Film/Television Editor, Copy Editor Devin D. O'Leary served as film/television editor at Weekly Alibi for 28 years. He wrote and produced four feature films here in New Mexico and has been the booker/host of Midnight Movie Madness screenings at Guild Cinema for 13 years.

After taking 2020 off for some much-needed COVID relief, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta returned last year to enthusiastic crowds. This year’s 2022 event marks the legendary local event’s 50th anniversary and is all set to take place Saturday, Oct. 1 through Sunday, Oct. 9. It starts bright and early at 6am every day with the Dawn Patrol and ends, most nights, around 8pm with an AfterGlow Fireworks Show. And even if your aren’t at the Balloon Fiesta Park, you’ll know it’s happening by the dozens of colorful hot air balloons floating across the wide Albuquerque sky.

Balloon Fiesta Park’s launch field alone is comparable to the size of 54 football fields. This 60-plus acre area is necessary to accommodate the more than 500 balloons that launch during the event (including 19 brand new “special shapes,” such as an alien, a screwdriver and a flying bus). The total expanse of the Park is a whopping 365 acres, custom designed to facilitate the largest ballooning event on earth. Since its humble inception at a shopping mall parking lot in 1972, with a total of 13 balloons, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has grown into “the most photographed event in the world.”

So what do locals and visitors need to know to make the most of the 2022 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta? Let’s break it down.

Getting There

The Balloon Fiesta Park is located on Albuquerque’s north side, just off the Pan-American Freeway (I-25). Look for Exit 177 if you’re coming off the freeway. It’s bordered on the south by Alameda Blvd. and on the east by San Mateo Blvd. General parking lots are located on the north and south ends of the park. There is a $20 fee (in addition to admission) for each session you are at the park. Each parking lot is color-coded and the gates are numbered, so remember the color and number of the gate through which you entered the field. Have cash ready as you enter the parking areas, as attendants do not accept credit or debit cards for parking fees.

Attendance is expected to soar this year with the waning (sort of) of COVID, so drivers can still look forward a good deal of congestion—particularly before the morning mass ascensions and the evening balloon glows. Hour-long traffic jams are not uncommon. If you aren’t hauling a large family or a lot of gear, you might consider taking advantage of the Park-and-Ride system. Park-and-Ride tickets include: round-trip transportation to and from Balloon Fiesta Park, an expedited route to bypass heavy traffic and admission to the Balloon Fiesta itself. It’s frequently your best option for getting to the park with the least amount of hassle. This year there are three Fiesta Express locations: Cottonwood Mall (10000 Coors Bypass NW), Coronado Center (6600 Menaul Blvd. NE) and Hoffmantown Church (8888 Harper Road NE). Tickets cannot be purchases at the lots and must be acquired in advance. Purchased in advance, tickets are: Adults: (13 to 61) $22, Seniors: (62+) $20, Children: (6 to 12) $10, Children: (5 and under) free. If you wait until the day you’re going in order to purchase those tickets, prices jump to Adults: (13 to 61) $25, Seniors: (62+) $25, Children: (6 to 12) $15, Children: (5 and under) free. Park & Ride is not available on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. All departure times are listed at balloonfiesta.com/Park-Ride, and tickets must be purchased in advance.

If you’re into ride-sharing, services like Uber and Lyft might be a good alternative option. Guests are welcome to utilize the ride share app of their choice for access to and from the park. The designated drop-off and pick-up area is south of the park near the intersection of Alameda Blvd. NE on Horizon.

If you’re the athletic type, or just want to help fight global warming, you can beat the traffic entirely and ride your bicycle to Balloon Fiesta! Albuquerque’s picturesque bike trail runs along the AMAFCA North Diversion Channel, crosses underneath Paseo del Norte and Alameda Blvd. and continuing north where it crosses from the west side to the east, ending just north of the Balloon Museum. Dismount here and you’ll find the Balloon Fiesta’s free Bike Valet service, staffed by local bicycle group volunteers. They’ll present you with a ticket stub, which will allow you to reclaim your bike whenever you’re ready to pedal home. The Bike Valet is open 4:30am to 10:30am and 4:30pm to 9pm. So, why not avoid the congestion by taking two wheels instead of four? For more info on this option, go to balloonfiesta.com/Bike-Valet.

Getting In

Admission for Balloon Fiesta is $15 per session for guests 13 and older. Children 12 years and under are free. One “session” is either all morning activities or all evening activities. No refunds are available, but tickets for cancelled sessions (typically due to inclement weather) may be used for future sessions. It is strongly recommended you purchase your tickets in advance by going to balloonfiesta.com.

