ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Opening day of the 45th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta was a series of firsts for Collin Williams.
A resident of Phoenix, Williams, 24, had been to a hot air balloon rally in Arizona, “but there were only five or 10 balloons,” he said.
“This is my first time here, and it is incredible. I’ve seen pictures of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta before, but this …,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I’ve never seen so many balloons in the sky at the same time. It almost doesn’t seem possible to get so many balloons in the air.”
It’s also the first time he has seen so many people simultaneously craning their necks skyward.
“I haven’t even seen that at fireworks shows,” he said. “Even when people here are walking, they’re looking up at the sky.”
And in this age of the ubiquitous cellphones, it’s the first time Williams has seen so many people snapping photographs at the same time – including himself. “I’ve never taken this many pictures before, not even close,” he said.
It was indeed a picture-perfect opening to this year’s fiesta, which continues through Oct. 9. Ten Dawn Patrol balloons gently lifted off from Balloon Fiesta Park about 6:30 a.m., lights blinking into the darkness just as the sky behind the Sandia Mountains began to glow. A short time later, pilots on the ground began to inflate and, by 7 a.m., the first wave of balloons was in the air.
The famous “Albuquerque box” effect was in full force as the balloons drifted to the south, then, with burners roaring, climbed to a higher elevation where they caught a wind that took them back north, only to descend and meet a breeze that carried them south once again.
In all, some 550 balloons dotted the sky with a kaleidoscope of color and whimsical shapes – bird and fish, bear and dragon, stagecoach and fire engine, Vader and Yoda.
“This was definitely on my bucket list,” said Robert Hingle, 57, of New Orleans. “I’ve never been this close to a hot air balloon. I knew they were big, but not quite this big. It’s beautiful, amazing.”
He was also impressed by the size of the spectator crowd so early in the morning. “I’m used to crowds during Mardi Gras, but this crowd is more family oriented. No bead throwing here” and certainly no flashing of body parts, he noted.
Thirteen-year-old Isaac Cordova, an eighth-grader at Taft Middle School, is a veteran of Balloon Fiesta, having attended nearly every year with his parents since he was born.
“I never really get tired of seeing them because there’s always new balloons,” he said. As much as he admires them from his vantage point on the field, he has no inclination to ever ride in one.
“I’m good on the ground,” he said. “I’m kind of afraid of heights.”
The Balloon Fiesta has been getting a lot of buzz in recreational vehicle circles, said Nathan Moss, 37, who, for the past 18 months, has been traveling across the country in a 39-foot RV with his wife, Marissa Moss, 30, and their daughter, Hensley, 2. All along the way, the Tennessee couple post video clips to their YouTube channel, “Less Junk, More Journey.”
Nathan, a web designer, and Marissa, a registered nurse, decided to “sell our house, all our stuff and put that into an RV so we could travel all over the country and visit places that create memories,” and allow them to spend more time with their daughter, Nathan said.
“It’s a popular topic in the RV community,” Marissa said. “It’s one of the ‘must see’ things, so here we are.”
Elaine Howlett, 61, of Kansas, purposely arranged a visit to relatives in Albuquerque to coincide with her first Balloon Fiesta.
“I’ve never been around hot air balloons before, though we do have them in Kansas, and I’ve seen them flying overhead. But not like this,” she said. “There’s nothing like this. It’s breathtaking.”
Howlett was also caught off guard by the large crowd that got to mix and mingle among the balloons as they inflated and launched. “I guess I thought it would be like a football game, and you’d sit in the stands and watch them go up.”
“I’m all about the food,” said Dennis Brown, 28, of Las Cruces. “Oh, yeah, I like the balloons, too, but I drive up most years and get here really early, so there’s a couple of hours to kill in the dark and before the balloons go up. What am I supposed to do?”
Brown launched his morning with coffee and a breakfast burrito from Hello Deli, an intermission at Donut Mart, a brief interlude at Blake’s Lotaburger and a breather at Mario’s Pizza.
“It can get expensive, but it’s not like I do this every day,” he said, biting into a funnel cake and brushing the crumbs from his shirt.
Thanks to Brown and other hungry visitors, vendors surveyed on Saturday said this year’s opening day was among the best in recent memory.
Caleestra Sam, a manager at Blake’s Lotaburger, said “It’s been pretty crazy, but in a good way. Orders keep coming in non stop.”
“It’s been one of our busiest first days, and we’ve been here like six years,” said Mike Queseda of Exotic Funnel Cakes.
“So far so good,” said Greg Hallstrom over at the Official Balloon Fiesta Merchandise tent, where lines were out the door. “Of course, this has been a beautiful day and it’s all based on the weather,” he said.