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Visitors Guide To The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is an annual event and is in fact the largest annual free ballooning event in Europe. It started in 1979 when some hot air balloon enthusiasts got together at Ashton Court Estate and flew 27 balloons. These days there are over 100 balloons that take part and around 500, 000 visitors attend the 4-day event.

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We went to the first day of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta at Ashton Court, Long Ashton, Bristol, BS41 9NJ which in 2023 runs from the 10th to 13th of August. This is advertised as a free event which technically is true, you don’t have to pay to get in or watch the events in the main arena, bandstand or Brizzle Kicks Stage. But, and this is a big but, you do have to pay for parking, all the funfair rides cost money (don’t forget to take cash for these) and if you want food, drinks and even water then you have to pay through the nose for these.

What to expect when you visit:

There are three main sections at the balloon fiesta, the arena, the bandstand and the Brizzle Kicks stage. The arena is where all the balloon action takes place. This is where the mass ascents launch from, where the tethered displays are, and where the model balloons are tethered. where the parachute display team land and where the model planes are flown. This is also where the pinnacle of the event takes place. the night glows. Bristol International Balloon Fiesta Night Glows are legendary in this part of the world and they truly are a sight to behold. A selection of balloons are inflated whilst tethered to the ground at night when it’s dark. They are then lit up by the burners in time to music provided by BBC Radio Bristol. In previous years there had also been a firework display but they no longer do this.

The bandstand plays host to a range of local musicians playing live music throughout the day and the Brizzle Kicks stage is home to all of the children’s entertainment. To see what music and entertainment to expect when you visit, head to the Balloon Fiesta website or pick up a free guide when you arrive. The free guide contains a full programme for each day of the event, information about the history of the event, some puzzles and activities and a balloon spotters guide so you can tick them off when you see them.

Accessibility, children and dogs

Well, we hit the treble on our visit, we took the dog because we didn’t have anyone to leave her with for the day, a disabled adult (visual impairment and mobility impairment), a disabled child (neurodiverse, physical impairment and cancer) and a non-disabled child.

Dogs are welcome at the event but they must stay on a lead and owners must pick up their mess. The organisers also advise that some dogs can be scared of balloons and crowds so ask people to think carefully before taking a dog with them. I would also advise that you check the weather and make sure you take towels to dry your dog before getting back in the car if it’s wet and plenty of water if it’s warm. I would also recommend taking a tugger-type toy to keep the dog entertained when you are hanging around waiting.

The event is very family friendly although do keep in mind that it will be a very late night if you stay for the night glow, it can be a massive sensory overload with all the lights/colours/sounds/people and it can get very expensive or you will have to say no a lot if the children want to go on rides, buy from the stalls, have sweets or have ice cream. Also make sure you take plenty of water, hats and suncream if it’s a sunny day and it’s a good idea to take a jumper for the evening.

As for accessibility, that’s varied depending on your needs. the ground is mainly grassy and very uneven so this was tricky for the small mobility scooter and the wheelchair buggy. It would also be difficult if the ground was wet and I imagine the site would get very muddy very quickly. The disabled parking was close to the main arena so that was good and it was much quicker to exit this car park than some of the other car parks. I didn’t see any changing places toilets at the event, there were a few ‘wheelchair accessible’ portaloos but these would be very cramped for anything larger than a standard self-propelling wheelchair. They were also being used by anyone and everyone so they got mucky and ran out of toilet paper very quickly. At times there were queues of around 30 minutes for the main toilets. There was a ‘wheelchair accessible’ portaloo in the accessible viewing area but the steward on the gate of this area was letting anyone in to use it, even if they didn’t have a ticket for the viewing area. This meant that like the main toilets, it got dirty and ran out of toilet paper. There was also a queue at times. Again, none of this was ideal if you need to assist someone with using the toilet or if you need to give personal care.

You can find out more about accessibility here.

What do you need money for

I took my parents (my mum is partially sighted and uses a mobility scooter), hubby, my 2 children (the Dinosaur uses a children’s wheelchair buggy) and our dog. We booked 2 spaces in the disabled car park (£25 each plus booking fee) and also spaces in the accessible viewing area (free). You can book your car parking here.

When we were there it was an incredibly hot day and we drank all the water and drinks we took with us. I bought 4 bottles of water (500ml each) and 2 bottles of Coke Zero (500ml each). They cost £17.

The children were asking for ice cream and that was £5 per scoop!

There are also lots of funfair rides on the site and these all cost money and are cash only so the chances are the kids will want a go on these. If you are planning on going on any rides, you’ll need to take cash with you as there are no cash points on site.

My top tips for going to the fiesta:

💦 take plenty of water especially if it’s a hot day

🪑 take some fold-up chairs or a blanket to sit on

💦 take more water, it was so hot the day we went and there was nowhere to refill our bottles

🧸 take something to entertain the kids and the dog if you take them too, there’s a lot of hanging about so if you want to save money, taking activities with you is essential

☀️ if it’s a particularly sunny day, don’t forget suncream, hats and maybe a sun umbrella or beach sun shelter

🧥 it can get chilly in the evening once the sun goes down so make sure you take jumpers or light jackets

🧺 take food with you, especially if you are planning to stay all day then you can save a bit of money and just buy one meal there

🛒 some kind of wheeled item to lug it all around! There were a lot of people with festival trolleys/wagons when we were there but I think a nice shopping trolley would be easier to manoeuvre

💷 take cash and a card with you. The funfair rides are mostly cash-only but many stalls are card only

🧻 tissues and hand washing wipes as the portaloos often run out of toilet paper and hand sanitiser. These Clinell wipes are brilliant as they can be used on hands and surfaces

🎈be prepared to be disappointed. We were hoping to see a mass ascent but sadly the wind was blowing in the wrong direction which meant that there would be nowhere safe for the balloons to land if they did take off. If you want to see the balloons fly, your best bet is to aim for a morning assent but you’ll have to get up early! Morning assents usually fly at around 6 am.

🛑 be prepared to wait. There can be a lot of hanging about waiting for things to happen at the balloon fiesta like the parachute display team, the tethering of balloons, the launching of balloons, the start of the night glow and exiting the car parks. People often sit in stationary traffic for over an hour trying to get out as there are thousands of people trying to get out of one or two gates.

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