Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
You couldn’t have asked for a better day for the opening mass ascension of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Early Saturday temperatures were mild, the sky was clear, winds were minimal and the famous Albuquerque box was in operation – though not the typical box.
Pilot Wil Lapointe, flying the Keystone Willie balloon, said the box was turned.
“Instead of the north to south pattern we usually see, it was twisted east to west, but it was still in effect and some balloons landed back on the launch field,” he said.
Nevertheless, said Lapointe, of Tulsa, Okla., “It was a great day to fly and a great start to the festival.”
Some 567 balloons and pilots from 16 countries were registered to fly in the 47th annual event, and most did launch from the field Saturday, both traditionally shaped balloons and special shapes.
While opening day mass ascension is typically well attended, this year’s event was so heavily populated it caused traffic backups earlier than normal, long waits at the park and ride lines to leave the event, and continuous crowds at food and merchandise vendors. As for the evening, high winds forced the cancellation of the balloon glow, though other events, such as a laser display, sky divers and fireworks, went on as planned.
The balloons, of course, were the centerpiece of the morning and people meandered about the sprawling Balloon Fiesta Park, necks craned upward with hands cupped over their eyes to shield them from the sun.
Hector Gonzalez, 55, from Chihuahua, Mexico, was attending his first fiesta.
“This is very exciting,” he said through an interpreter. “I’ve never seen so many balloons together like this before, except on TV. It is quite beautiful, and I’d love to take a ride in one – if I weren’t afraid of heights.”
Paige Goodman, 4, could barely contain her joy. Wearing a Darth Vader costume, she jumped up and down and turned in circles looking for the Darth Vader balloon, naturally.
“I have to find it. This is the first time I’ve seen balloons, but I did see one at school,” she gushed.
Her mother, Andrea Goodman, 30, explained that the family recently moved from southern Illinois, where hot air balloons were occasionally seen, “but not up close like this. It’s kind of breathtaking. It’s a bucket list experience.”
Brianna Sanchez, 18, of Las Vegas, N.M., and her friend, Marvin Esquibel, 20, also from Las Vegas, both have been to a nighttime balloon glow before, but Saturday was their first time experiencing a mass ascension.
“I love it. This is what represents New Mexico,” Esquibel said. “There is nowhere else in the world you can see this.”
Sanchez was taken with just how quickly a launched balloon gains altitude. “They’re pretty fast,” she said.
“Magical” is how Tricia Pine, a singing instructor in Boulder, Colo., described her first experience at balloon fiesta. “I love all the different art in the sky. They’re like floating masterpieces.”
Vendors were ecstatic about the large turnout.
“Business is good, people are spending and there’s just good energy from the customers out here today,” said Marcus Cassimus, owner of Hello Deli, who has been a presence at fiesta for 28 years.
Having a successful fiesta, he noted, is largely dependent on weather, and if the remainder of fiesta enjoys weather like opening day, not only will the pilots and spectators be happy, but “all the vendors out here should do very well.”
Dunkin’ Donuts, which has three vendor booths at the fiesta, had such a good morning they ran out of doughnuts, said manager and co-owner Mizba Kesani.
“It was crazy, and we made extra doughnuts, too,” about 300 dozen in all, she said. “We opened at 4 a.m. and immediately started getting busy and had constant lines for three or four hours. We ran out of doughnuts about 8 a.m., then we ran out of bagels and muffins.”
Toward the end of the morning, their inventory was down to coffee and hot chocolate.
Opening day at fiesta was not without some problems.
Laura Song, a native of China who now resides in Colorado Springs was thrilled with the spectacle of the mass ascension, “but the traffic coming in was very bad,” she said. “You guys have had this for how many years? You should have figured it out by now.”
She was not alone. Many people tempered their positive comments about fiesta with negative remarks about entry and exit from the park.
Social media was abuzz with comments about traffic jams, long lines and long waits. The Balloon Fiesta’s official Twitter account posted a message at 5:36 a.m.: “We are receiving your messages about traffic/Park & Ride. As always the first day is extremely busy and we are working through issues as they arise.”
That elicited angry responses – some accompanied by “#balloonfiasco” – from those who were still in their cars or waiting on buses.
“We were at Hoffmantown Church at 5 a.m. Currently sitting motionless on an ‘expedited’ bus while mass ascension happens off in the distance,” wrote Jim Nielsen at around 6 a.m. The church is one of the park and ride pick-up locales.
When asked about reports of traffic problems, fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity reiterated that there is always more traffic for the opening day mass ascension. In addition, he said, “we were getting reports of increased traffic and traffic jams happening a lot earlier,” as early as 3 a.m. on some routes.
Alameda, for example, was backed up by 4 a.m., from the turn-in to Balloon Fiesta Park west to Fourth Street.
The park and ride lines departing from Balloon Fiesta Park were also lengthy. Many said the lines moved slowly and wait times were as long as 90 minutes or more.
The return line to the Hoffmantown Church parking lot extended across more than a third of the width of the launch field.
Those lines, said Garrity, occur because a large number of people tried to leave at the same time.
“That’s it for me. I’m done with fiesta,” said a clearly agitated Robert Quintana of Albuquerque. “I love being on the field and watching the balloons, but it seems like every year I have to wake up earlier and I still get stuck in traffic, whether I drive or take the park and ride. Now, when I’m ready to leave, I’m stuck in a line again. I’m done with it. I might as well sleep in and watch it on television.”