Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Thousands of people woke up early, hopped in cars and buses, and on bikes to pack into Balloon Fiesta Park for the first mass ascension of the 2019 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Even before the first rays of sunlight could peek over the Sandia Mountains, crowds were shuffling onto the field and flocking to the numerous food and coffee tents set up along Main Street. Roasting coffee beans, cinnamon rolls, and piping hot green chile breakfast burritos filled the air with enticing smells, and the first few hot air balloons began to inflate, drawing “oohs” and “aahs” from onlookers.
While the crowd waited and wandered the field, a small helium-filled balloon broke free of its string and drifted into the sky. People laughed and cheered as the much larger balloons waited on the ground, not knowing, in fact, that the little balloon would be the last one to “launch.”
Thick fog around the field and landing sites prompted Balloon Fiesta officials to call off the scheduled 7 a.m. launch of hundreds of hot air balloons from the field, though many that had already inflated stayed up and bobbled back and forth, tethered to the field.
Out-of-state weather also postponed the start of the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race on Saturday, though the nighttime fiesta events, including a balloon glow and fireworks show, went off as planned.
In the morning, the crowd thinned once the announcement was made to call off the ascension, but people lingered to admire their favorite balloons and some newcomers questioned the underwhelming experience.
Jessica Smith, who traveled from North Carolina just to see the balloons, asked: “Have they done the mass ascension yet? Do they all go in the air?”
Even with the thick fog, she was able to spot one of the penguin balloons, and said that was her favorite.
Smith said she sat in traffic for about an hour and a half just to get two miles, but that the long wait paid off.
“This was worth it,” she said as she stood between two gigantic yellow-and-red patterned balloons.
Traffic began piling up on Balloon Fiesta Parkway around 3 a.m. as people rushed to be first in line to enter the park.
“People were all queued up in the metal detector public safety checks and those lines,” fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said. “Everybody got through; it was just a very early pressure on the park.”
He said there were a few problem areas in terms of traffic delays – such as at Second and Alameda and Tramway and Interstate 25 – but overall this year’s kick off was much easier than the last.
“We filled a lot of the parking lots and everybody who drove to fiesta and wanted to park, we were able to park them,” Garrity said.
Adjustments made to the park-and-ride rules also helped alleviate the congestion for the 48th annual event, he said. This year, tickets for the shuttle service to and from the park have to be purchased online in advance, and sales will close out once buses scheduled from each lot are full.
Metal detectors at each entrance – new to the fiesta’s public safety arsenal – proved to provide smooth sailing. There were a few hiccups, Garrity said, like some of the machines having to be restarted early in the morning, but once everything was up and running, people zoomed through once long bag-check lines.
Some chose to avoid the traffic altogether and hopped on one of the many park-and-ride buses shuttling crowds to the event.
“We rode the bus, so that was really awesome” said first-time fiesta-goer Anna Juneau. She and her family came to Albuquerque from as close as Fort Collins, Colorado, and as far as Louisiana.
In order to better accommodate the masses of people from coming to the park from the metro area and beyond, Balloon Fiesta officials updated traffic routes in an effort to keep people coming in from the west on the west side of the park and people coming from the east on that side.
For a few people, the traffic didn’t really make a dent in their experience.
Justin Allen brought and his two children stood near the center of the field and watched the Rainbow Ryders balloons inflate.
His company rented equipment to the park, so he used his service vehicle to get in the back entrance and avoided the traffic.
Allen was able to get to the field in time for the singing of the national anthem and an Air Force flyover.
“The best part was the national anthem when they had all the planes coming through the clouds,” he said.
A local, Allen said this year’s fiesta wasn’t his first rodeo. He doesn’t come every year, but when he does he said his favorite part of the whole event is watching all the kids react to the giant balloons.
“The kids, seeing how excited they get, it’s great,” he said. “Even if it’s the same old, same old.”
Mary Wheeler and her sisters all grew up in Albuquerque and used to go to the Balloon Fiesta when they were young. Saturday was her first time back in 35 years.
“I am thrilled,” she said. “We’re just having the time of our lives.”
Wheeler and her small group were decked out in bright blue bomber jackets covered in hot air balloons, visors also adorned with balloons and earrings to match.
When she came to the fiesta in the ’70s, her husband would work the chase crews, but the organization was very different.
“He used to take his Bronco and just go get a balloon,” Wheeler said. “They don’t do that anymore.”
She said her favorite balloons are still the classic, multicolored patterned balloons.
The morning mass ascension wasn’t the only event affected by weather. Fiesta officials postponed for a day the launch of the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, which was set for 6 p.m. Saturday, due to ominous weather on the flight path.
Garrity said while the weather in Albuquerque was fine, that wasn’t the case to the east, where the distance-race pilots would be headed.