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Driving from Arkansas to Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta was a romantic gesture by 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 worth it – for the two residents of Mountain Home.
“It’s pure art and creativity, how they come up with the colors and the schemes,” Cherie said, her neck craned skyward.
“Breathtaking,” said John. “And how do they not cross paths?”
In what can only be described as a perfect morning, approximately 625 balloons were launched in a mass ascent early Saturday as the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta got underway.
In a first fiesta, a spectacle of flying drones with an intricate choreography of ever-changing lights, colors and messages danced above the launch field. This was followed by a choir singing the national anthem and played over the launch field speakers. At the end, the pilots in unison shot plumes of flame into the air from their burners and a squadron of aircraft in formation flew over the field trailing smoke.
As the roar of propane burners vibrated throughout the field, spectators surrounded inflated balloons. The 50th Balloon Fiesta in brilliant golden colors led the first wave of mass ascension and soon the sky above was filled with colorful balloons, most of which eventually drifted west.
Although official attendance figures are not available, for the record, Saturday’s fiesta opener was “certainly one of – if not the – biggest opening day crowd ever”. said fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity. “People started arriving at 2:45 a.m., earlier than ever. We anticipated the large crowds knowing that it is the celebration of the 50th event and that the weather was going to be nice.
At 4:30 a.m. Main Street was packed with people. The official merchandise tent at the south end of the street saw a line snaking nearly 100 feet from the entrance. Vendors selling breakfast burritos, coffee and hot chocolate also saw throngs of people queuing in the darkness before the launch.
Sandra Karenbauer, visiting from Pittsburgh with her daughter, learned about the party from a friend at work who attended years ago.
“She loved it and told me it was something to see before you bite the dust,” she said as she stood in line outside a merchandise tent. “So it’s been on my to-do list for 10 or 11 years.”
William Gensler and his wife, Chanel Gensler, both from New Orleans, were waiting to order breakfast burritos in a line almost as long. In Albuquerque for just over two years, William is completing his medical residency at the University of New Mexico Hospital.
“They canceled the party the first year we were here (due to COVID) and last year we finally got to see a massive uplift in the second weekend,” William said. “It’s just the most amazing thing. In fact, I cried with joy. They are so much bigger than you imagine looking at pictures, and then you see them inflate and they are huge, but seeing hundreds of them inflate at the same time is just overwhelming.
Says Chanel, who works in advertising: “We’re addicted to Albuquerque and we’re not leaving.”
For about 20 years, JJ’s Concessions has been serving fiesta food and drink. Operator Robert Harvey said businesses in general “are struggling to find people to work with”. Yet he managed to assemble a team of 60 people, all working at a breakneck pace.
“It’s pretty crazy,” he said of the crowd. “We told our employees to be here before 3am. An employee arrived around 3:30 a.m. and said it took him 45 minutes to enter the park from Alameda and San Mateo,” a few blocks outside the park boundary.
While the huge turnout may be inconvenient for commuters, it’s a boon for businesses, Harvey said. “I think it’s going to be a great year for hot air ballooning, for Albuquerque and for New Mexico.”
Garrity said there were no reported balloon accidents and no traffic accidents impeding access inside and outside Balloon Fiesta Park. However, the traffic pressure was such that placing attendants in parking lots where they collected fees, rather than on feeder roads, might not have had the intended effect of moving vehicles faster.
“We won’t know until later in the week how effective it was,” the event spokesperson said. Far clearer is the effectiveness of a new ramp in Pasadena NE carrying party traffic directly to southbound Interstate 25. “It worked as expected,” he said.
While there really isn’t a bad spot in the field, arguably one of the best views is from the top of one of the two new sky boxes.
“It’s fantastic,” said Dr. Steve Komadina as he looked out over the launch field. “I would have spent a million dollars on that.”
Luckily, sky boxes rent for just $5,000 per session, including food and non-alcoholic beverages. “There are other kinds of high end places to get food and things like that, but nothing is as high end as this.”
Komadina, a former state senator, said he wanted to give his Health Horizons staff “an experience to see what it’s like, and because I’m on the board of the party, I wanted see what it looks like.”
Spoiler alert: the council, he said, is now considering setting up a 12 sky box cluster.
Walking around the launch pad, many different languages could be heard. The party is, indeed, an international event.
“This is my first time here and my first time seeing hot air balloons,” said Josen Osias, who came from Saipan with his wife, Joy Osias, and their children, Kelsey, 7, Nathan, 5 years old and Cassidy, 3 years old. “The festival is very big and very exciting and my kids love it.”
Joy added, “It’s beautiful and amazing. We are overwhelmed because there are many and bigger than I thought.
JJ Yeap, an engineer working at Intel for the next year, came from Malaysia, where he’s seen hot air balloons before, “but nothing as big and grand as this one,” he said. “So many colors. I’m amazed.”
Demetrius Cousins grew up in the East African country Tanzania and has lived in Florida for 14 years. He and some friends came to experience the spectacle of the fiesta.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, I’ve never seen so many balloons in my life, I didn’t even know they could make balloons in those shapes. It’s crazy,” he said. he stated.”We were talking to some people here and I was thinking, like, you have to be a baller to buy one.”