It may be one of the most surreal and sublime sights you’ll ever see — early on an October morning, hundreds of large hot-air balloons fill the New Mexico sky as thousands of awed spectators watch from the ground.
You’ll find this experience only during the nine days of the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, an event that has become the signature hot-air balloon celebration in North America. About 800,000 people attend various events during the course of the fiesta, making it one of the biggest annual gatherings in North America.
Like the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, numerous large-scale events across the country have become the signature celebrations of cities large and small. Although these festivals often attract tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors, the organizers go out of their way to make sure their events are hospitable and accessible for tour groups, giving travelers once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
As part of its annual list of 100 top events in North America, the American Bus Association gives these events special permanent status.
So put some of these special festivals and events on your travel bucket list, and then make an effort to start checking them off.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2011, the Balloon Fiesta treats visitors to sights they won’t soon forget.
“The experience of flying in a balloon is spectacular, but seeing 500 balloons in the air at the same time is unmatched,” said Megan Mayo, communications manager for the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You go out there early in the morning, but it’s completely worth it. You can’t stop looking around — it’s a 360-degree view, and there are all sorts of shapes of balloons around you.”
Balloon enthusiasts flock to this desert location each fall because of unique wind patterns around Albuquerque that make the area an ideal ballooning destination. During the festival, balloon pilots take part in events such as early morning ascensions as well as contests that try their skill and accuracy in piloting.
In the evenings, the pilots get together again for balloon glows, when the colorful balloons are tethered to the ground and illuminated by the light of their massive butane burners.
Groups attending the festival should plan to go during weekdays, when the grounds are less crowded. They will find a special group hospitality area with morning coffee and afternoon snacks, as well as numerous opportunities to get close to the balloons.
“One of the neatest things about the fiesta is that you get to walk down amongst the balloons,” Mayo said. “You’re not sitting on the sidelines watching from afar. So you can find someone who likes to chat, and they’ll tell you about what they’re doing and answer your questions.”
Visitors can also enjoy a number of concurrent festivals, including a beer festival, a Native American dance celebration and the Taste of New Mexico culinary festival.
Portland Rose Festival
For more than 103 years, the Portland Rose Festival has been recognized as the official festival of Portland, Ore. Although the celebration has grown to encompass three weeks in late May and early June, organizers still include some of the key elements from the party’s past.
“We started out with traditional parades, and we’re still famous for parades,” said Marilyn Clint, executive director for events and communications for the Rose Festival Foundation Association. “One of them is our Grand Floral Parade, a floral-covered float parade that takes place our third weekend.
“Since 1961, that parade has been going through an indoor venue. It makes it ideal for group travelers — they can sit in a reserved seat under cover in historic Memorial Coliseum; and the windows are open, so you get an indoor-outdoor sort of feel.”
Many tour groups integrate the Grand Floral Parade into a wine-and-roses-themed itinerary throughout the state of Oregon. The convention and visitors bureau can also arrange opportunities for groups to tour the parade floats before or after the event, and screenings of a film about the history of the rose festival.
The festival isn’t all about flowers, though. The Starlight Parade features community groups in a variety of eclectic costumes accompanied by a barbecue festival on the Portland waterfront. And Memorial Day brings a special patriotic flair.
“We do a big march on Memorial Day, which has become our fourth parade,” Clint said. “It has a patriotic flavor with a lot of military machines and exhibits.”
CMA Music Festival
All year long, groups visit Nashville, Tenn., to get a taste of the city’s world-renowned country music heritage. During the Country Music Association’s annual music festival each June, fans get a heaping helping of great music. With four days of performances, it’s the nation’s largest country music festival.
But beyond just attending the concerts, group travelers at the festival can interact with some of their favorite artists.
“What really makes it unique is that it has the whole fanfare element to it, where the visitors get to meet many of their favorite artists,” said Deana Ivey, senior vice president of marketing for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “During the day, they can go from booth to booth at the convention center and get autographs and have their pictures taken with the stars.”
At the Sports Zone, artists join attendees to participate in activities such as archery contests or dog Frisbee throws. And artists such as Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill play in an annual charity softball game, which the public is invited to attend.
In addition to the autograph signings and sports events, fans can find concerts going on throughout the day at two different sites downtown. Then everyone comes together at LP Field each night for a large-scale concert featuring a long list of country stars playing three or four songs each.
