Disclosure: Michigan Challenge Balloonfest hosted our visit. All opinions are ours.
The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest has been on my summer bucket list for years. This year they hosted us to experience the event and share it with you.
About Michigan Challenge Balloon Festival
Michigan Challenge Balloonfest is held annually in Howell. They celebrated their 35th year in 2019. In addition to the hot air balloons, the festival includes a carnival, food, an Arts Festival & Open Air Marketplace, and entertainment.
Hot Air Balloons at Michigan Challenge Balloonfest
In 2019 the Michigan Challenge Balloonfest featured 39 balloons. Watch Balloon Launches Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. Balloon Fly-ins on Saturday and Sunday mornings. A Balloon Glow is Saturday night.
Typically the hot air balloons fly in between 6-8a and fly out between 6-8p. We arrived at 5:30p and the observation area was getting crowded – particularly in shady areas because it was so warm that night. We watched the Sky Divers at 6p and then headed to the carnival rides since the balloons were not yet being inflated.
At 7:15p when we returned to the launch area the balloons were just starting to inflate. The first balloon launched about 7:20p. Balloons continued to launch for the next 50 minutes.
After the launch, my daughter, her friend, and I went back to the carnival. My husband and our neighbors stayed behind in the viewing area. They said that vans and trucks brought the baskets and deflated balloons back to the launch area for the balloon glow.
Saturday nights is the Balloon Glow. The balloons all inflate on the launch field as dusk approaches. I was expecting the glow around 10, but by 9 the balloons were being inflated.
At dusk, the announcer will count down and all the balloons will turn up their fires which lights up the balloons. The fires heat the air and make the balloons rise, so the glow only lasts about 30 seconds. Then, they let the balloons cool off for a couple minutes and have another glow. The first glow was at 9:36p this year.
After the first glow, we saw people start to pack up and head out. We stayed for 3 glows, then decided to pack up and head for the parking lot to beat the traffic. We saw one more glow between the trees as we walked to the parking lot.
Each morning the balloons fly in between 6-8a. We are not morning people and with the drive from Ann Arbor, we decided to skip the Fly-In.
Carnival at Michigan Challenge Balloonfest
The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest includes a large carnival. It is much larger than the Ann Arbor Jaycees Carnival, but there are also more people so the lines can still grow long.
The Carnival had a nice balance of thrill rides, rides for little kids, and tamer rides for all ages.
About the Carnival
This year the Carnival provider was Wade Entertainment. The ride mix can change year to year. However, the ride mix is usually pretty consistent. Ride wristbands are available at the gate for $25. For next year, be sure to buy in advance for the best savings.
Being 13, my daughter and her friend were all about the thrill rides. They started with the Ring of Fire which rockets you around the inner diameter of an upright circle – including a pause as you hang upside down. They rode this one twice.
My daughter was thrilled to have a friend with her to ride the Zipper. The ride requires two riders per car.
They skipped the Beast and the Air Swing.
Medium Thrill Rides
The Tilt a Whirl, Scrambler, Swings, and Himalaya are some of my long-time favorite carnival rides and all 3 were available at the Carnival.
Sky Wheel is two smaller Ferris Wheels on an arm. While one arm loads the other continuously rotates. They do a couple loops with both wheels rotating. Sky Wheel has a 48″ height minimum.
Most Ages Rides
There are several rides that families can ride together. I didn’t see a height minimum for the Ferris Wheel – and actually saw a handheld baby around 6 months in line.
The Spinning Bears have a 36″ height minimum, but are fun for all ages.
There are two funhouses. The Hillbilly Village Funhouse has a 36″ minimum, but requires closed toe shoes. The Monkey Maze Funhouse is 36″ with an adult or 42″ solo.
The Fun Slide is 42″ to ride alone, but kids as small as 32″ can ride in a parents lap.
There is also a Ferris Wheel.
Little Kid Rides
The Carnival offered quite a few rides for younger kids. There were lady bugs, cars, 4 wheelers, helicopters, and a carousel that were all options for smaller kids. They also had not 1 but 2 kiddie coasters.
