I have a pine needle stashed in my pocket. This is unusual in only one regard: I plucked it from the top of an 80-foot-high tree on an Orlando-area balloon ride with Magic Sunrise Ballooning.
I’m smiling at the memories of my flight as I write, memories that include climbing into the meticulously kept wicker basket, memories of how the burner roared when it was used – drowning out conversation, its heat radiating down onto the tops of our heads. My memories include surreal sights, too, like looking down at a pond and seeing our reflection drifting over the placid water below. They include the way riding in the balloon felt, how strange it was that it gave the sensation of no movement whatsoever but instead was like standing or sitting on a perfectly still platform that was magically transported through the sky.
My balloon ride was much more than just the time in the air, though. The morning began with a predawn meeting (for us, at a Best Western) during which we were introduced to the crew and the pilots and briefed about how the day would unfold. Next, we turned a tiny balloon loose in the hotel’s parking lot and watched it drift to help determine where our launch and landing sites would be.
Our launch field, filled with balloons, was an artist’s fantasy come true. The morning fog curled around bits of earth as the huge, colorful balloons took shape. We helped to fill ours by holding its sides while a powerful fan whirred nearby and our pilot shot gas into what looked like the balloon’s mouth in a rush of heat and flame.
The aftermath of our flight was just as much part of the fun as its preparation was. We helped pack up the balloon and enjoyed a champagne toast. The champagne was unexpectedly good, the jokes were hideously bad and laughter was abundant. Next, we feasted on a generous breakfast buffet back at the hotel, the omelets prepared to order while we exchanged stories and received certificates heralding our flights.
At breakfast, a passenger named Darin confessed that he was terrified of heights and had almost decided not to go, but that he didn’t want to look back in 30 years and mourn missing an adventure that he had always wanted to try because of some unfounded fears.
“It was like being in a dream,” he said, his eyes misting. “And it turned out to be a more beautiful, peaceful dream than I could have imagined. I’ll never forget it.”
Want to balloon but aren’t visiting the Orlando area?No worries. It’s an adventure you can enjoy in many Florida locations; I’ve included links to some of them below. Reservations are required and restrictions apply.
Addicted to being in the air? Here are more Sunshine State soaring ideas:
- Hook into a hang glider. A tandem flight is just the ticket for adventurers who want to snag a bird’s-eye view of the state. No running is involved, since your takeoff and landing will be on wheels (floats if you fly over the Gulf).
- Soar in a sailplane. Mother Nature provides the lift for these sleek, super-gliding planes, which are towed aloft by another airplane. Flights can be magical, and circling in the same thermals as ospreys, bald eagles and vultures is not unusual.
- Float your boat in a parasail. If there’s an ocean nearby, you can bet your parachute that there’s parasailing, too, which means you can experience this peaceful type of flight in a boatload of Florida locations.
- Hitch a ride in an ultralight. Flying in one of these aircraft is nothing like flying on a commercial flight. Feel the wind against your face; breathe fresh air; wonder at the sights.
- Ditch the plane. Skydiving is an adrenalin-lover’s dream. Before your chute opens, you’ll free fall at a blistering 120 mph. If the thought of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is not your cup of cocoa, visit iFly Orlando, a vertical wind tunnel in Orlando, for a tamer alternative.
- Ground-bound fun for the aviation enthusiast is plentiful, too. Polk City’s Fantasy of Flight boasts more than 40 rare and vintage aircraft as well as a plethora of opportunities for in-the-sky fun; the National Naval Aviation Museum located on Naval Air Station Pensacola boasts more than 150 aircraft and 4,000 artifacts.
Magic Sunrise Ballooning, 866-606-RIDE
National Naval Aviation Museum, 850-452-3604
Paradise Hang Gliding, 888-WINGS-FL or 239-293-2891
Quest Air Hang Gliding, 352-429-0213
iFly Orlando, 407- 903-1150
The Florida Ridge, 863-805-0440
Wallaby Ranch, 800-WALLABY