WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest is on the move in its second year, with the popular hot air balloon festival relocating to Fuquay-Varina over 2016’s Memorial Day weekend, organizers announced Wednesday.
The multi-day event, held for the first time in May, drew 85,000 people and more than 40 balloon crews to two sites. Much of the activity took place in Zebulon at Bennett Bunn Plantation, with hot air balloons also set up at Raleigh’s Spring Forest Road Park.
Organizers expect a similar crowd – and economic boost – to come to Fuquay-Varina’s Fleming Loop Recreational Park May 27 to 30, with some actitivities scattered throughout the nearby downtown district.
“It’s a very exciting time in Fuquay-Varina,” Mayor John Byrne said. “There’s a lot of good things happening and getting ready to happen, and this is one of them. It’s a big deal. We think it will bring a lot of people into our area and town. It gives a lot of exposure to a fast-growing community.”
Fuquay-Varina may become the event’s permanent home, organizers said.
“Our mission here with this is to plant a flag for the long term,” said Brian Hoyle, the event’s lead volunteer organizer. “Trying to move this thing around every year is not something we want to do.”
But relocating the festival means Zebulon is losing a tourism-generating event, which Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny said disappointed him. Matheny said Wednesday that said he and Chamber of Commerce leaders tried to convince Balloon Fest organizers to stay.
“Our initial understanding was it was at least going to be in Zebulon three years,” Matheny said. “Life goes on. But I hate to lose it. I thought it was the start of something really good for us, but I guess not. We tried.”
Hoyle said there were several factors in the decision to move the event. The festival committee wanted only one site for the event, which Fuquay-Varina’s large Fleming Loop park can provide.
Hoyle said Fuquay-Varina also is better suited as host it because it’s closer to Fort Bragg – the event was created to honor the military – and the town isn’t along a main road to the coast. With Memorial Day one of the year’s biggest beach weekends, he said, Zebulon’s location along two major east-west highways made traffic a big issue.
The event features balloon rides, both tethered and untethered, along with competitions and “glows,” where dozens of balloons light up as the sun sets. Admission is free with costs for parking and the rides.
The inaugural event attracted crowds that surpassed organizers’ estimates. On the first night of the festival – a mass ascension of balloons in the eastern Wake sky – crowds overwhelmed the roads in Zebulon.
Organizers expected 8,000 people the first night but instead had an audience of 20,000, they said. Throughout the weekend, the crowds kept increasing and traffic snarled for miles while attendees parked on the sides of the road or on residents’ lawns. Shuttles experienced delays from Triangle Towne Center and Five County Stadium.
Organizers learned lessons from the experience, Hoyle said. He said the new location should accommodate the 60,000 to 80,000 people estimated to attend. They also have recruited the person who managed the U.S. Open tournament traffic in Pinehurst last year, Hoyle said. Balloon Fest may also get its own app, to give traffic updates and help attendees coordinate with the shuttles to and from parking lots.
Hoyle, who is a balloon pilot, said organizers are expecting to have 25 to 35 balloons this spring, down from 43 at the inaugural festival.
“It will be a smaller number than we had in 2015,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had a manageable number of balloons in the space but still have plenty of room for spectators, food and vendors.”
There will be more food vendors, he said, to cut down on the long lines. Other additions could include live music, a local chefs competition or something involving Fuquay-Varina’s craft beer scene.
Downtown is within walking distance of the park, which Hoyle said also was a factor in moving the event there.
“They’ve got some great local merchants as well as restaurants (and) three great breweries right there in the heart of the downtown area,” he said.
Staff writer Aaron Moody contributed.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran