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A Once In a Lifetime Opportunity …

Building a Tour for Disney !

Looking Back at Building the Ultimate Balloon Tour (some back-story) :

If you know me, it is no secret that the Spencer family is now and always has been, Disney born and raised.  I made my first trip from Idaho to Disneyland as a 10-year-old boy. (lets see, that’s 45 years ago) My daughters made their first trips at an age less than half of that. Now, I’ve taken my granddaughter, Alex, and can hardly wait to visit the “Happiest Place on Earth” for what will certainly be a life high point, with Rocco and Spencer, my two young grandsons.

We’ve celebrated virtually every significant event in our family (sometimes just an excuse to go) with trips to Disneyland. When the girls were younger, it seems like I can’t remember a year when we didn’t made the trip at least three times. (you get the picture)

Disneyland and all that it evokes have always held a special place for me. As a kid when I returned from my special trips to the “Happiest Place on Earth”, I could easily imagine a monorail circling my neighborhood, my street was “Main Street USA” and I saw a Castle in my backyard. Disney has always brought out the best in everyone’s imagination and I was no different.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve had the opportunity to share this magical place with my family over the years, making certain that my daughters enjoy it as I have and pass it to their children.

Sadly, as we grow older, some of the imagination starts to dwindle. I have to work harder to imagine what the monorail would look like moving through Boise. I’m not able to run from ride to ride any more to make sure that I get on everything I can as many times as possible during my visit. In fact, Laurie and I often just take a walk in Disneyland, enjoy a meal or snap a photo or two and enjoy a quiet moment.

As to my professional life, if you know me, you know that a Disney balloon has been high on my list of goals for almost thirty years. I’ve tried and tried but never with much luck to build a program here on the west coast. That other park in Florida had the balloons and great talent operating them, so there wasn’t much of a need for me.

But then right out of the unexpected blue one October morning my phone rings. I’m told that Disneyland is going to build a hot air balloon to be used as part of the year long Celebration of the Park's 50th Birthday.

“I’m asked if I’m interested in becoming the chief pilot”.

A few short days later, Disney Event Producer, Jonathan Cloward, visited Boise to chat with me about the project. This was going to be good !

For me, this truly was the best of times and the worst of times. Laurie’s Dad was very ill and she had left a Kellogg tour in mid-September to go to Montana and be with him. The concept stages of this tour were a challenge for me in as much as she wasn’t here to lend her skills and sharp mind to the project. Late in November, we lost her father. The loss was overwhelming for her, there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to comfort her, and that huge sense of loss seemed to hang over us as we worked to build this new program for Disney.

On a buttoned down, well-organized corporate project, we usually end up spending between 18 and 24 months from concept to first flight. Time was critical on this project based on the time remaining in Disneyland’s 50th Birthday Celebration. From concept to first flight, we had just under five months to get ready for the 11-city tour that absolutely had to start no later than the last week of March.

The run-up to first flight was frantic most days but a unique experience to be a part of this “machine” that is so well organized, so detail oriented and so talented that nothing takes your attention from the ultimate project goals.

I’m asked all the time how this project was built. More so than usual. I understand, it's Disney and everyone is curious … and, the answer is a short one. “The details of any of our projects, aircraft, promotions and operations, other than those aspects viewed in public are always proprietary in every respect. Sorry” I will make an observation for you though …

For me, one of the truly interesting aspects of this promotional tour is the obvious planning that went into it long before we were called.  Disney knew exactly what they wanted to do and where they wanted to do it. They had a pretty good idea of the logistics before the flight team was ever assembled.

We had several goals. First on the priority list was our ability to position the balloon at a specific location for a photograph. The locations in each of the tour cities were selected based on their familiarity to local residents and were referred to as “Iconic Images”. As an example of this, if you saw a picture of the balloon and the Space Needle was in the background, you’d know right away that the balloon had flown in Seattle. The Space Needle in Seattle is an “Icon” of that community hence the “Iconic Image”, get it ?

Second on the list but of equal importance was local media. We had to set the shot and work with multiple TV stations at the same time. This is where we were pretty certain it would get interesting. 

Setting the “Iconic Shot” and ensuring proper position and lighting for the Disney Photographers didn’t always match with the needs of the TV stations and their schedule of cut-a-ways to our location. The good news is that we were surrounded by some of the most incredible, hard working, problem-solving people we have ever had the honor to work with. In fact it seemed that the more challenging the situation the happier the team was, these kids thrived on challenge.

