GONZALES — Get ready for the return of hot air balloons over Ascension Parish.
The 2014 Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival continues its colorful competition Sept. 26-27 at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center. This year, the event offers more family-oriented attractions designed to attract festivalgoers of all ages.
Popular events like the festival’s balloon glows, tethered balloon rides and fireworks will continue, but new attractions this year include a carnival, a barbecue competition, an indoor craft show by Steinhauer Productions and live rhythm and blues music.
That’s a change from the festival’s two previous years at Lamar-Dixon when the hot air balloon competitions were the main attractions, said Martin McConnell, sales and marketing director with Lamar-Dixon and chairman of Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council Inc.
“People would come during the day in anticipation of the balloons arriving and they would be here and there was nothing for them to do,” McConnell said. “We want them to have plenty to do.”
While the city of Gonzales is known for its annual Jambalaya Festival and Donaldsonville has its Sunshine Festival, McConnell said he hopes the Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival will put Ascension Parish on the map.
“This is the festival we want to make the signature event of Ascension Parish,” McConnell said. “It’s a great showcase for Ascension Parish.”
The colorful, towering balloons are still the main attraction for many and preparations for the more than 30 balloons registered for the event falls on the shoulders of longtime balloonist Robert Ambeau.
Ambeau will get just a few hours shut-eye each night of the festival because of his many responsibilities as director of balloon flight operations.
Ambeau must schedule the balloons for the competitions, line up sponsor rides with each balloon pilot and oversee all other balloon field activity, including the tethered rides and inflations, he said.
Up between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. each morning to prepare for the 7 a.m. competition flights, Ambeau will take only a short afternoon rest, then it’s back to work until after 8 p.m. tallying up the scores for each of the pilots.
“With a good staff, it definitely makes the work easier,” Ambeau said. “I have a lot of good people helping me put this together.”
Although Ambeau did not participate in last year’s hot air balloon festival, he served as balloon flight operations director in 2012 at Lamar-Dixon and piloted his recognizable Coca-Cola balloon for many years when the festival was held at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.
To be a part of the festival again, and have it be only minutes from his Gonzales home, is truly a joy, he said.
“It’s terrific when you can have it at home and all your friends are right here with you to support you and to cheer you on,” Ambeau said. “It’s even bigger and better because of that, because of the relationship you have with your friends.”
There are two other local pilots from Ascension Parish participating in the festival.
John Good, who Ambeau said is in the “denture business,” will be piloting the recognizable “molar” balloon with a large tooth on its side and Leslie Jeansonne will fly a beautifully colored balloon.
More than balloons
Admission is $2 for everyone ages 13 and older and free for children ages 12 and younger.
Gates open to the public at 4 p.m. Sept. 26, and the festival kicks off with live music by Baton Rouge performer Don Berry and his band. Blues singer Jonathon “Boogie” Long and the Blues Revolution will take the stage at 6:30 p.m.
Special-shaped balloons will begin inflating at 6:30 p.m. followed by the popular balloon glow at 7 p.m. each night.
Two of the special-shaped balloons include the Pepe Le Pew balloon and the Purple People Eater balloon, Ambeau said.
“It definitely draws a big crowd,” Ambeau said. “Even the older kids, like 40 and older, love the special-shaped balloons.”
The festival will also feature a Children’s Village, with face-painting, a petting zoo and inflatables, plus a carnival with rides and attractions presented by the Mitchell Brothers, the same company that runs the Jambalaya Festival carnival, McConnell said.
Carnival tickets and ride bracelets will be available to purchase.
Gates will open to the public at 10 a.m. Sept. 27, and the day’s events feature a “Battle of the Badges” barbecue competition made up of local police officers, fire fighters and emergency responders.
Also on day two of the festival, Play Dirty Adventure, a 3-mile trail run, will offer 20 wild and muddy obstacles for paying participants and a shorter 1-mile “Mini Muck” for kids ages 6-13.
A new flight pattern for the balloon competition also promises increased visibility throughout the parish, officials said.
In 2013, the balloon competition flight paths took the balloons near wooded areas and chemical plants by the Louisiana Regional Airport in Gonzales and Lamar-Dixon which prevented many residents from seeing the balloons, Ambeau said.
This year, pilots will fly from other locations which should make it “much more visible for the people of Ascension to see the balloon flights,” Ambeau said.
More than 30 balloons are expected to compete in competition flights Sept. 27 and Sept. 28. The festival grounds will not be open Sept. 28 during competitions.
Balloonists will launch at 7 a.m. both days and fly to a designated target where pilots will drop a bean bag and try to hit the target’s center, Ambeau said.
The closer the bean bag hits to the target’s center, the more points the pilot earns, he said.
The second competition of the day, called “The Hare and the Hound Race,” begins when a balloon launches from the first target site and flies to a second target with other balloons chasing it, Ambeau said.
The pilot of the “hare” balloon will fly 30 to 45 minutes, land, then drop another target for the “hound” balloons to hit, Ambeau said.
The popularity of the event in years past has caused traffic snarls and McConnell estimates 30,000 people will attend this year’s festival.
Local law enforcement and government officials have studied traffic patterns during the past two years and have worked hard so “we can move traffic in and out as smoothly as possible,” McConnell said.
Parking at Lamar-Dixon is free during the festival, he said.
The festival’s primary entrance outside Lamar-Dixon is off St. Landry Road, but McConnell also said festivalgoers can enter off Ashland Road toward the back of the facility.
The nonprofit organization Volunteer Ascension is handling the scheduling and recruitment of volunteers to work at the balloon festival, said Ascension Parish Tourism Director Tracy Browning.
“And we do still need plenty of volunteers,” Browning said.
Festivalgoers are encouraged to bring their own chairs but ice chests and pets are prohibited.