For those who live in North Phoenix, hot air balloons in the morning sky can feel as common as clouds. But, if you’re lucky enough to fly with local operator Float Balloon Tours, your experience will be far from commonplace. Opened in 2013, Float grew out of owners Matt Cooley and Olivia Laux’s passion to reimagine what a balloon ride could be. By combining longer flights, breathtaking flying areas, and an award-winning culinary experience wherever their balloons happen to land, they have achieved their goal.
Cooley and Laux, now engaged, always knew they would start a business together, and they knew that it would be something bold and out of the box. Both grew up being tugged along by adventurous dads, and both had done a ton of exploring on their own. You can spend five minutes with them and see that they are naturally drawn to the exciting and the unknown, and they brought it out in each other tenfold, even before they were a couple. Cooley has a panned-out vision of the outdoors. “I love when I can’t see anything but the desert.” He says. While Olivia’s vision is more macro. “The outdoors for me are a mix between a playground and a museum. I love rocks, I love prickly pear skeletons or the frame of a saguaro cactus more than anything. Truly wilderness spaces are our planet at it’s rawest form, and being in them is like turning back the clock 1000 years.”
After playing with the idea for months, and then saving for a year, the two purchased their first balloon together. Neither had any experience in ballooning outside of a few rides with friends, but they loved the sport and learned quickly. They entered the business slowly and voraciously, absorbing everything they could from whoever was willing to share. They traveled around the states auditing other balloon ride companies and adventure operators to frame what would become their guiding principles for owning and running a tour company. The process was challenging, of course, but the unusual path had it’s benefits. “Because we didn’t grow up in a ballooning family, we took different first steps than most other ride companies,” Cooley said. They went on to explain that many operators bank heavily on the novelty of ballooning, and don’t truly remember what they loved most about their first rides. Cooley and Laux constructed their methodology completely around the customer.
“Our idea was to offer a much more immersive experience,” says Cooley, “ and that meant keeping our balloons unbranded, getting our flights away from the neighborhoods and over the desert, and constantly doing everything we could think of to delight our guests.” And delight they have; Float has garnered widespread acclaim from patrons and press alike, earning hundreds of five-star reviews and features in publications like National Geographic Traveler, Thrillist, and Afar Magazine. The company has also grown. They now operate a small rotation of four balloons and employ 20 people.
Flying daily in the NW Valley, Float offers passengers breathtaking views of nearby foothills, Lake Pleasant, and the pristine Sonoran Desert. They also seek out and employ highly-experienced, FAA-certified pilots who love to fly. The best part? Each pilot is dedicated to seeking out flight paths that bring guests closer to the desert, even if it means a longer workday for them. “Our pilots pick their launch sites with our passengers in mind,” Laux explains, “because even though this may be their 5000th flight, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone else onboard.” This style of flying sets them apart from larger operators because more balloons often add up to more limitations. Balloons are guided by the wind, meaning a chosen launch site often determines the entire flight path, and because finding a perfect site for 6-8 balloons can prove difficult, the team at Float limits every ride to just three.
Each flight begins at Float Balloon Tours’ headquarters, a stone’s throw from the Deer Valley airport. Guests are treated to locally roasted coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab and baked treats from the outfit’s in-house pastry chef. Guests have a chance to meet their crew and pilot, ask questions, and peruse the gift shop before heading to the field for launch. Passengers are invited to take part in the launch process, which takes about 15 minutes. Once the giant and colorful 8-story tall balloons are upright, guests climb aboard. Everyone is given plenty of room in oversized baskets and a professional photographer captures each excursion from the ground so guests can relive the sensation of flying over the unmistakable landscape, from home. Float elevates the experience even further by pairing the scenic desert views with amazing multi-course meals that showcase flavors born in the southwest. “You can go ballooning pretty much anywhere,” Cooley says, “so we wanted to make it a deeply Arizonan experience. Dining in the middle of the desert is definitely that.”
After the approximately hour-long flight, you’ll be treated to a gourmet breakfast right at the landing site, expertly created by Chef Aurore Yasinsky. Breakfast is paired with a glass (or two) of a unique seasonal mimosa the company has become known for. Each is carefully handcrafted using local mixers from Iconic Cocktail, locally grown citrus, and sparkling wine. Guests are walked through a how-to demonstration while the crew makes the cocktail, and given a recipe to try their hand at recreating the flavors at home. Menus change several times a season, but a sample bill of fare might include organic fruit and yogurt, farm fresh eggs with cotija cheese, grilled carne asada steak, roasted brussels with pomegranate, and seared handmade tortillas, all followed by an unforgettable salted dark chocolate brownie created by pastry chef Chris Villareal. Guests have enjoyed eating in the desert so much, that Cooley and Laux went on to create a standalone company offering dining experiences in stunning outdoor spaces. The name of their newest project, Cloth & Flame, gives a subtle nod to their first successful venture together.
To learn more about flights with Float Balloon Tours or dining adventures with Cloth & Flame, visit floatballoontours.com, clothandflame.com or call 480-256-8695.