Hot Air Ballooning.. In Miami


As a present from daughter Rosa de la O, 43, former co-pilot Jorge Velilla, 79, took his first ride in a hot air balloon on a recent Saturday morning.

Along with ­­six other family members, Velilla drove for 40 minutes to arrive at 6 a.m at the Holiday Inn Express in Kendall, where he met the crew of four employees of Miami Balloon Rides who would take them within an hour 10, 000 feet up in the air.

“You can see the land, the way it is, not like an airplane that you don’t see anything,” Mr. Velilla said. “This way you enjoy everything.”

Michelle Erickson, 41, started Miami Balloon Rides in 2004.

She did not want to be a stay-home mother but also did not want to sacrifice time with her family – husband Carlos Zuniga, 43, son Stefan, 9, and daughter Lauren, 12.

She decided the solution would be hot air balloon rides, so she could control her schedule and have some flexibility – and fun at the same time.

“The time investment is pretty big, but I work from home, so it allows me a lot of flexibility as far as my family goes and being able to be around and be a stay-at-home mom,” said Erickson, who has taken more than 3,000 people since she started the business.

“We fly in the Redlands,” she said.  “It’s a beautiful area and you have a fantastic view of the ocean, the Everglades and what is in the southern part of Dade County, which people don’t even know exists.”

Erickson said the ballooning experience is a four-hour process, though the ride itself takes only from half hour to an hour.

“Oftentimes, people think they’re just going to show up, and they’re just going to get on the balloon, and the whole thing is going to be finished. And it’s not like that,” said Erickson. “It is an entire experience from the time that we meet.”

At 6 a.m., the passengers meet the Miami Balloon Rides crew at the Holiday Inn Express across from the Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport.  From there, they travel for about 25 minutes in a company van to the launch site in the Redlands where they test the wind speed with a pibal or pilot balloon. The pibal test consists of releasing a helium balloon into the air to determine the velocity and wind direction of the balloon. This procedure confirms if weather conditions are safe to fly the hot air balloon.  If not, the ride is postponed.

The crew then begins to assemble the balloon and once arranged, the passengers quickly board the balloon and take off.

“It was amazing to be so high in the sky and feel such silence and serenity,” said Anne Harris, 52, one of the passengers.  “The feeling is priceless.”

After site seeing Miami from above, the balloon lands in a designated area located near the Everglades. The crew then packs up the balloon and customers hop on the van for their last stop of the day: Campground at the Everglades, where they partake in a toast and picnic.

Erickson said her passengers leave mesmerized.

“Most people have never even seen a balloon, let alone, been in one,” she said. “It’s an experience that a lot of people are looking for on their bucket list.”

Depending on the size, prices for new balloons can range from $45,000 to $90,000.  Used balloons can be purchased for about $35,000.

It can take up to five months for the manufacturing company to send in the balloon after it has been ordered.

Since the start of her company, Erickson has purchased a total of four balloons, each given a nickname.

The first balloon Erickson bought she calls the “Check Mate.”  It is a 77,000 cubic feet and can carry up to three passengers and the pilot. The “Thrill Seeker” is a 90,000 cubic feet used balloon that can carry up to four passengers and the pilot.  She bought “Mozart’s Magic,” which carries up to five passengers and the pilot, in 2007, and her newest balloon, the “Fur Elise” with the capacity for eight to 10 passengers and the pilot, in 2008.

Erickson said buying the balloons was an investment that paid off, both financially and personally.

“I had good monetary return and the lifestyle I’ve always wanted of stay-home mom,” she said.

For Jorge Velilla riding a hot air balloon was an unforgettable experience that he was able to share with all of his family.

“It’s a beautiful thing that you will never regret to see,” he said.

About Ballooning:

What: Miami Balloon Rides

When: Balloon rides are available seven days a week, weather permitting.

Where: Meeting place is at the Holiday Inn Express,13475 SW 131 St. Miami, FL 33186

For reservations, contact Michelle Erickson by phone at (305) 860-5830 or email

Price: $225.00 per passenger flying in groups.  Exclusive rides (you and your guests only) $350.00 per passenger.

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  1. Great story, thanks for using some of the pictures. It really was a great day!
    Nice meeting you and good luck with your career. Anne

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