The upcoming balloon fest, scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend, is arguably the biggest event to hit Fuquay-Varina in its history. Projected to attract between 60,000 and 80,000 attendees over three days, volunteers, local organizations and town staff have been working hard since last fall to insure that the entire community benefits from the influx of visitors. The hope of all involved is that this event will make Fuquay-Varina a destination spot for residents in other communities who still think Fuquay-Varina is a sleepy little farming town.
“Because the WRAL Balloon Fest is one of the country’s premiere hot air balloon events, Fuquay-Varina will welcome the largest number of visitors in our history over Memorial Day,” Mayor John Byrne shares. “Balloon festivals are destination events with activities planned from sunrise to well after sunset, bringing visitors from near and far to patronize local businesses and restaurants. The economic development potential is substantial and, working together, we have a tremendous opportunity to make the most of the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest.”
The balloon fest was created in 2015 and held in Zebulon after another balloon festival in Greenville, South Carolina folded and opened up a spot on the balloon festival circuit. The Triangle hadn’t hosted a balloon festival in over 25 years, and Brian Hoyle from Hot Air Marketing felt it was time to change that.
“I’ve seen the magic of what events like these can do as a community and cultural resource,” Hoyle explains. “It brings together families and folks from all walks of life to engage in something that lifts everyone’s spirits, if not their bodies.” Hoyle is a Raleigh native and the festival’s primary organizer.
The festival’s name is inspired by its primary beneficiary; military veterans and their needs/issues. The WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest is admission-free and is sponsored by a large number of other local corporations and organizations. The goal of the event is to bring visibility to veterans’ issues and raise funds for several local military veterans’ organizations that work on those issues.
In its first year, the festival encountered a number of logistical issues with the festival’s location. Organizers needed to look for a new location. After scouting a number of other communities, Fuquay-Varina emerged as the most suitable location in terms of quality flying areas and core logistics such as major roadways, weekend traffic patterns, and the availability of a site big enough for the balloons themselves. They also liked the excitement that an event of this size generated in the community.
“Fuquay-Varina is a vibrant town with the capacity to grow this festival for years to come,” says Hoyle. “Once we indicated our interest in moving the festival here, we were impressed with the outpouring of support from business leaders, volunteer and community groups, and churches. It reinforced that the decision to come to Fuquay-Varina was a good one.”
The festival itself will begin earlier in the week preceding Memorial Day with invitation-only events including a Wednesday, May 25, VIP-Sponsor Reception and tethered balloon rides for military families coping with mobility challenges, as well as other populations needing additional assistance to enjoy hot air balloons. On Thursday, the Fuquay-Varina Downtown Association will hold a Balloon Fest Preview Party in the downtown Fuquay retail district. It will include food, entertainment, and hot air balloon basket displays. Other associated events planned by the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Association, and the Fuquay-Varina Arts Council are designed to enhance a weekend filled with activity.
Beginning Friday afternoon, however, the bulk of the activity will take place at the soccer fields at Fleming Road Park just off Rt. 42 west of town, beginning with an opening ceremony with presentation of colors, a dedication of the festival’s Field of Flags, and a hot air balloon mass ascension. More than 30 balloon pilots and their teams from around the nation will be in place and providing activities for young and old through Monday morning, May 30th.
On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, those willing to wake up clearly can watch some of the balloons take flight. “It’s a great way to do a family breakfast and watch the balloons coming into the festival site,” Hoyle says.
Hot air balloons will only fly in the mornings and late afternoons/evenings over the weekend, but there will be plenty to see and do during the day. Pilots and their teams will be available to meet the public. There will be lots of food, a Merchant’s Village with great novelty items and art, as well as children’s activities such as martial arts, face painting, balloon art, and more. Live music throughout each afternoon and evening will be offset by balloon and pilot team demonstrations, and maybe even an auction.
Competitive balloon flights will be staged during the weekend’s slate of activities, and festival-goers can learn about ballooning up close through pilot meet-and-greets, tethered balloon rides and evening balloon glows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights (wind and weather permitting). School and youth outreach programming is already underway to teach children about ballooning, as Hoyle believes hot air ballooning is a way to inspire children to explore new interests.
Admission to the event will be free, but there will be no public parking at the event site. Organizers have arranged for more than 30 acres of off-site parking with a shuttle bus (there will be a small fee). Additional public and charity operated parking lots will be located across the city; many will be convenient to a planned “pay once-ride all day” tram system.
A festival of this size will require the help of hundreds of volunteers. Organizers are working to register volunteers well ahead of the event and train them so they are prepared in advance. It is expected that this event will need over 300 volunteers each day, in such areas as office skills, hospitality, and balloon team assistants. If you and your family would like to help with this labor-intensive event, you can visit the balloon festival website at www.freedomballoonfest.com and click on the Volunteer tab.
Both the Chamber of Commerce and the Town are looking at this festival as a way of bringing people to the community who don’t know what Fuquay-Varina has to offer. The potential of 60,000 people trying out local restaurants and shopping at local retail stores is so profound festival organizers have held orientation sessions to help local business owners and nonprofit organizations gear up for the expected spike of activity. More seminars are planned by the Chamber of Commerce to help restaurants prepare to be ambassadors to the community as they serve the thousands of visitors that will be in town that weekend.
As plans continue to develop for this major event, residents can watch the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest Facebook page and the event’s website at www.freedomballoonfest.com. Make your plans to be in town for Memorial Day and enjoy a unique activity that Fuquay-Varina hopes will become an annual event!