Look … up in the sky! It’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s a hot-air balloon—and you could be in it!
The Sixth Annual Cathedral City Hot Air Balloon and Food Truck Festival will take place Friday through Sunday, Nov. 22-24—and each year, event producer Fantasy Balloon Flights offers balloon rides for people who want to fly high in the sky. The festival offers plenty of food and family-friendly entertainment for those who want to stay on terra firma, too.
Cindy and Steve Wilkinson have owned and operated Fantasy Balloon Flights since 1981.
“We moved out to the desert about 40 years ago from L.A.,” Cindy Wilkinson said. “Steve had a good job with a delivery company out here, so we felt safe in the move—but what we didn’t know is they lay off a large percentage of employees after every Christmas. He was one of the ones who was let go.
“A few months later, we were in a coffee shop when a man came in and asked for help. We had nothing better to do; in fact, we were looking through help-wanted ads, so we went and helped him. Turns out he ran a local hot air balloon company. Steve ended up working for this Texas man, and we learned a lot about balloons. The only problem was getting a pilot’s license in order to fly them. We ended up buying our own hot air balloon, so it would be easier and more convenient for Steve to get his license, which he did. We’ve been flying ever since.”
The business is truly a family affair: Their son, Justin, has followed in his dad footsteps and is now a licensed commercial balloon pilot. His wife, Courteney, runs the company’s marketing department.
“There are different tests to take for different crafts you fly,” Courteney said. “The training is all the same in regards to what you learn and the hours, but in the end, there are different licenses for commercial or private flying.”
Justin said he believes he has the best job in the world.
“I have been around hot air balloons my whole life, and they have taken me all over the world,” he said. “I received my private license at age 17 and my commercial rating by 18. I have been flying professionally for the last 15 years, giving tour rides in the Coachella Valley. The best part of the job is seeing the smiles on the faces of kids young and old when they see the 10-story balloon ride off the ground.”
This family ethic carries over to everything the Wilkinsons work on, including the Cathedral City Hot Air Balloon Festival. This year’s event will include morning and evening “balloon glows,” live music and children’s activities in the festival area in downtown Cathedral City. They’ve also added the Healthy Life Fest, which will include lots of vegan and healthy vendors, as well as speakers. On Sunday, Big League Dreams in Cathedral City will host a pancake breakfast—and there will be special-shaped balloons, including a bumble bee and love birds.
“You don’t realize how big they are,” Cindy said about the special balloons. “I saw my first odd shaped balloon 15 years ago. It was the Energizer Bunny, and it seemed bigger than the Empire State Building. Standing right next to it was amazing!”
For those of you who want to get into a balloon, Cindy said that’s not a problem: “We have tethered rides, and there will also be a competition for 20 of the pilots in the air, and some of those are open to the public.”
All the fun also benefits a good cause: A portion of the proceeds will be donated to SEAthletes, which “engages the next generation to nurture the Salton Sea by connecting them to the water through paddle sports.”
The Sixth Annual Cathedral City Hot Air Balloon Festival and Food Truck Fiesta takes place Friday through Sunday, Nov. 22-24, at various venues. Admission to the festival, in downtown Cathedral City, is free. For more information, including a complete schedule and links to purchase tickets to events, visit www.hotairballoonfest.com.