Disappointing trip to hot air balloon festival

Two blog posts in less than a week! This must be some sort of record!

A few London gal pals and I did a day trip to Bristol yesterday, to check out the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. It’s supposed to be the biggest hot air balloon festivals in Europe! We were all looking forward to checking out the hot air balloons because we’ve never really seen one up close, but boy, were we disappointed.

I’ve never been to a large outdoor music festival before (e.g. Coachella, Wayhome, or Tomorrowland), but if this is what they’re like, then I’m glad that I experienced the hecticness of an outdoor music festival at a smaller hot air balloon festival instead.

When we got there – after a delightful detour in the city of Bristol to grab lunch, eat ice-cream, and take photos of the suspension bridge – we found out that hot air balloons only launch at two times during the day: 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM. Fair enough, we thought, so we decided to walk around the festival area to see what was available. What we discovered was: not much.

Food and entertainment were both mediocre at best. Food stalls were like any other festival food stalls – expensive and mediocre. The entertainment wasn’t entertaining, and it was incredibly difficult to find a spot to view the events that were supposed to tide us over between the two balloon launches. That said, I’m not too upset about either of these things. It’s an outdoor festival after all; logistically, there’s only so much you can provide for your guests.

The most frustrating part of the festival, however, was the utter lack of a crowd management strategy. The festival is arranged so that company sponsors, food stalls, and amusement rides surround the main balloon launch area. Picture a large circular festival area, with the balloon launch area situated in the very centre of this circle. The problem with this arrangement was that the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta didn’t make the festival area into a complete circle.

On one end of this incomplete doughnut, the festival organizers set up amusement park rides for children, while the other end were food stalls. There isn’t anything wrong with setting up amusement park rides on one end of this doughnut because this park area would then generally be occupied by large families who were more than happy to settle down into a spot on the grass and stay there for the rest of the day.

However, with the other end of this incomplete doughnut essentially being a cafeteria, you’re faced with a huge crowd management problem. When people buy food at a festival, they either 1) stay in the area to finish the food, or 2) grab their food and return to where they were sitting/standing. So when you have an incomplete doughnut, where one end of the festival is essentially a “dead end”, you’re faced with a huge traffic issue.

Instead of having attendees pick up their food and leave the cafeteria area in an orderly manner where they can loop back to the other side of the festival circle, the location of these food stalls required attendees to pick up their food and do a “U-turn” in order to return to their viewing spot.

To add to the frustration, in front of this food stall area, the festival had arranged for a large viewing area where families could park their resting blankets for the day. So now, as a hungry festival attendee with both hands holding food, you’re now trying to avoid a crowd that is heading in multiple directions and trying to avoid grumpy festival guests that are seated on their resting blankets.

I can forgive the festival for cancelling the 6:00 PM hot air balloon launch because of unstable weather, but I can’t forgive festival organizers for not implementing a better crowd management strategy. Dirty shoes? Fine. A lighter wallet? Fine. But struggling to work your way through a crowd of kids, “hangry” guests, and baby strollers? Nope.

I’m pretty sure that this year’s festival isn’t the first time they’ve had it at the Ashton Court Estate. Organizers should know every nook and cranny of the park by now. When festival attendees have nothing else to do, they look for the easiest thing they can do, which is eat. If organizers are going to allow a viewing area in front of these food stalls, then the least they can do is make sure that the area is designated, so it cannot be expanded further by even more families plopping blankets on the heavily trodded food stall path.

Also, by forming a complete doughnut for the festival area, guests now have the option to create and follow traffic that flows in-and-out like a two-way road. No U-turns involved.

I wish we had a more enjoyable time at the hot air balloon festival. Maybe organizers will fix crowd management issues for next year, but I don’t think I will attend again. Being in such a large disorganized mob of people (and with a limited mobile signal!) makes me far too impatient.

When we decided to leave the festival for good, we found out the line-up to return to Bristol’s Temple Meads train station via shuttle bus was at least a 30-minute wait. We ended up walking back to the train station instead. By the time we reached London’s Paddington station, it was already 10:30 PM at night. We had left Ashton Court at 7:30 PM.

Before we left, a few of the hot air balloons lit up in preparation for the evening festivities, so I will post a photo of them below. It was hugely disappointing to have seen only three hot air balloons at what is Europe’s biggest hot air balloon festival.

What an adventure! I don't remember the last time I did this much exercise in one day. On my first ever day trip outside of London, my new London gal pals and I travelled to Bristol to check out the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. It ended up being a terribly disorganized festival with absolutely zero crowd management strategy. If this is what a massive outdoor music festival is like, then I'm so glad that I experienced it first-hand here at this small-ish hot air balloon festival. The event was so crowded during the evening, it would have taken us three times the amount of usual allotted time to return to the Bristol train station. So we decided to walk back to the train station instead, spending a good 50+ minutes speed walking from Ashton Court to Temple Meads. Then, when we got to Temple Meads, we realized that we could still catch a delayed train, so we sprinted across the street and into the station to see if we could catch our train back into London. We ran for it, a good 5-minute sprint, even after an exhausting 50+ minute walk from the Ashton Court park. Today has been the most exercise I've done in years! I'm so out of shape! 😩

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