We have eleven cities to plan for and the only way to do it right is to visit each and every one of them and select the appropriate location for a flight operation at a specific time of the day. Disney calls them “Site Surveys”, does them for virtually all external projects and they are an interesting process to watch unfold.

I don’t want you to think that Laurie and I went out and started picking our launch spots because that just isn’t how it works. It is a joint effort. The Site Survey Teams included “Event Producers”, staff from Marketing, staff from Press & Publicity, Disney’s Chief Photographer, Disney Videographers and Producers and in some cases, representatives from Disney that worked with specific media in specific markets and of course, Laurie and I were there too.

Did I mention that in addition to the eleven cities a “National Premiere” of the new balloon was planned ?  Four locations were openly discussed. Disney wanted a balloon image to end all balloon images. Something unique and never before seen. An image that newspapers all over the world would pickup and print. Locations we were looking at included the “Great Wall of China”, the “Pyramids” in Egypt, the “Baghdad Airport” in Iraq and the “Grand Canyon” in Arizona, USA.

Late the morning of January 25, 2006, our Site Surveys began as the Team descended to the floor of the Grand Canyon in a fleet of helicopters. The Grand Canyon was selected to be the site of the National Premiere of the “Happiest Balloon On Earth”.

Over the next six weeks we visited each and every city on the proposed tour and explored multiple sites in each city looking for the perfect shot that would be safe to conduct a flight operation at, (or from) and be accessible to the local media.

The days were long and the work tedious but in the end, we selected some awesome places to fly balloons from. As a bonus for Laurie and I, we quickly built friendships with the members of the Site Survey Team and found ourselves excited beyond words to be involved in such an exciting project with such wonderful people. We assume, for many of them it was just another promotional tour, another day in “their” office, but for us, it was becoming pretty cool.

(Click here to open a window with images from the Site Surveys)

With the new hot air balloon almost completed, its time to plan for the delivery and flight-testing. We hope to be able to find four good days of weather, (in March ? yeah right), but it isn’t as easy as just picking weather. We need to find something off the beaten path where we can not just make flights but also make corrections, train crew, wrap the vehicle and a long list of other things, away from cameras and prying eyes.
With the investment made to this point, a photo picked up by the Associated Press and sent to newspapers everywhere on the planet wouldn’t be a very good thing, and because it’s “Disney” it’s a very real fear. We want that first image seen by the world to be of the balloon in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Pendleton, Oregon - First Flight:

Have you ever tried to move a bunch of people and arrange for their food and lodging on short notice ?  Never an easy task at the best of times, but not any fun at all when they’re all looking to you to select a spot where the weather will cooperate with our needs. It’s spring, and the northwest isn’t the calmest part of the planet that time of year.

Our first, best hope was the Wildhorse Resort and Casino just outside Pendleton. We enjoy our time there and, aside from the fact that at the time, we operated a balloon for them, the resort has become one of our favorite places to fly balloons on the planet.

The weather is very predictable, the terrain is rolling hills and wheat fields and there is a lot to be said for a location that you simply need to walk out of your hotel room to inflate your balloon. Wildhorse is just such a place.

Our Disney family was as excited as anybody about getting the balloon in the sky. Laurie and I had asked for four days (for four flights) to get a chance to get to know the balloon before we took it out on the tour. Disney readily agreed to our request.

At first we thought we’d have the opportunity to make a few flights quietly, on our own, but everyone quickly decided that launching the “Happiest Balloon on Earth” for the very first time was an event that needed to be captured on film and shared with everyone.

Our planned, quiet first flight turned into an event in and of itself. If you’re going to get the proper images, you need a helicopter to shoot the balloon from the air. Once you’ve got the helicopter you’ve got to have the proper cameras (and staff to operate them). Then we’ve got the people that have been working hard on the project, they want to be there for the first flight, too. Press and Public Relations, Marketing, Entertainment Producers and Staff and even our big boss, “Mickey Mouse” shared in the wonderful moment that everyone’s hard work first took to the sky. (and who could ever imagine doing it any other way ?)

(Click here to open a window with images from the First Flight)

Now that you’ve seen the pictures, I can tell you that the weather didn’t cooperate as we’d hoped it would. We managed to get one flight off the ground during our stay in Pendleton. As difficult as it was for our friends from Disneyland to get to Pendleton from the Anaheim area I think they were all thrilled that they at least got a chance to see the balloon take its first flight into the sky. It was certainly a treat for Laurie and I to share one of our special places with all of them.

In the end, I’m pretty sure we were the very first new hot air balloon, that was making its first flight, that had it all captured from a helicopter shooting “High Definition” images !

And now you know the story that got “Happiest Balloon on Earth” into the sky.

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