Editorial: Things are looking up! The hot air balloon festival is back

“We need this Balloon Fiesta,” says Sam Parks, the fiesta’s director of operations, of the world’s first hot air balloon festival.

And Albuquerque needs its signature event – the energy and excitement it brings to the city, the national and international attention it garners, the tens of thousands of visitors and children of all ages staring wide-eyed people who will gather at Balloon Fiesta Park to see the 648 pilots and their 548 hot air balloons, and the huge economic impact of it all.

The 2019 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta generated a total economic impact of $186 million for the city and state, according to fiesta officials. Parks says the loss of Balloon Fiesta last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic created devastating financial hardship for many businesses and employees. The postponement had a demoralizing effect on a COVID-weary public.

But things are literally looking up. The weather forecast looks good for the big kick-off on Saturday morning, after a bit of morning fog. The rest of the weekend should be warmer and drier with light winds – ideal weather for ballooning.

Parks expect 60,000 to 80,000 people to show up for Saturday’s mass climb which begins at 7am. Krispy Kreme’s Morning Glow begins at 6:30 a.m. with the opening ceremonies at 6:45 a.m. Events continue throughout the day Saturday until the AfterGlow fireworks show at 8 a.m. pm

The competition flight begins at 8 a.m. Monday.

This year’s party will have a different look, with several COVID safety practices in place. All meals will be outdoors. Organizers scoured local stores to collect 180 patio heaters and enough propane to keep them glowing. About half of the 80 vendors will sell food, the other half merchandise. Hand washing and sanitizing stations will be distributed around the park.

Unlike the State Fair, visitors will not be required to show proof of vaccination or COVID-19 testing, but due to CDC guidelines, face masks will be required where large outdoor crowds are present, on all park-and-ride shuttles and in all interior decors. Concession workers will also be required to wear masks, be separated from the public by plastic shields and provide cashless options.

Organizers have collected nearly half a million masks for visitors. Public address systems and signs will remind customers to keep them on. The organizers rely on the cooperation of the public for self-enforcement. Don’t let them down. They also note that there’s plenty of space with over 100 acres inside Balloon Fiesta Park’s fences to spread out and take deep breaths with the sights.

The balloons – especially the 84 special shapes that usually attract the biggest crowds – will be spread around the launch field instead of being concentrated in the eastern part, helping to thin out the crowds.

It took a lot of hard work to get to this point, and credit goes to fiesta’s 24-member all-volunteer board of directors for not giving up. Pilots and teams from Brazil, Canada, France, Mexico, the Netherlands and Switzerland will join their American colleagues on the launch pad; popular events like the gas balloon race are back; and the all-new “Fiesta de los Globitos” will feature mini mass climbs of over 35 1/4 scale radio-controlled hot air balloons. (These take place from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. on October 3, 6, and 8.) Launching a new event in the midst of the pandemic was a feat in itself.

The focus of this year’s fiesta, which concludes with the farewell mass climb at 7am on Sunday, October 10, is safety and fun. It’s an appropriate accent during a pandemic. It has been a difficult year and a half and unfortunately some suppliers will not be participating due to personnel and supply chain issues. On that note, the organizers encourage the public to be patient with all the changes and challenges.

“It’s been two years since we had a Balloon Fiesta, and we’ve all been through a lot,” Parks says. We all have. Here’s to an amazing 2021 fiesta and things to come from now on.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned because it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than that of the editors.