Florida on a Tankful: Orlando Balloon Rides

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, May 11, 2017, 6:42 AM EDT

"It's more of a passion than anything else,” says Mark Roberson of his love of flying.

While the private pilot is accustomed to flying celebrities on weekend trips around Europe, he’s more content to ferry you across Central Florida in a hot air balloon.

"You have one shot at it,” Mark jokes about landing.  “If you miss it, then it takes 80 days to get back around to your next shot,” he said with a wide grin.

Mark believes spring is the time to climb aboard for an “up-lifting” tour with Orlando Balloon Rides.

"Like in a river, there is a current that goes downstream.  It's the same thing up in the air.  There are air currents that go in specific directions,” Mark said of the atmosphere.

Taking to the sky with Orlando Balloon Rides starts before dawn.

"1, 2, 3,” balloon handlers chant as they remove giant baskets off trailers before sunrise.  Unlike a baskets that can hold only 3-4 passengers, Orlando Balloon Rides offers rides for 10-12 people at a time, in what looks like an over-sized picnic basket.

Once first light arrives, the set up happens fast.

Within moments, giant fans begin cold air inflation, as the balloon envelope expands.

Next, Mark lights the gas burners, while the basket rests on its side.

"Turn on the burners! ignite it,” he said while instructing volunteers.

As soon as the basket is back upright, and attached to the balloon, passengers are given the signal to climb in.

"Bring it in!” a technician yells at the group over the fans.

Since baskets don’t have doors, passengers must climb into them, as if they were scaling a small fence.

"With my short legs it was kinda hard,” said Josie Meyer of Clearwater.

"I pushed her in,” added her husband Bill with a laugh.

As soon as all the passengers have boarded, the magic moment occurs when the slippery bonds of gravity give way to lift.

"It was kinda awesome, you didn't feel when the take-off was going to happen,” said Jason Solano, a passenger. “Next thing you know, you're up in the air."

Once in the sky, passengers behold the sunrise, Epcot on the horizon, and natural Florida.  From 1,400 feet, the ride allows riders to reflect from a different perspective.

"It's so peaceful. It's so relaxing,” passenger Alba Alcibar shared.

Flying overhead, there's no waiting in I-4 traffic, just wishing for more time in the sky, as Mark begins to pull on lines that lead to vents in the balloon overhead.  Opening the vents allows the warm air escape, thus bringing the balloon slowly back to earth.

"It lets you come down,” Mark says.

After landing, passengers will help deflate the balloon, by walking all the air out of the envelope.

It's tradition with ballooning, safe landings are always celebrated with a campaign toast and a blessing.

"The winds have welcomed you with softness... the sun has blessed you with it's warm hands. God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back in the loving arms of mother earth,” Mark says as passengers raise their glass.


Know before you go:

Orlando Balloon Rides operates from an office on US 27, near the I-4 innerchange.  While road construction appears to have closed access in May 2017, drive on the dirt road instead.  Just stay between the traffic cones.  All passengers will be transported to one of 30 take-off sites in large passenger vans before dawn.  After the flight, the ground crew will meet you at the landing location and transport you back to your car.

Tankful on Television

Catch Florida travel stories like the one above on Television four days a week across Central Florida. The award-winning Florida on a Tankful with Scott Fais airs on News 13 Thursday through Sunday. See new segments in the Bay Area as well on Bay News 9. Stories air beginning at 6 a.m. on both channels as a Spectrum exclusive.