The WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest is coming to Fuquay-Varina this weekend for the first time, and the town is poised to attract 60,000 to 80,000 people over the four-day extravaganza.
Thirty-five balloonists and their balloons are set to arrive from around the country Friday, May 27. Organizers of the event, which is designed to expose crowds to competitive ballooning and commemorate military service, are hoping the improvements made after its inaugural run in Zebulon and North Raleigh eases some of the problems from last year’s larger-than-expected crowds.
The key to enjoying the festival, organizers say, is planning ahead. If you go, do your research so you know how to handle the parking and traffic.
Here, we break down some of the nuts and bolts of what you need to know to fully take advantage of the one-of-a-kind event.
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The details: Friday, May 27 to Monday, May 30, at Fleming Loop Park in Fuquay-Varina
When to get there: To give the town’s roads a fighting chance, organizers are starting early and ending late. The festival kicks off around 2 p.m. on Friday but show up as early as 6 a.m. for competitive ballooning starting Saturday and stay as late as 10:30 p.m. for live music. Later-risers might want to aim for 9 a.m., when most of the vendors around the park open for business, or 10 a.m., when the “Fun Zone” amusement area opens. Those with children or early bedtimes of their own should stay until 6:30 p.m., when all 35 balloons ascend at once, known as the mass ascension. Festivities wrap up around noon on Monday.
What to do: Major balloon events will be at 6 a.m. (competition flights), 6:30 p.m. (mass ascension), and 8:30 p.m (a balloon glow, where the balloons light up at the same time). That leaves plenty of time for shopping in the merchants village, watching live music in the afternoon and evening, and, if you have kids, letting them loose in the Fun Zone. Event organizer Brian Hoyle also encourages visitors to spend time exploring Fuquay-Varina’s downtown streets.
“We really want them to get a sense for the feel of Fuquay-Varina,” he said. “If people don’t take some time to learn more about the area, they might have missed out.”
▪ Tethered balloon rides will be available throughout the weekend, although the lines will be formed on an ad-hoc basis to encourage people to spend the day enjoying the festival instead of in line.
“We won’t even establish where the line is until we’re ready to set it up,” Hoyle said.
Tethered rides, which lift passengers 30 to 40 feet off the ground, are $20 per ride, cash only. Children under 42” can’t ride unless they’re with a guardian.
▪ Paid balloon rides are $300. Go to wralfreedomballoonfest.com/paid-balloon-flights.html to make arrangements with pilots and sign a waiver of liability.
▪ There will be a non-denominational church service Sunday at 10 a.m. and, in celebration of Memorial Day, opportunities to learn about the military and its veterans throughout the weekend. Monday, there will be a ceremony at 10:30 a.m. at a Field of Flags, with each flag placed in honor of service members and veterans.
Note that all events are weather and wind dependent. Follow the festival’s social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter for updates.
What to expect (in terms of traffic, crowds and parking): If you attended last year’s festival in Zebulon, you might remember being frustrated by parking shortages and gridlock on the roads. The organizers hired parking and traffic consultants this year and have said they’re confident in the Fuquay-Varina Police Department’s plan and ability to execute it. But they also said festival-goers should be prepared for traffic and waiting for shuttles at peak hours. Hoyle advised attendees to clear their schedules where possible.
“Don’t put yourself up against the clock,” he said. “So whatever happens, you’ll enjoy it.”
How much it’ll cost: Admission is free, although most people will need to pay for parking, the shuttle or both, unless they’re in easy walking or biking distance from the park or one of the parking areas. See below for tram information, plus, there are the aforementioned ride costs.
If you’re expecting to stay through dinner and lunch, budget about $30 for food and drink. Between nine food trucks and 42 other food vendors on top of brick-and-mortar offerings in town, there will be plenty to choose from. Food trucks include Chirba Chirba Dumpling, Baguettaboutit, 13th Taco, La Farm Bakery, Flattz, Dusty Donuts, Kat-N-Around and Raging Rooster.
Where to park and how to get around: Organizers have set up four large parking areas on the outskirts of town, but carpooling is encouraged. Keep in mind that none of these lots are open for the festival’s final half-day on Monday.
If you’re coming from Raleigh, Clayton or Garner, plug 2321 North Main St. into your GPS. Those arriving from Fayetteville or Lillington should head for the lot at 1205 Wagstaff Road. Drivers arriving from Apex or Holly Springs can park at 1460 North Broad St. Folks taking N.C. 42 to Fuquay-Varina have a lot at 1524 West Academy St. (This lot doesn’t open until 1 p.m. on Sunday). Signs will guide drivers to the lots.
Once you park – $10 for the full day – you’ll hop on a shuttle to the festival site at Fleming Loop Park. An all-day ticket for shuttles to and from the parking areas costs an additional $5 for adults and $3 for kids ages 2-12.
From there, a tram will circulate between the Fuquay and Varina downtowns. The tram fee is included in the parking lot fee. If you’re just taking the tram, it’s $5 per person.
Tram sites are at Centennial Park (at the intersection of Main and Academy streets); next to the Mason Jar restaurant (at the intersection of Main and Vance streets); Broad Street between Hook & Cleaver and Draft Line Brewing Co.; and other marked areas.
Road closings and where you shouldn’t park: Fleming Loop Road is closed to through traffic and off limits for parking. There is no parking on Judd Parkway from N.C. 42/Academy Street to South Main Street and North Main Street; N.C. 42/West Academy Street at South Main Street to Piney Grove Wilbon Road; Fleming Road; Phelps West Road from N.C. 42 to Piney Grove Wilbon Road; and Coley Farm Road from N.C. 42 to the railroad tracks.
What to bring: Wear comfortable shoes. Carry plenty of sunscreen and apply repeatedly. Bring something to sit on, like a folding chair or a towel, too. For those with small children, organizers recommend compact, collapsible strollers that can easily be loaded on and off shuttles and trams. Pets (service animals excluded) are not allowed. Neither are weapons, tents or coolers. You’ll be able to enjoy adult beverages, but only within the confines of a fairly large beer garden.
Information: Go to wralfreedomballoonfest.com.
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan