WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest is on the move in its second year, with the popular hot air balloon festival relocating to Fuquay-Varina over 2016’s Memorial Day weekend, organizers announced Wednesday.
The multi-day event, held for the first time in May, drew 85,000 people and more than 40 balloon crews to two sites. Much of the activity took place in Zebulon at Bennett Bunn Plantation, with hot air balloons also set up at Raleigh’s Spring Forest Road Park.
“It’s a very exciting time in Fuquay-Varina,” Mayor John Byrne said. “There’s a lot of good things happening and getting ready to happen, and this is one of them. It’s a big deal. We think it will bring a lot of people into our area and town. It gives a lot of exposure to a fast-growing community.”
But relocating the festival means Zebulon is losing a tourism-generating event, which Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny said disappointed him. Matheny said Wednesday that said he and Chamber of Commerce leaders tried to convince Balloon Fest organizers to stay.
Hoyle said there were several factors in the decision to move the event. The festival committee wanted only one site for the event, which Fuquay-Varina’s large Fleming Loop park can provide.
Hoyle said Fuquay-Varina also is better suited as host it because it’s closer to Fort Bragg – the event was created to honor the military – and the town isn’t along a main road to the coast. With Memorial Day one of the year’s biggest beach weekends, he said, Zebulon’s location along two major east-west highways made traffic a big issue.
The event features balloon rides, both tethered and untethered, along with competitions and “glows,” where dozens of balloons light up as the sun sets. Admission is free with costs for parking and the rides.
Organizers expected 8,000 people the first night but instead had an audience of 20,000, they said. Throughout the weekend, the crowds kept increasing and traffic snarled for miles while attendees parked on the sides of the road or on residents’ lawns. Shuttles experienced delays from Triangle Towne Center and Five County Stadium.
Hoyle, who is a balloon pilot, said organizers are expecting to have 25 to 35 balloons this spring, down from 43 at the inaugural festival.
“It will be a smaller number than we had in 2015,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had a manageable number of balloons in the space but still have plenty of room for spectators, food and vendors.”
There will be more food vendors, he said, to cut down on the long lines. Other additions could include live music, a local chefs competition or something involving Fuquay-Varina’s craft beer scene.
Downtown is within walking distance of the park, which Hoyle said also was a factor in moving the event there.
“They’ve got some great local merchants as well as restaurants (and) three great breweries right there in the heart of the downtown area,” he said.
Staff writer Aaron Moody contributed.