The WRAL Freedom Balloon Festival returns to Fuquay-Varina this weekend.
The annual event, now in its third year, features dozens of hot air balloons and also entertainment, food and other activities. Organizers are expecting about 80,000 festival-goers this year at Fleming Loop Park over Memorial Day weekend.
Here’s what you need to know if you plan to go.
What’s the best time to go?
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The festival begins at 2 p.m. Friday and ends at noon Monday. The park closes each night around 10:30 p.m.
If you want to see balloons up in the air, it’s best to go early in the morning or in the evening. Competitive balloon flights begin at 6:15 a.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The balloons will ascend en masse around 6:30 p.m. each day, weather permitting.
Tethered balloon rides are available beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
A “balloon glow” on the ground will begin at dusk, around 8:30 p.m. each evening, when pilots will light up their balloons on the main field.
Last year, Friday and Saturday were the busiest days of the event – mostly because it rained Sunday.
How much does it cost?
Admission is free.
Tethered balloon rides are $20, cash only, and tickets are sold on a first-come first-served basis. Line up early if you can. Untethered rides can be booked directly through the pilots participating in the festival; those typically run about $300 per flight.
Food trucks and restaurant pop-ups will be on site, and local businesses will sell various products at the Merchant, Arts & Crafts Vendor Village.
Where should I park?
Festival-goers are encouraged to park in downtown Fuquay-Varina and walk about three-quarters of a mile to Fleming Loop Park along a new sidewalk on Academy Street.
This is a change from last year, when people parked in four large satellite lots and rode shuttles to the festival.
Organizers are still working with private lot owners to add new parking options and updating the festival website – freedomballoonfest.com – which features an up-to-date map of lots.
Parking in most town-operated lots is free, and most private lots charge $10 for a day. Lots closest to the park charge $20 per day.
Handicap accessible parking is available.
Organizers are urging patience between 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., when people tend to leave at once.
Can I bring lawn chairs?
Festival-goers should probably also want to wear shoes they’re comfortable walking around in.
By design, balloon festival sites don’t have much tree cover (balloons and trees don’t get along), which means it’s up to you to protect yourself from the sun and drink plenty of water as you amble about the park’s 26 acres of open field.
What else can I do and see at the festival?
Check out live music – 19 mostly local acts – on the main stage. If you’re 21 or older, enjoy a beverage from the expanded beer garden.
Younger attendees can amuse themselves at the Fun Zone, which will feature bounce houses and games.
The Disc Connected K-9 Frisbee Dogs will perform throughout the weekend, and a classic car show is set for Sunday afternoon.
On Sunday morning, the event will host a non-denominational worship service.
What about downtown Fuquay-Varina?
The town is encouraging visitors to park downtown because last year’s setup kept people from exploring Fuquay-Varina’s core, disappointing business owners who had counted on heavy foot traffic that weekend.
This year, downtown restaurants and other businesses hope festival-goers will stop by. A list of businesses can be found online at fuquay-varinadowntown.com.
What’s the history of the festival?
Balloon enthusiast Brian Hoyle began the festival in 2015 in Zebulon but moved it to Fuquay-Varina last year after traffic gridlock and parking issues plagued the eastern Wake location.
With a few exceptions, the event’s first year in Fuquay-Varina went off smoothly. Hoyle and his organization, Project Uplift, have since signed a five-year agreement with the town to keep the festival at Fleming Loop Park through 2022.
Intentionally scheduled for Memorial Day weekend each year, the “Freedom” in Freedom Balloon Festival is a nod to a variety of events held in honor of veterans and active-duty service members.
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan