This year The Windsor Harvest Festival celebrates its 101st year. A unique celebration full of community, charm, allure, and picture-perfect moments; the annual celebration has evolved over the years, featuring northern Colorado’s biggest parade, a farmer’s market full of local vendors, sidewalk art, concerts, fireworks, and last but certainly not least, hot air balloons.
For the last 16 of those 101 years, the festival has featured hot air balloon launches on its list of festivities. Crowds gather early to witness the tradition, skill, and enchantment of watching the pilots and crews prepare for launching their balloons to take flight and rise above the town of Windsor, but few know the story of how this tradition came to the Windsor Harvest Festival and the incredible humans behind it.
We are lucky to introduce to you Debbi and Don Waltman, the couple responsible for not only bringing hot air balloons to The Windsor Harvest Festival, but for organizing and growing the event each year to make it bigger and better. A labor of love and passion has transformed into a scenic event for thousands to enjoy and learn about.
Debbi Waltman was raised on the east coast in Baltimore and her husband Don was raised on the west coast, they got married in Baltimore and visited Colorado for their honeymoon. After falling in love with the blue sky, the mountains, and the rain that comes in and goes out on the same day, they began talking about moving and one year later, they started to call Colorado home. While living in the Denver Metro area, Debbi observed a balloon flying over their house and was fascinated by them, she kept chasing them and finding them until she would meet someone that could teach her how to fly.
For 50 of their almost 51-year marriage, they have created and built their life here, in Colorado. Don was a schoolteacher and Debbi raised their three boys; also doing infant foster care and taking care of 40 foster babies until they were placed in new homes. As the boys grew, Debbie started working doing school fundraising and through that fundraising, she ran into someone that flew balloons and she began to get balloon flying lessons and learned to fly.
The Waltmans then moved to Windsor in 2005 and heard about The Harvest Festival. The following year they attended the event and an idea sparked inside of Debbi. She spoke to the event’s organizer at the time and suggested that “the harvest looked like it was a lot of fun, but it needed something pretty” sharing her idea of bringing hot air balloons to the event, and that’s how it all began. At that point, Debbi had been a pilot for around 13 years or more and became involved with The Harvest Festival in 2007.
Known as the “Balloon Meister”, Debbi Waltman, along with her husband, crew chief, and photographer (all photos are taken by him) Don, have been flying together for over 30 years and they are now responsible for inviting all the pilots that do come to the festival and working with the organizers to get the visiting pilots each a sponsor and housing for the event, as they come from all over the country. The sponsors pay for the balloons to be here, they then organize dozens of crew people to help each balloon and pilot launch. They organize and put together a little dinner for visiting pilots, a pilot thank you gift, and they help organize which sponsors are assigned to which balloon to try and coordinate everything out on the field. They have an announcer who is a retired balloon pilot, who does the on field announcing and tells people who have come out to watch what’s going on. The Waltmans and balloon pilots fly Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, creating a picturesque and beautiful sight, with onlookers watching the balloons float across the sky and soar over the landscape of Windsor and northern Colorado.
Owning their own balloons, the Waltmans have flown balloons all over the country and the world, including Mexico, France, and Italy, where they spent 10 days flying over vineyards and sunflower fields. In a normal season they fly 3 or 4 times a week beginning in the early spring through late fall, giving them around 60-80 flights a year. In the winter months they prefer Arizona and Nevada for the warmth, although you can still fly in Colorado year-round.
Ending each flight with a little ceremony and a tailgate, they have snacks and a traditional champagne toast and enjoy visiting with their passengers. Waltman's favorite part about flying is being able to share the joy of flying and the beauty of the area with their passengers. Sharing that peaceful and serene beauty is really the most fun part for them.
“Every flight is completely different, and it is based on the weather, the direction we are going, the scenery that is available that day. Every day is a different view. The reward we get from watching other people enjoy the experience really is what makes it for us, very much so.” shares Debbi.
As they begin to wind down over the last few years, what is the most memorable and exciting for them is the legacy they feel like they have left Windsor, something that wasn’t here before the Waltmans arrived. That freedom and beauty has become a tradition for The Windsor Harvest Festival and put Windsor on the map for other balloonists to enjoy the serene and speechless beauty of the landscapes northern Colorado has to offer. We hope their legacy continues to grow and become a deeper part of Windsor.