attractions will love Old Downtown Windsor’s boutique shops and unique restaurants. Foothill Regional Park is the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts, featuring miles of trails ideal for hiking and biking, as well as several lakes for fishing and canoeing. The city’s proximity to Sonoma Wine Country makes it an oenophile’s dream destination. Some great local wineries to check out include Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, Albini Family Vineyards, and Mutt Lynch Winery.
The Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic has been a staple in the community for nearly three decades, and will take place June 9-10 at Keiser Park. This is one of the most significant hot air balloon events in the region, and it features more than 24 balloons with vibrant designs including Darth Vader, the Liberty Bell, Humpty Dumpty, and more. The festivities kick off with Dawn Patrol (5:00 am), where the balloons fire up their burners lighting up the festival grounds. At the Main Launch (6:00 am), all participating pilots fire up their balloons and launch into the sky; it's a vibrant spectacle that all ages will love. After the launch, attendees can take tethered hot air balloon rides (6:00-10:00 am) which are perfect for anyone not wanting to go on a full trip. The festival area is open all day (4:00-10:30 am) and includes a variety of food vendors, craftspeople selling unique trinkets and products, and a kid’s play area with fun activities and games. A portion of the event’s proceeds will go to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which is a program that helps bridge food assistance and self-sufficiency. ResortsandLodges.com interviewed Board President, Ted Ritchie, to learn more about this high flying celebration.
RAL: Tell me a little bit about the event.
TR: The Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic is an all-volunteer run 501(c)3 nonprofit event. It started as a balloon rally where hot air balloon pilots gather to fly and have fun.
RAL: How long has the event been running?
TR: This will be our 28th year.
RAL: How many annual attendees do you draw?
TR: Approximately 20,000 over the weekend. We are exploring options to grow the event in the coming years.
RAL: What demographic does your event attract? Children? Families? Couples?
TR: Previously attendance was mainly families from the surrounding counties. With a new board of directors, the breakdown of attendees has shifted. Now, 70% of the attendees come from the San Francisco and San Jose regions.
RAL: What makes this event unique?
TR: There are many great hot air balloon festivals, but we stand out in two ways: we are an all-volunteer run, and we support local charities with the event. The main reason that makes SCHABC unique is the setting. The grounds offer vistas of the tree covered rolling hills, and we offer fantastic wine, beer, and world-renowned foods.
RAL: Take me through a day at the event.
TR: Your best bet is to get there for our pre-dawn glow-show/down patrol. This year's event is dedicated to those affected by the recent wildfires and first responders. Once first light hits, we start to inflate the tethered ride balloons. This is also a great time to grab some coffee, mimosa, and breakfast. Around 6:00 am, we have our main launch. Tethered ride operation continues until it is too windy or too warm to operate.
RAL: What activities will attendees encounter?
TR: In addition to the launches and balloon rides, we have an envelope (the big colorful top part) you can walk inside and take some great photos. We have a Star Wars Darth Vader balloon this year as well as Star Wars costumed characters for great photo ops. The best activity is getting right up to the balloons to take photos and talk with the pilots.
RAL: What can an attendee expect to find for local lodging?
TR: There are a few hotels in the area as well as a large hotel/casino opened nearby recently. Despite adding new hotels in the last couple of years, the festival does sell out rooms for the weekend so attendees should book early.
RAL: What does this event mean to the community?
TR: Sonoma County is a symbol for a few things, one of them being hot air balloons. We have been running long enough that people who grew up with the event are taking their children to experience a hot air balloon launch.
RAL: Does this drive business to your local economy?
TR: It brings in a lot of people to experience the hotels, restaurants, wineries, breweries, hiking, and other activities the county has to offer.
RAL: Does the event support a particular cause in the community?
TR: We partner with the Civil Air Patrol, Boy Scouts, local high schools, and rotary club for their fundraising. We recently added the Redwood Empire Food Bank as our primary recipient. They are a non-profit that provides food and services to combat hunger.
RAL: Why should people come to your event?
TR: Experiencing hot air balloons should be on everyone’s bucket list. The roar of the burners and getting a new perspective as they tower over you is unforgettable. Fortunately, you can also get some great photos and videos as well to share with your friends who will want to join you for the following year.
For more information about the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic, please visit the event website.