Danielle Wright enjoys the magic of Balloons Over Waikato in Hamilton.
Our children, aged 5 and 8, know we're heading somewhere fun when a green bus pulls up to the stop with the word "balloons" as its destination. We hop on board, surrounded by excited people, overloaded with camping chairs, picnic blankets and plastic wine glasses.
It's a quick, free, bus ride from town to Waikato University, where there's a carnival atmosphere, bouncy castles and fairground rides. A group of people mill around a giant multicoloured balloon in the middle of the field as it flails around on the floor like a sick animal, soon to come to life with fire in its belly.
We're given "Lost Kids Bands" and we scribble our phone number on them. They must be adult-sized though because they fall off after a few minutes and we notice lots of bands littering the ground as we head to the giant inflatable Titanic, tipping people down its sliding deck.
We watch a yellow plane loop-the-loop overhead as our kids race each other on mini jeeps and amateur photographers struggle with tripods. The last of the summer heat, the whirr of the rides, the hum of the aerobatic displays and the smell of candyfloss and hot chips make a surreal, nostalgic mix as we move from the rides to the games.
Our son wins a sticky hand to throw at a wall on a clown game and we watch a man trying to win a soft toy for his date. We've been watching the game for a while now and we want to tell him the truth: the balls are light and the skittles are heavy; he has little chance.
The last thing to stave off the kids' impatience is candy floss on a stick and we finally succumb to their pestering. At the front of the queue, we're given two large bags of boiled sweets as a freebie - as if we needed any more sugar. We're the last to receive them and I hand one to the family next to me, but they don't seem pleased by my generosity.
After spending more money than expected on the rides, we head to the banks of the university for the main attraction -- the hot air balloons lit up in time to the music. As we wait, groups of excited kids race around our legs in games of tag. We try to keep a close eye on ours as they circle us with dizzying speeds as darkness falls.
As they race past, we take their hands and lead them over to look at some of the hot air balloon baskets. I'd always imagined them roomy and large but the ones we see look big enough for just one or two people and look a bit like giant cane shopping baskets. You can also look inside a balloon with a gold coin "donation" to the Lions Club, but we don't have any change left from the expensive rides so are turned away.
At last, big jets of gas inflate the balloons. First up is the giant red Angry Bird. Every now and then a puff of hot gas can be heard inflating the balloon, the evening air warms up and the crowd umm's and ah's, capturing the moment on their phones. As the sky lights up, we see lost people searching for their friends.
With each puff of hot air, the Angry Bird's head swells and rocks to and fro, as if deciding which one of us mere mortals it's going to have for dinner in that giant yellow beak. Some people shine lasers on the Angry Bird and others wave glow sticks at it.
Near him is a hot air balloon in the shape of a rocket man.
His eyes are set firmly on his giant birthday cake neighbour, which has 16 pink birthday candles on top. If it were real, it would be big enough to feed seven million of us.
The cake is in honour of the event celebrating 50 years since the University of Waikato opened its doors, 150 years in the life of Hamilton city and 26 years since the first balloon festival was held here.
With so many milestones, it is no surprise that nostalgic music is a large part of 2014's event. Bands played all afternoon and the lighting up of the balloons was in sync with Great Balls of Fire and Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water.
As the balloons are put to bed, we see the final fireworks finale as we're washed away from the balloons by the crowd heading home.
Our 5-year-old daughter has never seen fireworks before and is mesmerised: "This is the funnest fair I've gone to," she tells us as we queue up for the free bus back into town after a long, but happy, afternoon.
Full of hot air
Stay at Novotel Hamilton Tainui. The basket of fruit in the room was welcome relief from the fast food at the event and the views in the morning of the sky dotted with colourful hot air balloons was a nice way to wake up. The hotel is centrally located and close to the free event bus.
Danielle Wright was a guest of Novotel Hamilton Tainui.