The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa is the main launch pad for the hot air balloon portion of this weekend's festival in Cathedral City.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY FANTASY BALLOON FLIGHTS
Forty years ago, the futures of Steve and Cindy Wilkinson and the city of Cathedral City were set in stone.
The couple formed Fantasy Balloon Flights in 1981, starting with a single, two-person balloon offering private charter flights with brunch at the Indian Wells Date Gardens (now a strip mall). That same year, Cathedral City became the second to last desert city to incorporate. La Quinta was the last to do so in 1982.
The two entities became partners seven years ago when Steve Wilkinson convinced the city to expand upon its idea of including a hot air balloon at a fall festival. “They wanted one balloon out there,” Steve says, “to bring attention to the city and the event. So I said to them, ‘If you want to spend so much money for one balloon, we could probably do 10 balloons for just a little bit more money and put on a real event.’”
From that first year, the festival now attracts more than 15,000 people and has expanded to include more venues and activities. “Sometimes it just takes the right timing, and you don’t know it until you are in it,” Steve says. “I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time.”
The Cathedral City Hot Air Balloon Festival and Food Truck Fiesta lifts off again Nov. 19-21 at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa. The weekend includes live music, an art show, tethered balloon rides and more, utilizing the downtown park area in front of city hall, the city’s new outdoor amphitheater, Big League Dreams Sports Park, and Agua Caliente Casino Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage.
The festival is not the end of the flying season for the Wilkinsons. In fact, it’s just the beginning that extends into May, and then business moves to cities closer to the coast like Ventura and Temecula.
Palm Springs Life spoke further with Steve and Cindy Wilkinson about flying hot air balloons, how you should be prepared if you want to take a flight, and how the business made it through the pandemic.
You moved to the desert in 1979 and Steve took a job as a UPS diver and you had a catering truck business. Where does the connection to hot air balloons come in?
Cindy: Johnny Lewis lived in the same complex we did and he introduced us to balloon flying. We thought it was the coolest thing and once we met him, we began helping him as ground crew for his balloon. Lewis became Steve’s balloon instructor and he loved to fly. Soon he started training to become a FAA certified pilot and flight instructor. As soon as Steve got his license as commercial pilot he asked the balloon company to let him work for them. Unfortunately, at this time Steve did not have enough flight hours to meet the company’s insurance requirements.
They suggested he could get his own balloon and the insurance company would cover him in his own balloon. We called the business Fantasy Balloon Flights, because it was our fantasy to build this.
What are the keys to flying a hot air balloon – is it similar to any other experience you have had flying?
Steve: Flying a hot air balloon isn’t like flying a plane. It's more like sailing a sailboat. Our attacking is up and down instead of right and left like sailboats do, but you still have to catch the wind. You can only move with the wind. It's like three-dimensional sailing.
What changes have you seen in your business during the last 40 years?
Steve: The balloons have gotten larger. Now we use less pilots and less crew members than we did before. When we started, the largest balloon was maybe a six-passenger balloon. If you had a group of 12 people, you had to have two balloons. Now our balloons carry up to 12 passengers.
What do people like most about flying in a hot air balloon?
Steve: You can be afraid of everything and still fly in a hot air balloon. In a balloon you can't feel up, down, forward, back. I think people like the feel when they are flying in a balloon. It's more of a floating feeling until you land, obviously, but then you're on the ground and then you feel the ground.
How should people prepare when they are going on a flight with you?
Steve: We suggest that people wear comfortable clothes and shoes, like tennis shoes. They might have to walk out of a sandy area or an area with rocks. We also suggest wearing hats. Especially tall people or people with thinning hair. It’s a hot air balloon. There is hot air from the burner right above your head. We meet early in the morning when it is still cool. We also recommend bringing a light jacket that they wear, but as we're flying, it warms up and they can pull it off.
What is the secret to the business’ longevity?
Steve: We always put safety first. All the time. That's how we have stayed in business. You take chances, you get a couple of screw-ups and people aren't happy with it. You need to be safe. We cancel more often than probably any other company, but we have been in business longer than any other company.
The last 18 months have been a challenging for businesses. How did you manage to survive?
Steve: We stayed home. We own everything. We've been in business a long time. So, we had no payments. We tried to help our staff and let them work on other projects and getting prepared for what was going to happen after COVID with our balloons.
Beside the regular balloon flying we have a few corporate balloon contracts, including the new Agua Caliente Casinos balloon that will debut on Nov. 18, a day before the Cathedral City Balloon Festival. Beside this we are having the Apple Cosmic Crisp Balloon. This contract took us throughout the U.S. this past summer to balloon festivals in Shreveport, Louisiana, Longview, Texas, Bend, Oregon, Indianola, Iowa, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, Boise, Idaho, Reno, Nevada and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Unfortunately, we had to close our restaurant Café Italia that we’ve run for around 27 years. We had around 8-10 singers serving as hosts, waitstaff, and busboys. Many of them studied opera and performed throughout the valley. They were all professional singers. Then the pandemic hit. After 16 months of paying full rent while being closed, the lease ran out, and we did not open the restaurant again. We donated all of the equipment and supplies to a mission church in Thermal to help feed more people.
• For a PDF flyer of the Cathedral City Hot Air Balloon Festival and Food Truck Fiesta, click HERE.