Soaring above South Florida

Looking for a different kind of South Florida tour? Try one with a birds-eye view, 10,000 feet up.

Miami Balloon Rides takes groups of three to 10 passengers on 30-60 minute rides from South Dade.

"We fly in the Redlands," said owner Michelle Erickson, 41. "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."

Former co-pilot Jorge Velilla, 79, took his first ride in a hot air balloon on a recent Saturday morning, a gift from his daughter.

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

Erickson said the ballooning experience is a four-hour process, though the ride itself takes only 30 to 60 minutes.

At 6 a.m., passengers meet the Miami Balloon Rides crew at the Holiday Inn Express across from the Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport. From there, they travel 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.

"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," Erickson said. "It is an entire experience from the time that we meet."

After site-seeing from above, the balloon lands in a designated area 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.

"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."

Erickson has taken more than 3,000 passengers since starting Miami Balloon Rides in 2004.

She has four balloons, each with a nickname.

The "Check Mate" is a 77,000 cubic feet and can carry up to three passengers and the pilot. The "Thrill Seeker" is a 90,000 cubic foot 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.

"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."

Velilla agrees. He said riding the hot air balloon was unforgettable.

"It's a beautiful thing that you will never regret to see," he said.

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