GONZALES — Although the hot air balloon competitions were canceled due to bad weather, an estimated 50,000 spectators still enjoyed the carnival and other family attractions held Friday and Saturday at the Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
Festivalgoers did see the popular balloon glows Friday and Saturday nights and the balloon-tethered rides went up both nights as well, said Martin McConnell, Lamar-Dixon sales and marketing director.
An early-Friday-morning media flight provided one of the only opportunities for the balloons to take flight.
It was disappointing the competitions were canceled but, “unfortunately, they were just not able to fly,” McConnell said.
That hasn’t stopped the organizers from planning next year’s balloon festival for the last weekend in September.
The festival’s committee plans on meeting to discuss “what did we do wrong, what did we do right and what will be done differently next year,” McConnell said.
As in years past, heavy traffic was an issue for the festival Friday and Saturday evenings with some people waiting as long as an hour to get from the highway to the Lamar-Dixon grounds, McConnell said.
McConnell said local law enforcement did a terrific job handling traffic flow but said traffic could not be avoided when thousands of visitors came around the same time to see events taking place in the early evenings.
“Obviously, this is something we’re going to continue to study and continue to address,” McConnell said. “Every time something goes wrong, you have the opportunity to see how to make it right. That’s going to be a big topic of discussion in the upcoming months: What we can do to make the traffic more efficient?”
McConnell and organizers are confident issues can be worked out.
“The balloons will be back in Ascension Parish bigger and better than ever,” said Robert Ambeau, the festival’s balloon flight operations director.
“We’re all very tired but very gratified,” McConnell said. “We feel we had a very successful festival.”
Weather interrupts flight
High winds on Saturday morning kept more than 30 hot air balloons grounded and on Sunday morning, light rain forecasted to turn heavy canceled the competition, Ambeau said.
Kinnie Gibson, of Longview, Texas, was the only balloon pilot at Central Primary School, the festival’s launch point for the balloon flight competitions, Saturday morning.
He posed for pictures with spectators in front of his balloon basket but not did launch.
Gibson said wind can make it difficult and even dangerous for hot air balloons during landing.
“This will get to be a small field in 12-mph winds,” Gibson said, motioning to the large field surrounded by homes and trees behind the primary school.
Ambeau said the balloons would be unable to stop and hit stationary objects if high winds blew the pilots off course.
“It blows us right into the different types of obstacles because we don’t have brakes,” Ambeau said.
Ambeau acknowledged the disappointment of balloon fans and pilots who had traveled to the festival from long distances but said it was more important for people to go home safe and sound.
Festival officials canceled the competitions on social media as early as possible each morning but many spectators filled Central Primary School’s parking lot Saturday without knowing the light breeze would affect the competition.
Only a few spectators showed up Sunday morning to find the school’s gates locked.
Turnout beats expectations
Although no balloons flew over Ascension Parish, McConnell said he and festival officials were “flabbergasted” with the event’s turnout.
McConnell estimated 15,000 people attended Friday afternoon and evening and about 35,000 people all day Saturday.
“We were hoping for 30,000 for the whole weekend and we got 50,000,” McConnell said.
It is the third year the festival was held at Lamar-Dixon and in 2013, the festival attracted about 35,000 people but ended up with nearly $158,400 in unpaid expenses, festival officials have said.
A reduced balloon event, an increased bid to seek sponsors and a revamped volunteer committee this year helped bring the festival in the black even before the event began Friday.
Festival tickets for those 13 and older cost $2. McConnell said it was too early to know how much of a profit the festival made.
Families enjoy festival
Another change to this year’s festival was the addition of more family-friendly attractions like a carnival, barbecue competition and musical acts designed to keep spectators at the Lamar-Dixon grounds.
Taking advantage of the festival’s carnival — and maybe their grandmother — brothers Braedyn Lessard, 3, and Levi Lessard, 8, won purple stuffed lobsters at a fishing game.
Karen Estey, the boys’ grandmother, said she had brought them to the festival “just to spend the day out” and had seen the classic car show and ridden some fun rides.
Estey said she hoped to see some hot air balloons later in the day.
Lexi Achord, 6, of Geismar, attended the festival with her mom, Rebecca Achord, and 2-year old sister, Payton Achord.
Lexi braved the Cliffhanger, a “scary but fun” hang-glider-type ride where she lay horizontal to the ground and flew around in a circle very high off the ground, she said.
The Ferris wheel “scared my belly a little,” Lexi said.
The smells of barbecue
Farther out on the Lamar-Dixon grounds, the smell of barbecue attracted many spectators to the festival’s Battle of the Badges barbecue competition that pitted firefighters, emergency responders and police officers against each other.
But the competition’s grand champion team wasn’t made up of police officers or firefighters.
The competition’s Best Overall Winner award went to the LPSO BBQ team, which represented the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office.
A cousin of one of the team members is with the Sheriff’s Office and when family asked the team to represent the agency, the team gladly agreed.
“We love doing it,” said Josh Olah, LPSO BBQ team member.
The LPSO BBQ team also took first place in the competition’s chicken and rib divisions, officials said.
Runner-up for the chicken and brisket divisions was the Sorrento Volunteer Fire Department’s Flame-Throwers team.
“Never call us out because we will come with everything we got,” Sorrento Fire Assistant Chief Richard Bercegeay said.
Sorrento Fire Chief Nelson Pinion said the competition was a good way to interact with other law enforcement agencies and emergency responders, even with ones from Ascension Parish that they don’t normally see.
“It lets us get to know them all,” Pinion said.
The Gonzales Police Department’s Heavy Hitters team went home with the runner-up award in the ribs division.
“All you can do is cook it and hope they like it, too,” said Patrol Sgt. Gary Ferrari Jr., of the Gonzales Police Department.
Other winners included the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office’s Top Smoke team, which won first place in the brisket division.