Up in the Air

With no observation decks in Sacramento, only a few lucky high-rise office workers and helicopter traffic reporters get a bird’s-eye view of our town. But in cities like Chicago and Houston, tethered balloons are giving locals and visitors a whole new reason to look up
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
A tethered passenger balloon rises above Chicago’s Navy Pier.

The Idea
Back in the day, Sacramento used to have a handful of high-rise bars and restaurants where locals could enjoy a sweeping view of the city. Sadly, they are no more. But who needs a building when you can have a balloon? AeroBalloon, a Boston-based maker of tethered passenger helium balloons, has started to get some traction in cities around the country, and their balloons have taken tens of thousands of people up, up and away in locales ranging from New York’s Central Park to the Boston Common. And last year, both Chicago’s Navy Pier (pictured below) and Houston’s Discovery Green set up permanent helium balloon rides to take paying customers up about 30 stories above the city. The rides, which last about 10 minutes and cost from $15-$25 per person, are proving to be a big success in each of those cities. They can go up any time of day or night. The most popular balloon holds 18-20 passengers that ride up in a circular gondola made of fiberglass and Kevlar, and a high-tensile cable tethers the balloon to the ground. And in case you’re wondering, AeroBalloon president Doug Hase says they have a perfect safety record. Passengers each wear an “easy-on harness,” which ties them to the gondola. The balloons are also completely quiet and non-polluting since they use helium (just like the Goodyear blimp) instead of a gas-based flame like their hot air cousins.

The Players
AeroBalloon’s Hase says the rides only make economic sense in high-traffic areas with a steady stream of people throughout the day. He also suggests that the rides run at least three months out of the year to justify the costs. So what location in Sacramento might fit that bill? How about Old Sacramento, in that large grassy expanse next to the Sacramento History and Railroad museums? The historic district draws year-round crowds and the views of downtown, the river, the Tower Bridge and Raley Field would be amazing. Also, passenger balloons have a great retro feel that would fit in well with the district’s aesthetic. Hase says the 20-passenger balloons need about a 140-foot diameter but can work in smaller spaces. Permitting can be tricky, but Hase says, “if the mayor and the parks commissioner like it,” then that process can move quickly.

The Bottom Line
The balloons aren’t cheap, but Hase says the operator of Chicago’s Navy Pier’s balloon nearly recouped its investment in its first two months. The “list price” on the 20-passenger balloon, the AB-20, is $750,000 with installation running around $30,000. The only major operational costs include insurance (he estimates $10,000-$60,000 a year) and the cost of three employees to run it. In Chicago, Hase says the ride pulled in up to $23,000 a day. And when you factor in the benefits of bringing more people to Old Sacramento merchants, and more tourists to the city, then the sky-high price feels a lot more down to earth.