Of course, if you’d like to “upgrade” your hot air experience, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is offering a special package for guests. A ticket to the Chasers’ Club gives you guaranteed seating in a private outdoor patio located next to the launch field where you can enjoy a catered meal along with cookies and beverages. Coffee is provided and is served along with hot cocoa in the mornings and iced tea and lemonade are served during evening sessions. Chasers’ Club guests will also have access to private restrooms located within the Chasers’ Club area.

The Chasers’ Club is located on the north end of Balloon Fiesta Park and offers a deluxe view of the launch field from a private outdoor patio. The Chasers’ Club is also connected to the Chase Lounge, which allows you the opportunity to purchase alcoholic beverages without the bother of standing in a beer garden. Admission to the Chaser’s Club is $60 per person (children under 6 are free).

If you’re looking for something even more exclusive, the Gondola Club is a private area away from the crowds that offer guests “delicious food, local entertainment, premium parking, courtesy shuttles and outdoor seating.” Naturally, you’ll have the best views of a Mass Ascension, Special Shapes Rodeo, balloon glow and the evening fireworks show. The Gondola Club also has its own gift shop, so you can shop without fighting the crowds on Main Street. Entrance to the Gondola Club for one “session” (morning or evening) is $125 for adults or $65 for children ages 4 to 12.

This year organizers added the luxury “Sky Box” option, moving shipping containers onto the edge of the field and converting them into individual party pads complete with elevated balcony, host bar and space for 20 guests. The price is $5,000 per session, and—despite the steep price—if you don’t already have one booked, your odds are slim. The exclusive Concierge Service (complete with private guide and personal golf cart) and the three-night, on-field “glamping” program typically sell out many months in advance and are also impossible to secure this late in the game. Plan ahead for next year, rich folks.

Hanging Out

Thanks to COVID restrictions, the live music and entertainment portion of last year’s Fiesta was cancelled. But it returns this year with a live National Anthem every morning to get things started, several dance troupes performing throughout the day and a string of bands in the evenings. It all culminates with a Music Fiesta, taking stage at the north end of the field on the second Saturday of the event, Sept. 8, between the morning and evening sessions. Performers for this day-long country music concert include Restless Road (1pm), Lainey Wilson (2:30pm) and Cole Swindell (4pm). Several types of Music Fiesta tickets are available: Albuquerque (Dance) Box: $75, Reserved Seating: $55 to $65, Premier Lawn Area: $30, General Admission: $15, Ultimate Music Fiesta™ Package: $499. For more details visit: balloonfiesta.com/FAQs-Music-Fiesta.

Between launches, mass ascensions and balloon glows, be sure to check out Artisans at Balloon Fiesta, an arts and crafts show located on-site during the Fiesta. More that 30 artisans will be there selling their wares. There’s also just over one-third of a mile of concession space on Balloon Fiesta’s Main Street. Whether you’re searching for balloon pins, Fiesta souvenirs or just a green chile cheeseburger to fill your stomach, the Balloon Fiesta has got you covered.

And if all that shopping causes you to miss any of the events happening at Balloon Fiesta Park, you can always tune in to Balloon Fiesta Live! This year’s live stream features more than 40 hours worth of event programming and can be viewed online at balloonfiesta.com/live-stream.

Staying Safe

Current state rules do not require a COVID test or a mask to attend this public event. Nonetheless, the Fiesta website continues to post this warning: “As the COVID-19 situation continues to improve, the requirement for masking and distancing is constantly changing. Please check with the New Mexico Department of Health at www.nmhealth.org or go to the New Mexico state website at www.newmexico.org for all the most recent updates and changes to COVID policies for the state.” Outside of Balloon Fiesta Park, please keep in mind that some local businesses, hospitals and other private enterprises around town have their own rules regarding COVID restrictions and may require masks.

Backpacks, blankets, folding chairs and outside food and drink are allowed inside the Balloon Fiesta Park. But inspection of items is required. Clear bags will expedite the process. Blankets or bulky clothing should be carried over the shoulder to be screened more quickly. Weapons, glass bottles, hard-sided coolers, alcohol, religious or political paraphernalia and any animals other than services animals are prohibited. Metal detector screening is in place.

So make sure you’ve got your COVID boosters, dress in layers, get your tickets in advance, don’t forget where you parked, be sure to grab a breakfast burrito and have a fantastic time at the 2022 International Balloon Fiesta.

For complete, up-to-date info on the Balloon Fiesta, go to balloonfiesta.com or download the mobile app at the App Store or Google Play.