Balloon rides have been a part of the Central Florida scene for more than 30 years, and one of the longest-running companies offering this chance-of-a-lifetime is Orlando Balloon Rides, who we have had the pleasure of knowing for much of that period.
And, while we love the roller-coasters and other rides that Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld have to offer (and which they will add to this year!), there is nothing to compare with the feeling of floating up, up and away in a hot air balloon.
Just to start with, they are immensely safe and extremely comfortable. Orlando Balloon Rides originated as British-owned Orange Blossom Balloons in 1983, merged with Blue Water Balloons in 2006, and rebranded under its current name in 2009 as the largest operator in Florida.
They now have the biggest selection of balloons, from the basic six-person variety all the way up to the latest 20-passenger baskets that provide the ultimate in balloon-going comfort.
Our most recent experience also served to highlight the full enjoyment , especially since OBR moved to their own dedicated Welcome Center on Highway 27 in Davenport (just by the junction with motorway I-4, hence easy to find).
After booking your specific date, you need to call the Flight Line the evening before to double-check conditions will be conducive to a good flight and also to be sure you know the flight time and meeting point. Almost all balloon flights take place first thing in the morning, as the air is calmest in the two-three hours after sunrise, hence it is likely to be an early meet-up (usually as early as 6am!).
You are also advised to wear casual, comfortable clothing, with solid footwear (trainers or shoes; not sandals or high heels), while ladies should also wear jeans or trousers rather than dresses (for climbing in and out of the basket). It’s no colder in the air than on the ground, hence you don’t necessarily need to dress warm, although it can be chilly first thing in the morning, especially in winter, so a sweater or jacket is a good idea. The landing area can also be on open countryside or fields, hence the need for sensible shoes.
The Welcome Center provides coffee, water and some light snacks, as well as restrooms, and there is then a full safety briefing to ensure everyone knows what to expect. Once you head out with the OBR team in their big vans, it can be to anywhere in the Kissimmee/Davenport area, depending upon wind direction. On our recent flight, we drove down to Poinciana, in southern Kissimmee, and set up in a field next to Poinciana’s small industrial area as the sun began to come up.
The flight team send up a test balloon or two (of the blow-up helium variety!) to gauge the wind strength and direction and then the task of unpacking the balloons and their baskets begins in earnest. For all those taking part, there is the chance to help with the unpacking and inflating, and it also makes for a great photo opportunity as the first sunlight spreads across the landscape. NB: it may be stating the obvious, but it’s highly advisable to use the loo back at the Welcome Center. There are no public restrooms out in the wilds of Kissimmee, and it will be at least two hours before you are back again.
Once the job of inflating the balloons is complete (and there are often four or more balloons with every trip), your pilot will assemble the group for his basket and provide full instructions for how to climb in and out, and any other last-minute safety tips. There is also a photographer to grab some snaps before you gently float away. And it is an amazingly gentle sensation. There is no real sense of movement like you would get in a lift, just a light feeling of lifting up under the hot-air power of the balloon (with the burners going full blast, which can be pretty loud), and seeing the ground gradually recede beneath you.
Once airborne, it is then a matter of soaking in the views and enjoying the fabulous perspective at up to 2,000ft above ground level. The whole of Central Florida comes into sharp focus and the main landmarks are clear to see, all the way to the Kennedy Space Center on the east coast on the clearest of days. There will usually be some cloud and early-morning mist, though, and this lends a distinctly ethereal – not to mention photogenic – quality to the view.
Many flights will skirt along the south-west corner of Walt Disney World, providing a view of the full realm of the House of Mouse, and it’s quite amazing to see how much of the 47 square miles of it is still undeveloped. Away to the west and along Highway 27, you can see the great growth in the vacation home sub-divisions and gold courses, while also marvelling at how much wilderness area there still is, including marshes, lakes and woodland. If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of some of the wildlife, while you definitely need to keep an eye out for the occasional gator in the lakes, as they are quite easy to spot from up high.
Your one-hour flight will vary in height and speed according to the wind direction and what there is to see, as your pilot will be able to descend to tree-top level at times, and skim through the landscape as much as over it. Finally, the pilots and their ground team will decide the best spot to land as they work with the breeze, and this is the only time the ride may get a little bumpy. Once firmly back on terra firma, all the balloon team gather for the traditional champagne toast – and some more photos, of course.
There is then the little matter of helping the team get the balloons folded up and back in their huge pouches before everyone is transferred back to the Welcome Center and the chance to grab a snack (and use the loo!). All in all, it is an immensely personable and serene experience, and even those with a fear of heights (like Susan) should not be put off by the idea, as the baskets make you feel extremely secure. And there is simply no substitute for that lighter-than-air feeling of seeing Florida in all its glory. The only danger is (like us), you might get hooked on ballooning and can’t wait to do it all again!
Do you have questions on this story or anything to do with Orlando or Florida? Be sure to join Susan and Simon on the fabulous ATD discussion forum here.