Every year, our family watches the Triple Crown races and talks about one day attending one of them in person. This year, my husband had the wonderful idea of attending the Preakness Celebration Balloon Festival. This three-day festival leads up to the Preakness and is a 40-year tradition. Activities are from 4 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday with mass balloon releases at 7 p.m. both days. More mass balloon releases are on Friday and Saturday mornings at 6 a.m. The Preakness is usually the third Saturday in May.
We decided to go on the Friday night before the Preakness. We hit rush hour traffic so it took an entire hour to get there from Montgomery County. Google maps thoughtfully steered us through the scenic route. We saw beautiful mansions, turkey vultures, a deer, and a flying heron along the way.
For the afternoon/evening events, most people park at the Howard County Fairgrounds, pay $10 per car, and get a free shuttle to Turf Valley, which is 15 minutes away. Try to arrive early as the buses get crowded quickly. Note: For morning events, park free at Turf Valley. Boy Scouts handed out program guides with a schedule of events as we got off the shuttlebus. The guides were also available at the Turf Valley booth. At the fairgrounds, we met up with two families. Our group included our 14 year-old daughter, a five year-old girl and her two year-old brother, and a seven year-old with his baby sister.
We chose the cheapest method of experiencing the hot air balloons – the $2 per person walkabout balloon. For that price, you get unlimited visits inside a hot air balloon. The kids enjoyed running around in it. It was kind of like being inside an enormous tent or on a flat moon bounce. It was also great for photo opportunities. More expensive experiences included a $225 per person 30-45 minute balloon flight or a tethered balloon ride, going up 60-80 feet for 2 minutes ($20 for adults and $10 for children under 12). These rides need to be booked in advance and are dependent on proper wind and weather. My husband and I had celebrated our tenth anniversary with a hot air balloon ride. It was not a bit scary and lots of fun and very scenic. However, that night we did not feel like splurging as there was plenty of cheaper fun to be had.
Next, we bought our picnic dinners from the vast array of food vendors. Being in a Maryland mood, I got an $8 crab cake. My husband purchased a gyro and my daughter got a huge Italian sausage. Other vendors had barbecue, Thai food, funnel cakes, and even Yuengling flavored ice cream. There were also a number of craft vendors and I bought my daughter souvenir hot air balloon earrings for just $7. While we were getting our food, we listened to the annual Wounded Warriors ceremony.
One of the families disappeared for ages since the seven year-old was riding the miniature Thomas the Train that traveled throughout the grounds ( $5 per person). The climbing wall was $5 too. Other families had the foresight to bring frisbees and other outdoor toys. However, our kids had a blast just rolling down the steep hill and running to and from the hot air balloon.
Towards the end of the evening around 8 p.m., the hot air balloons were lit from within, called a “balloon glow.” This tradition originated in Albuquerque and the balloons look like glowing Christmas tree ornaments. That night due to wind conditions, there were only four, traditionally-shaped hot air balloons. On Thursday night, there were 25 hot air balloons, including an elephant, a bird, a cat, and a teddy bear. The Preakness Celebration Balloon Festival turned out to be a perfect family activity, appealing to all ages. Our families plan to make this an annual tradition.
Admission: Free but $10 per car if you park at Howard County Fairgrounds
Restrooms: Lots of Jiffy Johns.Photos by Beth Meyer.