It’s officially fall—bringing crisp mornings, the smell of roasted green chile, and hot air balloons by the dozens to the skies of Albuquerque. This year a new balloon can be spotted in the sky, Cherry on Top, the official University of New Mexico hot air balloon.

UNM and Rainbow Ryders, Inc. revealed the new UNM hot air balloon on Monday, Oct. 2, as Cherry on Top made its first public appearance on Johnson Field on UNM’s Albuquerque campus. The event, which was planned to include tethered balloon rides for dozens of UNM students, was cut short by windy weather. Even though it couldn’t fly as planned, the excitement for the new balloon was evident with more than 250 attendees cheering as the propane burner roared.

“I think one of the staple events in Albuquerque is balloon fiesta,” said ASUNM President Krysta Pacheco. “To have something that represents the University is such a positive light and something that’s so fun is very exciting. There are a lot of students, alumni, and community members that are going to take pride in this balloon so having it showcased for the first time on Johnson Field with UNM students, the administration and the community is something special.”

The balloon, which is owned and operated by Rainbow Ryders, is a corporate sponsorship by UNM. The new venture is an experiential marketing opportunity that aligns the UNM brand with the community it serves, which also happens to be the Hot Air Ballooning Capital of the World.

Rainbow Ryders, owned and operated by UNM alumnus Scott Appelman, is the largest hot air balloon company in the U.S. with a fleet of more than 40 balloons and offices in Albuquerque, Phoenix and Colorado Springs. Rainbow Ryders celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.

“Rainbow Ryders has brought excitement and adventure to people from all over the world for four decades. It’s a privilege to make UNM a part of that adventure now and take the Lobos to new heights,” Appelman said. “The arrangement for this balloon is an opportunity to give back to the University I’m proud to call home, in a way that will also give students a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

For years, many people have speculated about what a UNM balloon could look like and the impact it could have. The recommendation to develop a balloon was even passed as a resolution in 2019 by the Associated Students of The University of New Mexico.

UNM’s Chief Marketing & Communications Officer Cinnamon Blair said this marketing partnership elevates the UNM brand in a way no one will forget.

“Working with a Lobo alumni-owned business to bring our students this distinctly New Mexico experience and showcase UNM to a broader audience at local and regional ballooning events is a win-win,” Blair said. “We could not have asked for a better partner to bring this vision to life.”

Fans of the UNM balloon can find pins, keychains and other merchandise featuring the design at UNM Bookstores. The balloon will also be featured during UNM Homecoming, including an evening appearance at the Diner en Rouge, on Oct. 19.

Cherry on Top is sure to draw attention at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta this year—it even has its own Instagram page @CherryOnTopBalloon to capture the fun. Lobos everywhere are encouraged to tag pictures of the balloon wherever they spot it.

The custom balloon design was a collaboration between Rainbow Ryders, UNM Communication & Marketing, and Lindstrand Balloons USA, an Illinois-based balloon manufacturer.

The balloon sponsorship is a four-year agreement that includes Rainbow Ryder’s operation of the balloon yearlong, including at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, putting the UNM brand in the sky for millions to see. The arrangement also includes an on-campus activation each year which will bring this unique ballooning experience to hundreds of UNM students.