Our Thoughts on the Carnival
I thought the ride mix was good to provide options for kids of all ages – including older kids who don’t like the High Thrill rides. From what I saw the rides and fences were well-maintained. They also had sprays to help cool off on a hot day.
My daughter was thrilled that there were rides she had not experienced at other carnivals like the Sky Wheel.
When we arrived to the carnival area at 6:15p, the lines were relatively short and my daughter and her friend went on a number of rides in a short time. As expected, lines were quite a bit longer between the Balloon Launch and the Balloon Glow. You cannot see the balloon launch field from the carnival midway, but my daughter and her friend were able to see it from the higher rides and knew the balloons were being inflated for the glow.
I was disappointed that I could not find a list of rides anywhere – on the Wade website or posted at the carnival. Other carnivals provide a list on the website and/or at the ticket booth with available rides, number of tickets required, and ride heights.
I also found some of the ride height signs to be in need of work. A couple only had the lines drawn, but no numbers on them and some seemed to have been adjusted to add additional restrictions – higher minimums or adding a maximum.
Food at Michigan Challenge Balloonfest
There were a number of options for food at the Balloonfest. We kept it simple with a pizza to share and fresh squeezed lemonade from the Highland Food Court. I was intrigued by the fruit drinks served in fruit – half a small watermelon, pineapple, or coconut, but not the line for them.
My one advice with the food court is to go deeper into it. There were at least 3 Fresh Squeezed Lemonade Stands. The one near the entrance had a long line, but we walked almost right up to one further back. You will also find food trucks and more specialty food in that area. I saw a Polish truck, Custom Meats, and more pizza. Another one that intrigued me was walking tacos, but everyone else was more interested in sharing a pizza.
The Carnival Midway also includes food like Elephant Ears, Funnel Cake, Corn Dogs, and Italian Sausage. Hot Dogs were also available near the balloon launch field and the entrances.
More at Michigan Challenge Balloonfest
The Michigan Challenge Balloonfest is more than just the balloons and carnival.
When we first arrived the launch field was the target for Skydivers. They performed several times throughout the weekend including a night dive after the glow. A Stunt Kite Team also performed here earlier in the day.
The Main Stage is in front of the launch field and features entertainment. The Midwest Dueling Pianos were performing between the Balloon Launch and the Balloon Glow. Other acts are scheduled throughout the weekend around the launches, skydives, and kite exhibitions.
Between the launch field and the carnival were several booths including a mobile escape room. My daughter was intrigued, but they decided to head to the rides instead. The escape room costs $5/person for a 10 minute session. Also here is the Howell Reading Express bus. Take a break out of the sun to read a book on the bus or under their awning.
The Arts Festival and Open Air Marketplace were on the opposite side of the entrance we used from the launch field and the carnival so we did not make it over there. The Children’s Tent is also in that area. With teens, they were more interested in the carnival.
Our Tips for Michigan Challenge Balloonfest
- Plan to spend plenty of time if you want to do everything. We arrived at 5:30p and I thought the girls would get bored. But, we could have arrived much earlier in the afternoon to enjoy more time at the carnival and a chance to visit the open air market or the kids tent.
- The Carnival is crowded between the balloon launch and night time activities (Fireworks on Friday and Glow on Saturday). It is less crowded earlier in the day.
- Bring chairs and/or blankets to watch the hot air balloons and other action on the Launch Field. Plan on at least one member of your party staying with your spot.
- Make sure to apply sunscreen and bring water to stay hydrated
- Bring quality bug repellent. We husband received several bites despite bug spray and our neighbor saw a tick. For mosquitos, we highly recommend Thermacell lanterns
- Buy your ride wristbands online in advance for maximum savings.
- If you have someone in your group with limited mobility, make sure you plan ahead to park in the best lot. We saw a group struggling to push a wheelchair up a grassy hill from the entrance where we parked. Another