Championship festival relocates to Gonzales
The Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship Festival has drifted south this year.
After nine years of being held on the grounds of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, the festival’s new home is the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
With the Pennington facility undergoing an expansion, there wasn’t available space to host the event this year, so the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation sought out a new festival site.
“They thought it (Lamar-Dixon) would be a really beautiful place for a festival,” said Charlotte Guedry, who serves on the Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council, Inc.
“Initially we were just going to hold the festival portion here on the Friday and Saturday and the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation would hold the actual competitive races in Baton Rouge on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and then the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation decided they would no longer take part in any of it, and we thought what’s the point of having a festival without the competitive races? So, Brad Walker (president of the Ascension group) went to Longview, Texas, for the nationals (National Hot Air Balloon Championships) just to see how much interest we could get basically from pilots, and we’ve ended up with 39 balloons, so that’s how we got the competitive portion as well,” Guedry said.
Guedry is creative director for graphic design company Nstrumental Designs in Gonzales, which Walker owns, and organizing a festival fits in well with what they do, Guedry said.
“We figured with such a quick turnaround that if they got 20 (pilots), they’d be good to go,” Guedry said.
Pilots committed to competing this weekend are from a list of states that includes South Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Missouri.
“I can’t believe it but they’re all coming. They’ll be descending on Ascension Parish for three nights and four days and I can’t wait,” Guedry said.
Although the festival will be headquartered at Lamar-Dixon, the competitive balloon flights could take off from several sites in the parish.
“It’s all wind-dependent,” she said. “There are tons of different targets around the parish. The balloonmeister will decide where they’re going.”
Lamar-Dixon’s proximity to chemical plants along the Mississippi River also factors into where the balloons can fly, Walker explained, as there is a no-fly zone around the plants. In order for the balloons to lift off from Lamar-Dixon, the winds would have to be such that they float away from the plants, not toward them. Thus, several locations have been designated as potential lift-off sites for the competition, with the specific place(s) being announced the morning of the particular races.
“All the competitions that we have are going to be one main target that they have to fly over, and that main target, when the first balloon comes within a certain amount, like 200 feet, one lifts off from the target, and it’s called ‘the hare and the hound,’” Walker said.
Back at the festival site, the organizers said one of the things they wanted to do differently than the Pennington event was make the festival more involved for the visitors.
“Basically we decided to have activities, so we’ve got the Civil Air Patrol doing things like rocket launching demonstrations, youths making balloons out of crepe paper and tissue paper and then being judged to see whose goes the highest,” Guedry said. “Every hour on the hour there is an activity.”
A local remote control club will also offer demonstrations.
“We have also incorporated the balloons into the fields, so people can wander through them and speak to the pilots,” she said.
In addition, festival-goers can buy an all-day pass to the Balloon Club tent for $25. Inside, they’ll have snacks, air-conditioning, and the opportunity to mingle with balloon pilots in the adjoining pilot tent.
Other events include performances by four bands, a nightly balloon glow, and finale fireworks on Saturday night. Coincidentally, Steinhauer Productions has a crafts show scheduled for Lamar-Dixon’s Trade Mart building.
“There’s something to keep you occupied the entire time you’re on site,” Guedry said, emphasizing the council’s efforts to use local organizations as much as possible.
“225 (Magazine) is doing the inflatables area for the children. The River Region Arts Association is doing the arts and crafts area for kids,” Guedry added.
Even moving from the parking area to the balloon fields will involve some fun, Walker said.
“There’s a lot of parking so to help alleviate some of that distance, we decided to go with a local tradition around here and do tractor hayrides that are going to be our shuttles back to the field. Some (kids) might just stay on the hayride the whole time, you never know,” he said.
Reaching the balloon field, the general public will be able to see many of the competition balloons, and two shape balloons, one a 10-story-tall bald eagle balloon, and the other a big daisy, with a smiley face side and a winking side. Tethered balloon rides also will be offered for $10, children; and $15, adults.
“Not every one wants to soar across a river or an interstate and feels comfortable doing so. People have been calling wanting to know if they can go 20, 25 feet up,” Guedry said, adding that there may be a marriage proposal or two being planned mid-air.
One of the balloon baskets will have a gate, which allows access for those using wheelchairs or walkers.
So whether you want to keep your feet on the ground, or float above Gonzales, they’ll be something for everyone to watch or do, the pair said.
“It’s only going to be better, it’s only going to be bigger,” Guedry said. “I think people will be pleased with what we’re offering.”