There’s nothing that will take your breath away quite like a ride in a hot air balloon. It’s an adventure I’d always wanted to experience, so I turned to the best pilots in Kissimmee (and all of Florida, for that matter) to show me the sights at 1,500 feet above the ground.
"You’ll often see wildlife and beautiful reflections on the lakes as we fly low over the water," said Bob Wilamoski, owner of Bob's Balloons. "It's very scenic and pristine when you're up there floating with the wind."
Long before the Wright brothers pioneered engine-powered human flight, two other brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, launched the first hot air balloon in 1783. The passengers were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster, and I was happy to learn that they all survived the 15-minute flight.
Today, floating in a hot air balloon is a magical experience that draws people together. Countless marriage proposals happen in the air. Others celebrate milestone birthdays and anniversaries. On my flight, a teenager and his grandfather had driven four hours in the middle of the night so the grandson could carry his recently deceased grandmother’s ashes with him on the ride. He said it was an experience that she always wanted to do, but never had the chance.
There’s a good reason why most hot air balloon launches happen at the break of dawn, and that’s because the wind is usually calm and serene at sunrise. You’re truly at the mercy of the weather, especially wind. Pilots don’t steer hot air balloons. Instead, they adjust the altitude and depend on light winds to propel them forward. So that means you never really know exactly where you might end up, which can make for an interesting landing.
Early on a Saturday morning, I met up with Bob Wilamoski and another pilot, Bob Carlton. As Wilamoski said to me, “any Bob will do.” The pilots often fly balloons at the same time and place as other local companies in the area. Harkening back to the inventors of ballooning, it’s sort of like a family gathering with a friendly and competitive spirit.
Both Bobs got hooked on a whim in the 1970s and have been piloting balloons ever since. Wilamoski has been running his own company for so long that a couple who became engaged on his balloon came back 20 years later to do it again with their kids. “It felt good to get to see them again, but that means I’m getting old!” he said.
With the sun rising over a dark field in Kissimmee, about a dozen hot air balloon crews prepared for take-off. Wilamoski, Carlton, and their respective ground crews rolled out massive balloons called envelopes. I watched as they worked quickly and efficiently (I could tell they’d done this many times before) to propel cold air using heavy-duty fans into the brightly-colored synthetic fabric. Soon huge balloons began to take shape. Then, once the wicker baskets were sitting upright and directly underneath the balloon, the pilots used gas jets fueled by propane cylinders to push hot air into the envelopes. Time to go!
Our ride started out over some dense, amazingly bright green forests. We watched the sunrise peek over the horizon, glowing beams of orange and yellow light that gradually shifted to bright blue. It was definitely a breathtaking sight, and was even more incredible floating through the air, almost as if we were part of the sunrise itself. Seeing the other hot air balloons floating around us, dotted against the sunrise, was something I’ll never forget.
So a family of six could stick together in Wilamoski’s larger, six-seater basket, I ended up flying with Carlton in his four-person balloon. And I discovered that he could have a second career as a comedian, with a pocket full of one-liners. “You bought the round-trip ticket, right?” He said to me as we ascended into the air. I’m one of the most gullible people on the planet, so anything he told me, I looked at him with wide eyes and wonder until he’d crack a smile.
It turns out the entire coalition of Kissimmee pilots like to tell jokes. They talked to each other on radios throughout the ride, trying to gauge the wind and figure out where they should all fly, and then, eventually, land.
“I’m going to wing it, but I don’t like playing in the swamp,” one pilot said. Another chimed in on the radio: “But you don’t have wings.”
“That’s Rocket Man,” said Carlton, pointing to another balloon that looked like it was on its way to outer space. “Tom likes to fly high to see what the winds are doing.”
We went up and down as well, but I liked flying lower because I could clearly see so many incredible sights from such a unique vantage point. We flew over lakes, fields, and forests, all brimming with life. When we flew over houses, it was entertaining for both us and the residents on the ground as we greeted them with “good morning!” and friendly waves. It always took them a minute to figure out where the salutations were coming from.
As I mentioned earlier, hot air balloon pilots can’t steer, so they are constantly monitoring wind speeds to determine where to land. It’s part science, but mostly an art, and they need an internal compass to know at every moment where they’re headed.
We were in good hands with Carlton, he began to descend the hot air balloon into a tiny field on the edge of a residential neighborhood. Thanks to a sudden gust of wind, we soon found ourselves in a shallow pond. But, thankfully, we weren’t there for long.
Carlton worked his magic and as soon as we had felt the water start to seep through the bottom of the basket, he propelled enough gas into the envelope to force us to bounce out of the water and over a row of houses. He called it a splash and dash. We landed on the street in the middle of the neighborhood, while residents still in bathrobes came out to see what all the commotion was about. I loved it.
The beauty of natural Florida surrounded our up-in-the-sky adventure. Seeing the diversity of the landscape and the region, I can’t help but appreciate Florida in a whole new way.
What would an adventure be without an exciting plot twist at the end? To top it off, both Bobs hosted a champagne toast to celebrate! And then an alligator swam up to the edge of the pond. Was he bidding us a fond farewell? I chalked it up to another wild day in the Sunshine State.
"It's not a job, it's an adventure that I truly love," said Wilamoski. "Come fly with me and find out."