On the first day of the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest, organizer Brian Hoyle estimated 18,000 people had descended upon Fleming Loop Park by the time the festival’s 35 balloons ascended together at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
But driving through the town’s American-flag-lined Main Street coming south on N.C. 55 an hour and a half earlier, traffic was moving smoothly. The parking lots set aside by the town and local businesses for the festival were still mostly empty. A 15-minute shuttle ride brought early-bird festival-goers to the entrance of Fleming Loop Park.
Inside the park, James and Diana McShane waited with their two daughters, Adele, 6, and Carolyn, 9, in a line for a tethered balloon ride.
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“They’re saying they’ll take 200 up this evening, and we’re number 58,” James McShane said.
They family had attended the festival last year in Zebulon but hadn’t managed to go up in a balloon.
“It’s more organized,” Diana McShane said of her experience in Fuquay-Varina. “We couldn’t figure out the tethered rides when we went last year, so this year, it was the first thing we went for.”
Organizers said the good weather Friday evening and the potential for rain later in the weekend brought larger-than-expected crowds to lines for the tethered rides. Saturday’s predicted high of 87 and mostly clear skies could bring extra-large crowds hoping to enjoy the festival before the rains arrive.
Rain is anticipated for Sunday and Monday throughout the day, although Hoyle said he has his fingers crossed for a reprieve. Balloons can’t fly in the rain.
“But we still have plenty of other entertainment if the balloons can’t come up,” Hoyle said. “We’re doing it rain or shine. People can enjoy live music, great food, plenty of shopping – and please, come out and support our military folks out here.”
David Fuller II, the pilot of the Florida-based Bugly balloon, which sports a blue-and-yellow canopy, said he and his crew had enjoyed their time in North Carolina thus far.
“We love flying up here because people are always so friendly,” Fuller said. “We landed in a man’s hayfield this morning. We thought he was gonna hate us, but he came out and said, ‘Oh, OK, you didn’t damage anything. Good job.’ He turned out to be a really nice guy.”
Charles Daniels, a Fuquay-Varina native, was suiting up around 6 p.m. Friday in a referee’s outfit to officiate the balloon ascent later that hour. His job was to make sure none of the balloons got in one another’s way as they inflated and ascended. He would have been working a balloon crew, he said, but an ankle injury limited his ability.
“I used to referee football in high school, but I haven’t done that in a while,” Daniels said. “I’m there to make sure you don’t take off into somebody else, because you can’t see what’s above you.”
An hour later, he returned to his trailer to cool off. A prolonged gust of wind had led to a couple of close calls, he said, but nothing catastrophic. Two balloons had briefly bumped canopies as they flew over the park before parting ways.
Fuquay-Varina Mayor John Byrne and several other town officials were also in line Friday evening for tethered rides. The general verdict from town and festival officials, at least as of 6:30 p.m., was positive.
Despite Friday’s heavy crowds, the bulk of the festivities are still to come. Balloon competitions begin Saturday at 6 a.m. and are scheduled for Sunday and Monday mornings, too. Most of the artists on tap for the festival’s main stage are scheduled to perform Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening.
The towns’ congested road network is a point of frustration among locals in the best of times, and given the gridlock Zebulon experienced as the event’s host last year, traffic has been a chief worry for the town in the months leading up to now.
The event is expected to bring between 60,000 and 80,000 people to the small town, population 24,000, throughout the weekend.
Henry Gargan: 919-460-2604
WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest
When: Saturday to Monday
Where: Fleming Loop Park, 301 Fleming Loop Road, Fuquay-Varina
Cost: Free admission; parking $10. Shuttles from parking lots $5. Tram rides are included in parking fee, or $5 per rider.
Schedule highlights: Competition flights start around 6 a.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. There is a merchants village, children’s area, military displays, live music and pilot meet-and-greets. The mass ascension of all 35 balloons is Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. A hot air balloon glow is at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Live music continues until 10:30 p.m. Tethered and untethered rides are available. A nondenominational church service is Sunday at 10 a.m. A closing ceremony and decommissioning of the field of flags is Monday at 10:30 a.m. At 11:30 a.m., a caravan will leave the park to take flags to military cemeteries.