By Kim Vesely
When you stare at the balloons at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (October 4–12, 2014), watch out! You never know what might stare back at you.
It might be an elephant. Or a cow. Or a pig. Or a cute little kitty. Or it might be something completely out of this world. You may find yourself withering in the glare of Darth Vader, spellbound by a witch, or under the watchful eye of the biggest Zebra on the field.
At the Special Shape RodeoTM and GlowdeoTM, you never know what you’ll find. Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my! A punching kangaroo, or a beautiful butterfly. You may even be buzzed by the famous Bee family.
These very special balloons are known as special shapes, because they in some way depart from the regular, teardrop balloon shape. The departure can be as simple as an ear here and a whisker there to make a whimsical face. Or, it can be as complicated as a clock, a huge flying house, a cantankerous cactus, or a stagecoach that if people could ride inside could have singlehandedly populated several Old West towns.
Special shape balloons first appeared in some of the earliest Balloon Fiestas. The very first is thought to be G-GOLLY, a very tall character balloon from Great Britain. Other early shapes included the Orville Redenbacher popcorn kernel, the Whaleoon (a giant blue whale), Mr. Peanut, the J.B. Bottle and a bevy of soda and beer cans. Even then, the odd-shaped creations were a sensation.
Throughout the Balloon Fiesta’s second decade, the number of shapes continued to grow. The G-r-r-e-a-t Tony, Earforce One (better known as Mickey Mouse), the Financial Times newspaper and the Virgin Atlantic airplane drew huge crowds. There was even a flying saucer and a series of three shapes posing as aerial art. By the end of the decade, with the number of shapes growing, the obvious suddenly dawned on many board members, staff, and volunteers—these amazing creations deserved their own showcase. To see various special shapes, visit our special shapes search.
And thus was born the Special Shape Rodeo.
The first Special Shape Rodeo was held in 1989 as a two-day, afternoon event. The early Rodeos took place entirely in daylight and featured static displays of the balloons standing erect along with flying competitions. Problem was, mid- to late afternoon is one of the warmest, windiest times of the day. Special shape balloons, which are often larger and have appendages that catch the wind, often couldn’t fly, and sometimes couldn’t even inflate. So, in the Rodeo’s first decade, the event gradually evolved into the two-day early-morning event guests enjoy today. The afternoon events morphed into evening balloon glows, called Glowdeos. Today, the two-day Rodeo and Glowedo is perhaps the Balloon Fiesta’s biggest and most popular event. To see a full schedule of Balloon Fiesta’s events, take a look at our event schedule.
And no wonder! Those eyes—the google-eyed stare of Super FMG, Jim’s mischievous glare, even the dead cat’s cross-eyes (the balloon’s name is 1 Down, 8 to Go, arguably the funniest balloon name at Balloon Fiesta) are irresistible. And big—even a small special shape eye is as tall as a person.
The real anatomy of a special shape balloon becomes apparent when staring up inside it. The guts of a special shape balloon are usually much like a regular shape hot-air balloon—round on top and tapering to the bottom where the balloon attaches to the basket. But at the points where the appendages—arms, legs, heads, tentacles, or whatever—attach to the balloon, the inside of the balloon is peppered with little holes. Hot air forces its way through these holes and pressurizes the appendages, giving the balloon its distinctive special shape.
Special shape balloons are engineering marvels, a unique combination of design technology and meticulous handcrafting. Designers devise the whimsical ideas for the balloons, which are then translated into blueprints and patterns. Some of the fabric panels are now machine-cut. But technology has not been able to entirely replace the skilled artisans who sew most of the hundreds of yards of fabric together by hand and hand- weave the baskets.
For many years, most special shape balloons were built by the major manufacturers of hot air balloons in Great Britain and the United States. These days, an increasing number of special shape balloons are built by specialty companies abroad, particularly in Belgium and in Brazil, where labor costs are lower. Ah . . . what do they cost? Well, more than a regular hot air balloon which typically runs in the $30,000 range. The price tags often are jealously guarded secrets. Guestimates run into the high five figures and even into six figures for the most elaborate shapes.
But you can’t put a price tag on wonder and laughter, the wide eyes of a child, and the joy of walking around Balloon Fiesta Park surrounded by soaring, skyscraper-sized fishies, birdies, and piggies. Not long ago, a full-size Elvis stared down at Balloon Fiesta Park crowds—you could almost her him saying, “Thank you very much.”
At the Special Shape Rodeo and Glowdeo, the eyes truly have it! Here’s looking at you!
For more information about the daily event schedule of Balloon Fiesta, click here.
To book a hotel room near Balloon Fiesta Park, read more about our hotel recommendations.