First annual hot air balloon festival floats its way to Champaign


Photo courtesy of Chris Diana

One of the hot air balloons that will be featured at the first annual Champaign County Balloon Festival for tether rides. The festival will take place from Sept. 23 to Sept. 24.

By Sydney Wood, buzz Editor

A first-of-its-kind festival will make its debut in Champaign, with proceeds going toward charities that serve children with disabilities. 

The Champaign County Balloon Festival will take place from Sept. 23 to 24 at Dodds Park in Champaign, featuring hot air balloons from across Illinois and other regions. Although it’s the first time the fair is coming to the community, organizer Chris Diana said the event was initially planned to happen before the pandemic hit. 

“2019 was the year we were shooting for, and we had some added logistic delays, and then 2020 and 2021 were through COVID-19,” Diana said. 

He said the festival has multiple functions, but it’s primarily a charitable event. 

“The purpose of it is to be a fundraiser for children’s groups, primarily children with disabilities, and to bring some family-oriented entertainment to the Champaign-Urbana community,” Diana said. 

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This year’s proceeds will benefit Crisis Nursery, Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation, Cunningham Children’s Home and AMBUCS, a membership organization that aims to help people with disabilities improve their mobility and independence.  

Diana said he and the other organizers have past experience working with children’s organizations and charities, which is how they choose this year’s donation recipients. 

“A lot of good charitable work and good children’s health work goes on in this community, too,” he said. “We have a lot of supportive people in organizations here to draw on.”

He predicted that the hot air balloon launches, tethered balloon rides and balloon glows will be the most popular events at the festival. 

“The Balloon Glow, which is right after dark, that’s where all the balloons are anchored to the ground, but they are running,” Diana said. “They’re inflated, and they run the burners, and they glow like big light bulbs, which is pretty fascinating to look at.”

He said the balloonists will also have a little race during the balloon launch, where balloons take to the air and attempt to drop a marker close to a target placed a few miles away.

“So, it’ll kind of fill the air with the balloons taking off, which again is one of the things people love the most about watching balloons,” Diana said. 

The rides will start around 5 p.m. on both days of the festival, but the first two or three hours will be dedicated to giving rides to children with disabilities, he said. 

“These are specially equipped balloon baskets that can anchor wheelchairs, for instance, and they have a plexiglass door so that even if kids are in the chairs, they can see well,” Diana said. 

Diana said the weather played a role in the decision to hold the festival in September since it’s one of the “best months for lack of rain and pretty balanced winds.” But he said the time of day matters too, which is why the festival’s balloon events occur in the morning and evening. 

“Weather balloons can only fly in a limited wind,” he said. “A lot of ballooning is either early in the morning or late in the day, which is why we’ve also incorporated the other things, like the carnival … for people to do during the day while they’re waiting for the balloons to take off.”

Balloonists are “adventurous folks,” Diana said, and even though many of the balloons at the festival will be from Illinois, some are coming from Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. 

“The balloonists are kind of a tightly knit group,” he said. “It’s easy to get out the word within the organizations, and most states have their own associations, etc. So, we kind of work through the network.”

Outside of balloon-related activities, the festival will feature carnival rides and games, food vendors and a kids’ game tent, including face painting, games, balloon twisting and a magic show. 

Diana said the most rewarding part of planning the fair is working with the sponsors, local organizations and others who are helping prepare for the festival’s debut.

“It’s amazing how many people are willing to step up and do things for free or do things at a vastly reduced rate,” he said. “This has always been a great community for that sort of thing.”

For those interested in learning more about the Champaign County Balloon Festival, visit Tickets for adults and teens cost $10, and children ages 12 and under can enter free with a paid adult. 


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