Gonzales — A towering three-story eagle, Spunky the Skunk and Oggy the Friendly Dragon are headed to the skies above Ascension Parish.
The three specially-shaped hot air balloons are among the more than 60 expected for the Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championships at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
Festivities kick off Thursday with a community glow at the Ascension Chamber of Commerce office on La. 30 and Tanger Outlet Center in Gonzales.
On Friday morning, the competition begins.
“It’s looking big,” festival organizer Brad Walker said. “We need a switchboard to handle just the calls for the balloon festival.”
Walker said he’s working with State Police and the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office to organize alternative traffic routes.
The Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council organized a balloon festival in September 2012 after the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation canceled its longtime Baton Rouge venue.
After a date change and approval of start-up money from the Ascension Parish Council, the balloon festival was held with 41 pilots.
Walker said traffic jams were a big problem last year, so digital signs will be placed on Interstate 10 to route traffic to the site.
Festival-goers from Baton Rouge are being encouraged to exit I-10 at La. 73, travel south and turn left onto La. 30 or take La. 30 to Ashland Road.
Lamar-Dixon’s Ashland Road gate will be open for those traveling from the west.
Gonzales and Sorrento residents are asked to travel south on La. 44, turn onto La. 22 to River Road.
Those drivers will be directed to the Ashland Road entrance.
“We’re trying to get people to take different routes, and please come early,” Walker said.
The competition starts early Friday when pilots begin competing for prizes, organizers said.
Admission is $2.
Hot Air Balloon Championship Competition Director Harold Cliver said visitors to the festival grounds can expect to see some of the best pilots from around the country.
Cliver, of Lewisville, Texas, said the world champion, world runner-up and several top 10 pilots are registered to compete.
“A balloon competition, in its simple form, is being able to put the balloon where you want it,” Cliver said.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday, starting around 6 a.m., pilots will get their instructions and head off to the competition areas.
Depending on wind direction, pilots will either fly into or out of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, Cliver said.
Pilots will be trying to hit their targets either at the center or at sites determined during pilot meetings.
This could not be possible, Cliver said, without the cooperation of several area property owners who agreed to let the championships use their land for the competition.
Pilots will be looking for large, white sheets placed in open fields marking the spots where they can land.
“We have even seen landowners mow their grass creating a yard that says ‘Welcome Balloonist,’ ” Cliver said.
“It’s the white they see, but you can only begin to imagine what some people will do to attract the balloons. A white sheet with a sign next to it works as well.”
Landowners allowing the pilots to use their fields will be entered into a prize drawing after the festival.
Anyone interested in allowing the use of their property for take-off or landing can email Cliver at Harold.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The community loves the balloons and has what may be the best hospitality anywhere in the country, Cliver said.
In addition to the competition, the balloons will light up Friday and Saturday night for a mass glow and tethered rides will be available for $20.
Fireworks shows are set each night after the glows.
Gates open at 6 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the competition flights.
Walker said festival-goers should bring lawn chairs, blankets and “lots and lots of sun screen.”
For a complete schedule of events, go to www.ascension ballooning.com.