Gonzales — Retired educator Marsha Moses firmly planted her feet and grabbed onto a rope Friday night as hot air balloon pilot Robert Ambeau controlled the propane used to inflate his balloon.
The duo was surrounded by more than 30 towering, colorful balloons and thousands of balloon fans as they prepared for the 2012 Hot Air Balloon Championship Festival’s first balloon glow at the Lamar-Dixon Center on Friday.
Moses, of Geismar, has been part of Ambeau’s local competitive balloon crew for years, but this was the first time she was helping the pilot compete so near to her back yard.
After the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation canceled its annual event in August, the Ascension Festival and Cultural Council decided to host the event. After two date changes, the council set a date and “pulled it together in two months,” said Ambeau, of Gonzales.
Early crowd estimates indicate that some 20,000 people attended Friday and another 40,000 filed into the center on Saturday for the festival, which ended with a fireworks display, event organizer Brad Walker said Monday.
While this year’s festival, which included bands, children’s activities and food, was held at the Expo Center, the morning competitive flights were held at other area locations, Ambeau said.
The proximity of the industrial plants to the Expo Center prevented the balloons from flying over the site, Ambeau said.
“But we worked around that,” Ambeau said.
The longtime balloon pilot said he is hoping to have a competition site next year that could accommodate the crowds of people wanting to see the balloons as they try to hit their targets.
Walker said the council plans to host the festival next year on the third weekend of September “unless there’s a home LSU game.”
“We wanted to have a family festival and that’s what we had,” Walker said.
Moses, a retired Dutchtown Primary School assistant principal from Geismar, said she can’t wait for next year.
“I just love, love the balloons,” Moses said. “I’ll come every year.”
Prairieville pilot Leslie Jeansonne, who served as the “hare” during Friday’s morning competition, said she was elated to have the competition in Gonzales.
“Ascension Parish people have always embraced the balloons and it’s a thrill to have this here,” she said. “It’s a wonderful crowd tonight, and this morning’s flight was special.”
Longtime Prairieville resident Emma Lee Mayeaux, who worked with Jeansonne’s crew, said she didn’t get much sleep the night before, as she couldn’t wait to wake “up to those wonderful balloons flying around.”
Mayeaux has been a balloon fan for years, renting a hotel room near the Baton Rouge festival in the past “so I wouldn’t miss a thing.”
Mayeaux, who awoke at 5 a.m. Friday, said she was thrilled to be a part of this year’s festival so near to her home.
Gonzales resident Troy Blank arrived at the festival grounds early Friday to get an up-close look at the balloons.
“This morning, they came over my house,” she said. “It was so nice seeing the balloons again. When my kids were little, the balloons flew all around us, and now they’re back.”
One of Blank’s “kids,” her 22-year-old daughter Sarah Blank, said she drove to Gonzales from Hammond on Friday after “mom called about the balloons.”
“It was a serene feeling seeing all those balloons floating in the air,” Troy Blank said.
Blank and her daughter got a quick ride in a tethered balloon before Friday’s glow.
Walker said overall the festival went smoothly despite the short planning time, but it was not without a few hiccups. With large crowds descending upon the site on Friday night, the one entrance was overwhelmed and traffic backed up on La. 30 and St. Landry Road.
After rounding up a few more volunteers to handle parking, the organizers decided to open the Ashland Road entrance for Saturday’s crowds.
“We used every parking space we had Saturday,” Walker said. “They were parking everywhere.”
“Overall, the vendors were happy and we’ve had several companies ask about sponsorships for next year,” Walker said.
This year’s festival budget was $250,000, which included advertising, the cost of housing and feeding the balloon pilots, bands, tents and portable toilets. The Parish Council received a $100,000 grant from the state’s economic development fund and gave the festival council an additional $49,000 to host the event. Walker said sponsorships paid for most of the other needed items.
Forty pilots from around the country competed for prizes Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning.
Kansas City pilot Joel Sturdevant missed winning a car Friday morning “by less than three feet,” he said as he set up for the glow on Friday.
Sturdevant, who flies for Re/Max, said he “just loves coming to Louisiana” to compete.
“This is a great venue and the people love the balloons,” Sturdevant said.
Pilots had more than nine chances to win money and prizes.
Joe Paddlie, of Texas, won the first prize of the festival, $1,000 for hitting the first target Friday. Winning $500 cash prizes were Ambeau; Alan Muir, Texas; Maury Petrehn, Kansas; Johnny Petrehn, Kansas; Richard James, Texas; Nicholas Donner, Kentucky; Bubba Cliver, Texas; and Scott McClinton, Kentucky.