As Portland gleefully shovels out from its first snowstorm in years, Philadelphia’s still cleaning up and trying to get the power back on after an ice storm piled onto the wet, heavy snow from earlier in the week. While I’m happy for my Portland friends to have received a wintry wonderland, I’ve been very satisfied indeed with the authenticity of Winter 2013-14, my first full Philly winter in five years. But goddamn, it didn’t have to kill the Zoo Balloon.
For twelve years, the Channel 6 Zoo Balloon has provided Philadelphia with a giant, striped* dot of fun, a visual landmark for adventurous tourists and suburbanites taking the last big curve on inbound 76 and dudes looking for some new pics of the skyline. Anyone who complained about it was just a whiny sourpuss who, clearly, never took in the view from the top.
* There were actually two Zoo Balloons. Lindstrand Hot Air Balloons, the English manufacturer of the balloon, recommends a lifespan of 5-7 years for this particular brand of helium powered aircraft. The first, of a giraffe motif, flew from 2002-08; the tiger balloon from 2008-2013. This would have been the second’s final year—Zoo officials were just beginning plans for a closing ceremony—but this week’s heavy snow put the kibosh on those plans, and 2014 altogether.
Whether the Zoo replaces it with a third balloon remains to be seen, but there are no indications that will happen, a matter complicated by the fact the Zoo is hemmed in to its 42 acres and the balloon’s site could be put to other use. In the twelve years the Zoo Balloon cast its shadow, the nation’s first zoo has kept up with modern life by painfully, but correctly, moving their elephants to more spacious zoos, and adding newer and better features like Big Cat Falls, McNeil Avian Center, and KidZooU. Not to mention the fact that the zoo, conservationist by nature, went green with renewable wind and solar energy three years ago. This summer, the big cats will join the monkeys and lemurs who already use elevated trails—catwalks—to stroll above zoo visitors. And they did their best to pretty up the ugly-but-necessary parking garage with a giant zoo-y mural and sculptures on the two-block walk under the busy train tracks to the entrance.
The place continues to improve. It would be understandable if, for example, they expand or improve habitat on the balloon’s former grounds, but to do so would take away one of the city’s unique views.
Philadelphia has exactly one official public observation deck: City Hall—a fine one indeed, even though it’s no longer free and you only get a fifteen minute block, over half of which is spent inside the small elevator. The 33rd floor of the Loews Hotel provided the worst kept secret of up-there skyline views until the temporary Level 33 restaurant blew the lid off it. R2L trades you its 37th floor views at Two Liberty Place for bad beer and zebra print furniture. And the Four Seasons atop the CITC is still three years off.
The Zoo Balloon was a different beast. Here was an actual hot air balloon, one tethered to the Earth by a strong steel cable, its riders separated from the open sky by only a netting wide enough to stick a telephoto lens through. You didn’t just rise above a zoo, you rose above Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill River and Expressway, above Amtrak and West Philadelphia with just enough distance for the curving river and Art Museum to join your frame. You could even ride it, for $10, without paying the regular $16 admission to the Zoo.
I’ve heard people say ‘you can’t get me up in that thing.’ A fear of heights is one thing, but to not trust its durability . . . I mean, do you think the Zoo isn’t thinking liability first? In twelve years of operation, the Zoo Balloon never had any accidents.
As an infographic next to the ride said, it was the ultimate boy scout. Describing its attributes in zoologic measurements—the height of the balloon was six giraffes—the placards explained the strength of the winch cable, how it operated, the backup generator and hand cranks and such; an airplane safety manual while you waited in line.
Baltimore’s Port Discovery had a balloon that got stuck in the air during a windstorm(!) and had to be hand-cranked back to the ground, leaving four people injured. If there was any real complaint about the Zoo Balloon, it’s that they were a little too cautious with weather concerns.
As the zoo’s Chief Marketing Officer Amy Shearer told me the other day, having to put down the balloon made for a sad day at the zoo. It was also a sad day for Philly Skyline. If your browser’s wide enough, you can see the balloon on the right side of this web site’s circa-2009 master plan header graphic. And down in G-Ho, where I lived from 2001-07, the balloon danced in on its whimsy to a mural of the skyline I painted on the deck of the place I lived for four years. (If you’re walking on 24th Street between Lombard and South, look up.) Riding into the city from Mt Airy on the Chestnut Hill West line, I always take a window seat on the left side of the train for the skyline view across the Schuylkill, the moving fifteen-second window on the city ahead, the window that always closed with the Zoo Balloon, docked or aloft. And now it’s docked for good.
I’m gonna miss that Zoo Balloon.
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By my memory, I rode the Zoo Balloon three times: its inaugural year 2002, on a sunny fall day in 2006 when Comcast Center was starting to join the skyline, and last September, when I walked over from my crash pad in Brewerytown. Note the changes in the skyline and landscape in the 12 years.
ZOO BALLOON 2002
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ZOO BALLOON 2006
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ZOO BALLOON 2013