The 46th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta got underway Saturday with a mass ascension that people – particularly first-time visitors – described as beautiful, awesome and amazing.
“There are so many different types and kinds of balloons,” said Kylie Zwagerman of Bozeman, Mont., who coincidentally was celebrating her 16th birthday. “I had no idea.”
She and her family camped out Friday night in a nearby parking lot and awoke to the sight of the dawn patrol balloons overhead.
“I saw them flying, and they were all illuminated. I thought it was really cool, really beautiful,” she said.
The mass ascension was arguably less dramatic than it could have been because of the absence of the “box” wind pattern, which would have carried the balloons heading south back to the north over the launch field as pilots negotiated between two currents at different altitudes.
Fiesta vendors, who have more material concerns on their minds, said Saturday was one of the busiest and best opening fiestas they’d experienced in a while.
Attendance numbers won’t be available until after the nine-day fiesta ends, but spokesman Tom Garrity said observations from different vantage points indicate that crowds were bigger Saturday than on past opening days.
Not disputed, he said, is that traffic into the park was more backed up and earlier. Knowing that visitor bags were to be searched at all gates, Garrity said people likely left their homes earlier than normal to give themselves extra time, triggering earlier backups.
Another glitch was caused by drivers who ignored barriers and squeezed into park-and-ride bus lanes, forcing police officers to spend time stopping and redirecting them back into the regular lanes, which also delayed the buses, Garrity said.
Despite the hassles getting to Balloon Fiesta Park, once there people immersed themselves in the experience.
Gauthier Hayt, from Brussels was piloting the balloon “Tolfy” and visiting Albuquerque for the first time. “This is the largest balloon festival in the world and the most exciting one because there are a lot of spectators, and they are next to the baskets,” he said. “That’s incredible, because in Europe it’s forbidden. You cannot enter the field and must stay behind the barriers. It’s quite different for us. So this is very enjoyable.”
Carolyn and Ted Lesiak and their teenage granddaughter, Jocelyn Bailey, were visiting from Ohio and attending their first-ever balloon fiesta.
“It’s really cool, but it’s also really cold,” Jocelyn said. “It’s just amazing how many balloons they can fit in one area. I’ve seen balloons before, but only from a distance, so seeing them up close is just incredible.”
Ted Lesiak said he was impressed with the ability of the pilots to launch so close together and still be able to maneuver so the balloons don’t bump into one another. “Their skill is amazing,” he said.
First-timers Marvin and Barbara Doberenz of Fort Worth, said attending the fiesta had been on their to-do list for a long time, and they were not disappointed.
“I’m surprised,” said Marvin Doberenz. “I didn’t think I’d be walking around in the middle of it. I figured we’d be in the bleachers, like at a football game. I’ve seen hot air balloons before, but nothing like this. It’s just incredible. Awesome.”
Pointing to the large floating zebra balloon, Christine Huang, originally from Taiwan and now a resident of Seattle, declared that to be her favorite. “I don’t see a lot of hot air balloons in Seattle, maybe because of the weather,” she said. “I thought balloons were all the same shape, so this comes as a surprise to me.”
Vendors said they were delighted with the amount of business they conducted during the opening session.
Gil Steward of Native Cafe, Drake Miller at New Mexico Piñon Coffee and Larry Palmer of ShannieGirl, which sells shawls, wraps and capes, all said opening day was busy and one of the best they’d seen in a long time.
Veteran fiesta vendor Marcus Cassimus of Hello Deli said he had consistent lines of people starting at about 4:20 a.m. and continuing well past 9:30 a.m., when he normally begins “tearing down and preparing for the night sessions.”
“The customers seemed like they were enjoying themselves, and they were spending money and happy about it,” he said.