GONZALES — Craig Basden and Judy Reynolds are devoted fair-goers.
The New Orleans couple set their alarm clock for 4 a.m. Saturday to travel to Gonzales for the 2015 Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival.
Basden and Reynolds made it to town in time to watch hot air balloon pilots drop weighted markers from their baskets in attempts to hit a target in a grassy field next to Central Primary School.
The festival grounds opened at 10 a.m. at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, and the pair took in the craft show, had a bite to eat and even took a nap in their car to refresh themselves.
Then they enjoyed perhaps the best part of their day.
Basden and Reynolds paid $20 each to take a tethered ride in a multicolored hot air balloon.
“It was loads of fun,” Basden said. “It was just too short.”
“Once you get off the ground, you don’t even realize you’re floating,” Reynolds said.
Running Saturday and Sunday, this was the fourth year the hot air balloon festival has been held at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
Featuring a family-friendly carnival, children’s village and petting zoo, the festival also offered music, a barbecue cooking competition and car show.
But it may have been the balloons that were the festival’s biggest draw.
Thirty traditional hot air balloons plus three balloons in the shapes of a crab, a cat and a bird traveled to the festival from across the country.
Preliminary attendance estimates show about 54,000 people attended the two-day festival, more than 4,000 more than last year’s event, festival organizers said.
“Again we were blessed with good weather and a steady flow of people wanting to enjoy a family-friendly festival,” Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said.
Festival committee chairman Martin McConnell said attendance figures were estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 people on Friday and 40,000-plus on Saturday.
Children outnumbered adults.
McConnell credited volunteers, balloon teams, law enforcement and first responders with the festival’s success.
Many left the early morning competition and made their way to the festival.
In addition to Basden and Reynolds, a few hundred spectators arrived early Saturday morning at Central Primary School to watch the festival’s first competition, while residents in nearby neighborhoods simply walked outside to see colorful hot air balloons pass over their homes.
A second hot air balloon competition Sunday morning was canceled after bad weather was forecast.
High winds and rainy weather canceled the balloon competitions entirely in 2014, although the festival still went on as planned, attracting as many as 50,000 people, officials said last year.
At the festival grounds, the line to take a tethered balloon ride stretched past the daiquiri and food tents Saturday.
The line didn’t deter New Orleans residents Brianne Baham and her 4-year-old daughter, Mariah Baham, and friend Justin Fabre, who had just arrived at the festival.
“It’s been on my bucket list forever,” Brianne Baham said of riding in a hot air balloon. “It’ll be worth it.”
Festivalgoers brought chairs and blankets to relax in while watching the tethered balloons fly and to enjoy the ever-popular balloon glow on Friday and Saturday nights.
The festival’s carnival also attracted a large crowd.
Jolie and Jason Culpepper, of Gonzales, brought their 5-year-old daughter, Kaylee, to enjoy Saturday’s festivities.
Kaylee played a balloon-popping carnival game “because I wanted this,” Kaylee said, holding up a sparkly baton she had won. “I want to do that again.”