There are a variety of operators in the Napa Vally area for hot air balloon rides. We used Balloons Above the Valley which, while I am going to sound like it is miserable, was actually a very competent, helpful organization. I would rate the staff a 5 out of 5 stars from top to bottom. They were all great. It was the balloon ride itself I was a little freaked over.
To give Balloons Above the Valley credit I checked another site's FAQ to see if they covered any of my concerns either and alas they did not. I find it seriously hard to believe that no one else had my concerns after a flight but then I realized that these are PRE FLIGHT FAQs and really they had my money what did they care about how I felt about the landing (FREAKING OUT MOMENT)
I am taking these from the Balloons Above the Valley FAQ page
So here are their FAQs:
What does the LOGO above mean?
Don't be fooled by others claiming "Best Balloon Ride"! ONLY Balloons Above The Valley consistently has received the most votes over all the other balloon companies for the BEST OF guide 17 years in a row. We recently just received again the BEST for the 2009 Best of Guide. Be sure to look for the official logo to guarantee the best balloon ride!
Before people lift thousands of feet in the air THIS is a frequently asked question? Who gives a damn? I want to know who these idiots are who ask this as opposed to say "Where do we land?" (which is NOT a question you will see here) and I want to ensure they are NOT in my wicker basket.
What TIME do we meet?
We meet about thirty minutes before sunrise. Therefore, times do vary throughout the year, ranging from 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Just email us with the date you are inquiring about and we will let you know the meeting time.
Why do we meet so EARLY?
Just before sunrise is when the weather is the coolest and the winds are the calmest which is ideal for ballooning.
Both good informative questions, not much to add here. Keep in mind however that Napa Valley is an affluent area that is building even in this economic recession in CA, so be prepared for road construction at 5am because they would NEVER do it during the day so as to upset the people who live in the area. Only upset the tourists. It's their working motto.
How HIGH will we go?
Generally between 1,000 to 3,000 feet depending on the winds.
Another good question for those afraid of heights because we go freaking high.
What should we WEAR?
You should wear casual clothing along with comfortable shoes. We suggest to wear light layers so that you can easily adjust to the temperature as the sun comes up. The coolest you will be is on the ground. Once you're in flight, the burners tend to keep the baskets nice and warm.
Yeah, let's talk about this. Comfortable shoes? CHECK. Here are my most comfortable shoes. I wear them every time I travel. They slip on nicely and have molded to my foot perfectly, and since I would prefer to be barefoot I would NEVER consider running shoes as comfortable, so this is what I chose:
This is what I should have worn! But more on that in a second:
Let's also talk about WHAT to wear. Another thing that is not explained is that you CLIMB INTO the basket. There is not a gate or a neat little entry way. There are 2 little holes to plug your feet into while you climb a four foot high bucket wall and gracefully fall into the basket. With three other people in there. There are four sections with four people each. Yes there are 16 people in this sucker not including the captain. So I would strongly suggest JEANS. Would be nice to note that thank you please hot air balloon companies.
WHERE do we launch from?
We have several launch sites within Napa Valley. Wind and fog can determine where we may launch on any given day. We also have alternate launch sites in two adjacent valleys.
Please note the part about the alternate launch sites. Not all operators in the area have this. So if you are wanting a balloon ride this is a great company. If you want a NAPA VALLEY balloon ride, chant three times and pray to the almighty fog/cloud goddess because from what I took away those launches can be rare. One lady had rescheduled her launch four times because SHE WAS ONLY GOING UP TO SEE THE VINEYARDS THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I tried not to be this lady, and since I just wanted to go up I was fine, but I do find people who yell at companies because of weather that is beyond their control amusing.
What is also missing here is an important question that I heard people ask and I wondered why it wasn't listed becuase surely it is FREQUENTLY A CONCERN, right?
WHERE DO WE LAND??????????
The answer is farm fields. Now this may be different if you actually get to see the Napa Valley as opposed to the Central Valley which we saw. And after several days of rain this is an example of what we landed in:
This is actually mud from my backyard and the fields aren't really as rocky as Texas Hill Country, but I had no farm fields to take a picture in so this was my next choice. Let me walk you through our landing.
First the captain is in communication with your "chase crew," which for us held about 4 young men and the next passengers on the trip. This means that if you are on the SECOND group to go on the balloon ride, that you will be following around your balloon for an hour. Literally, chasing it through the CA countryside. Our captain calls down looking for land that was dry and had access via van. This is for a few reasons:
1. Passengers need to get on and off the balloon in the middle of the field while being held down by 4 young men and the other passengers.
2. The passengers must be able to exit the field. Sounds easy huh? Ummm no. In fact we had to land twice because the first landing was about 20 feet from a 10 foot deep ditch that the van (and the passengers getting OFF the balloon) couldn't cross. And when the van tried to get through another area that didn't have the deep flood ditch it was very muddy and almost got stuck. Thank you flood irrigation!
Additionally as you land you are told to hold on to the sides and face the direction of your landing. This was far more scary than I thought it would be because it was a large LIVE physics problem and this object in motion DID NOT WANT TO STOP. One lady nearly fell out of the basket and we dragged along the ground for some time while the four men pulled down with all their might.
As we exit the balloon we have to make sure the weight is evenly distributed to one group goes in and another takes their place before anyone else leaves. As soon as you leave the ballon you go around to the back and hold down on a balloon that is trying desparately to take off again (what with the lighter weight load). I was sore for days after because we had to hold down so hard on that blasted balloon.
Having the captain screaming at the young men to hold with all their weight while I watched the fact that the men WERE NOT TOUCHING THE GROUND was a bit troubling. What more weight could they have sir????
ANyway after everyone is out you slip slide through mud (and maybe this was just a special treat for me and not everyone gets the special mud treatment!) to your van and drive back to the Napa Valley General Store.
Can we BRING cameras and video cameras?
Yes! Bring lots and lots of film!
I want to know what idiot asked this. Who didn't think you could take a camera? And WHY did they think it wouldn't be allowed. Were they hoping to fly over Area 51??? and obviously you will get no pictures of the landing as you will be holding on for dear life.
How do you get the BALLOON inflated?
A fan is used to blow cool air into the balloon. Later the burners are used to heat the air as the balloon lies on the ground. Gradually the balloon will rise to an upright position.
Is it QUIET in the balloon?
When the burner is off, it is extremely quiet. Quiet is one of the most enjoyable aspects of ballooning.
And this is definitely true. It was so quiet you could hear dogs barking from the ground. No Joke.
What FABRIC is used for the balloon?
Most common is Dacron or rip-stop nylon.
Does the BASKET sway when flying?
The baskets do not sway since it moves with the wind.
WHERE THE HELL IS THE QUESTION ABOUT what the BASKET is made of? Um design specs please with reinforced metal girders???? Nope it's WICKER PEOPLE. IT's FREAKING WICKER between you and 1500 of free fall. But I lived so I should freak out so much.
Where do we MEET?
We meet at the Napa General Store (540 Main St. Napa, CA 94559).