All Full of Hot Air: The Spectacle of Balloons Over Waikato

glowing balloons

Balloons over Waikato is something special, the highlight of the events’ calendar in Hamilton every year. This year, it runs from the 16th to the 20th of March. It’s long established, having run for 17 years, and award-winning.

Balloons voted best established community event in New Zealand

The event frequently takes out the Waikato Time People’s Choice award as the best Waikato event, but Event General Manager,  Michele Connell says they are most proud of last year’s ‘Best Established Community Event’ award, from the New Zealand Events Association.

So what makes Balloons over Waikato so special? “It’s one of the last, large-scale free events,” says Michele. “The Nightglow is free, having all the balloons lit up is quite magical. It’s unique, and really captures the imagination.”

The ZURU Nightglow is the pinnacle of the festival, to be held on Saturday 19th of March at the University of Waikato grounds. The evening includes carnival rides, live music, a fireworks finale, and of course, the balloons themselves, inflated and glowing. This year the music line-up is headed by Brendon Thomas and the Vibes.

“We expect around 80,000 people on the night,” says Michele. “To be able to do all that for free is quite remarkable.”

The event is not just for Hamilton. Part of the festivities include taking the balloons out of town, to Tokoroa and Te Kuiti on the night of Friday the 18th. The communities create a party atmosphere, with food vendors and entertainment.

Balloons rising over water

Follow your favourite balloon through the festival

What many people don’t realise, is that the event is a competition for the balloon pilots.   Each day’s flying is a different event, focusing on a particular skill, and points are awarded over the competition. The most spectator-friendly event is The Smartrak Cash Bullseye Competition. Balloonists attempt to throw a marker into the bullseye, for a $1000 cash prize. The other way to be involved in the event is to follow your favourite balloon via Smartrak. This is a personal locator device on each balloon, and by using the link and accessing Smartrak, you can track the path, height and distance flown of your favourite balloon. It’s also a great way to see if the balloons will be flying over your home, work or school.

The balloons will lift off every morning of the festival at around 7.30 am, weather permitting. If you can get out of bed a little earlier on the Thursday morning, you’ll be treated to a free breakfast while you watch the balloons take flight. There is one commercial balloon ride operator offering rides during the festival. Rides cost $350 each, and last approximately 45 minutes. They do get booked up quickly due to demand, you can book a place by phoning the Hamilton i-SITE Visitor Centre on 0800 242 645.

Balloon flying is a highly weather dependent activity, so Michele Connell’s advice to those keen to be part of the event is to follow their Facebook page closely. That is the easiest place to find out what is happening in real time, with frequent updates posted. You can also keep an eye on the website

Make it easy to get to ZURU Nightglow

Michele’s advice to visitors to Hamilton for Saturday night’s massive nightglow event, particularly our VroomVroomVroom customers in rental cars, who may not be familiar with the city is to make use of the free park and ride facilities. For those coming from the north, this year a stop has been added at The Base in Te Rapa. Check it out at

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