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Driving from Arkansas to Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta was a romantic gesture from John Brandhorst to celebrate the wedding anniversary with his wife, Cherie.
“He never told me where we were going until we got here,” she said. “I had no idea.”
The surprise was well worth it – to both of the Mountain Home residents.
“It’s pure artistry and creativity, how they come up with the colors and schemes,” Cherie said, her neck craned to the sky.
“Breathtaking,” said John. “And how do they keep from bumping into each other?”
In what can only be described as a picture-perfect morning, about 625 balloons launched in a mass ascension early Saturday as the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta got underway.
In a fiesta first, an intricately-choreographed midair drone show of constantly changing lights, colors and messages danced above the launch field. That was followed by a chorus singing the national anthem and broadcast over the launch field’s loud speakers. As it finished, pilots in unison shot plumes of flames into the air from the their burners and a squadron of airplanes in formation flew over the field trailing smoke.
As the roar of propane burners vibrated throughout the field, spectators surrounded inflating balloons. The bright, golden-colored 50th Fiesta balloon led the first wave of the mass ascension and soon the sky above was filled with colorful balloons, most of which eventually drifted to the west.
Although official attendance numbers are not available, anecdotally, Saturday’s fiesta opening was “definitely one of the – if not the – largest opening-day crowd ever,” said fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity. “People started showing up at 2:45 a.m., earlier than we’ve ever seen. We anticipated the large crowds knowing that this is the celebration of the 50th event, and that the weather was going to be good.”
By 4:30 a.m., Main Street was packed with people. The official merchandise tent at the south end of the street saw a line that snaked out nearly 100 feet from the entrance. Vendors selling breakfast burritos, coffee and hot chocolate also saw throngs of people lining up in the pre-launch darkness.
Sandra Karenbauer, visiting from Pittsburgh with her daughter, learned of the fiesta from a friend at work who attended years ago.
“She loved it and told me it’s something you have to see before you bite the dust,” she said while waiting in a long line outside a merchandise tent. “So it’s been on my bucket list for 10 or 11 years.”
Standing in a nearly as long food line waiting to order breakfast burritos was William Gensler and his wife, Chanel Gensler, both from New Orleans. In Albuquerque for just over two years, William is completing his medical residency at the University of New Mexico Hospital.
“They canceled fiesta the first year we were here (because of COVID) and last year we finally got to see a mass ascension during the second weekend,” William said. “It’s just the most incredible thing. I actually cried with joy. They’re so much bigger than you’d imagine from looking at pictures, and then you see them inflate and they’re massive, but seeing hundreds of them inflate at the same time is just overwhelming.”
Said Chanel, who works in advertising: “We’re hooked on Albuquerque and we’re not leaving.”
For about 20 years, JJ’s Concessions has been serving food and drinks at fiesta. Operator Robert Harvey said businesses in general “are just having a hard time finding people to work.” Still, he managed to assemble a team of 60, all working at a furious pace.
“It’s pretty crazy,” he said of the crowds. “We told our employees to be here before 3 a.m. One employee got here about 3:30 a.m. and said it took him 45 minutes to get into the park from Alameda and San Mateo,” just a few blocks outside the park boundaries.
While the huge turnout may be inconvenient for commuters, it’s a boon for businesses, Harvey said. “I think it’s going to be an excellent year for the balloon fiesta, for Albuquerque and for New Mexico.”
Garrity said there were no balloon crashes reported and no traffic accidents impairing access in and out of Balloon Fiesta Park. However, there was so much traffic pressure that placing attendants in parking lots where they collected fees, instead of on the feeder roads, may not have had the desired effect of moving vehicles more quickly.
“We won’t know until later in the week how effective that was,” the event spokesman said. Far clearer is the effectiveness of a new ramp at Pasadena NE routing exiting fiesta traffic directly onto southbound Interstate 25. “It worked as it was designed to do,” he said.
While there really isn’t a bad seat anywhere on the field, arguably, one of the better views is from atop one of two new sky boxes.
“It’s fantastic,” said Dr. Steve Komadina, gazing out over the launch field. “I would have spent a million dollars for this.”
Luckily, the sky boxes rent for just $5,000 per session, food and nonalcoholic drinks included. “There are other kinds of premium places to get food and things like that, but nothing’s elevated like this.”
Komadina, a former state senator, said he wanted to give his staff at Health Horizons “an experience to see what it’s like, and because I’m on the fiesta board of directors I wanted to see what it’s like.”
Spoiler alert: the board, he said, is now thinking about setting up a cluster of 12 sky boxes.
Walking around the launch field, many different languages could be heard. The fiesta is, indeed, an international event.
“This is my first time here and first time to see hot air balloons,” said Josen Osias, who was visiting from Saipan with his wife, Joy Osias, and their children, Kelsey, 7, Nathan, 5, and Cassidy, 3. “The festival is very big and very exciting and my kids love it.”
Added Joy, “It is beautiful and amazing. We’re overwhelmed because there are a lot of them, and bigger than I thought they would be.”
J.J. Yeap, an engineer working at Intel for the next year, came from Malaysia, where he has seen hot air balloons before, “but nothing so big and grand like this,” he said. “So many colors. I am amazed.”
Demetrius Cousins grew up in the East African country of Tanzania and has lived in Florida for the last 14 years. He and some friends came to experience the spectacle of the fiesta.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, never seen this many balloons in my life, I didn’t even know that they could make balloons in these shapes. It’s crazy,” he said. “We were talking to some of the people out here and I was thinking, like, you have to be a baller to buy one of these.”