Ivey said that Nashville’s receptive operators make it easy for groups to attend the festival.
“A lot of groups come,” she said. “There are about nine receptive operators that sell packages to the festival. They buy a block of tickets and then take people to the different events throughout the week.”
Mummers Fancy Brigade Finale
Philadelphia residents mark New Year’s Day with the Mummers Parade, an elaborate and exotic event with roots in European and Caribbean celebrations. Thousands of locals work throughout the year in teams known as “fancy brigades” creating costumes and dance routines that are judged during the parade and performance event on Jan. 1.
“We’re the oldest folk parade in America, and we’ve been consistent since 1901,” said Scott Brown of the Fancy Brigade Association. “We’ve been called ‘where Mardi Gras meets Broadway on New Year’s Day.’”
There are currently 11 fancy brigades in Philadelphia, each involving 50 to 150 men and women. The members each spend several thousand dollars annually to create new themed costumes and to hire professional choreographers to create elaborate dances complete with recorded music and movable set pieces.
The Fancy Brigades come at the end of the Mummers Parade, which winds its way through Philadelphia for hours. But groups can see the spectacle during two indoor performances that day at the convention center, one of which is professionally judged to award annual titles to the winning brigades. And a special package allows groups to get in on the act themselves.
“We have what’s called a Mummers Pass, which gives you an admission into the convention center,” Brown said. “You can dress up as a Mummer and take pictures, learn to make a Mummers hat, and see some of the men and women drilling.
“It includes a backstage pass, where you can see them putting together the floats and get a sneak preview of the costumes.”
It’s hard to imagine a more patriotic place to celebrate Independence Day than Boston, and the annual Boston HarborFest attracts some 2.5 million visitors who come to do just that during the six days surrounding July 4th.
The festival will celebrate its 30th year in 2011 with more than 200 events, most of which are free.
One of the marquee events is the Boston Pops concert on the evening of July 4; the concert ends with an elaborate fireworks display.
“One of the things that makes the fireworks spectacular is that we have the wonderful music, in which there is always a big guest star at some point,” said Larry Meehan, vice president of media relations and tourism sales at the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When you get to the end of the concert and the “War of 1812 Overture,” it ends with howitzers and fireworks and church bells ringing.
“People are cheering, and it’s one of those great experiences of a lifetime.”
Groups visiting for HarborFest can also catch the fireworks show from one of the many boats and yachts offering cruises on the Charles River during the celebration. In addition to the music and celebration, visitors will find costumed interpreters and historical re-enactments taking place at locations throughout Boston’s historic district.
“All along the Freedom Trail, we have re-enactments of the speeches that Paul Revere made at the Old South Meeting House and a sample of an 18th-century town meeting where people are arguing about whether to get rid of the British,” Meehan said. “There are gun drills over at Charlestown Naval Yard, and the Liberty Clipper does sails all weekend.”
Ozark Mountain Christmas
With a combination of parades, Christmas-themed music shows and drive-through light displays, Branson throws a holiday party few can match with its Ozark Mountain Christmas, which takes place from early November through the end of the year.
“The differentiator in our neck of the woods is really the Christmas shows,” said Lynn Berry, director of public relations for the Branson Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have dozens and dozens with the star entertainers of Branson and their Christmas productions, like ‘Mr. Christmas,’ Andy Williams, as well as the Oak Ridge Boys, the Osmond Brothers and many others.”
Nearly every act in Branson puts on a special Christmas production, which usually runs from November through mid-December. But beyond the theaters, groups will find a trio of drive-through light tours around town, including a lighted forest with Ride the Ducks, the Branson Area Festival of Lights and the Trail of Lights at Shepherd of the Hills, which features 1800s holiday vignettes.
Silver Dollar City amusement park transforms into an evening wonderland, with Christmas lights, music shows, a five-story special-effects Christmas tree and nightly productions of “A Christmas Carol.” Demonstrators in Craftsmen’s Village create more than 100 types of handmade Christmas items.
The city also has an annual Adoration Parade on the first Sunday in December in its historic downtown.
“It’s absolutely unique, because there is no hint of commercialism,” Berry said. “There are dozens of high school bands and lighted floats. There is no advertising — it’s strictly about the reason for the season.”
For more festivals:
U.S. Festivals: Join the crowd
WEB EXCLUSIVE! 10 More 2011 group-friendly events