The 16th annual Big Country Balloon Fest started this morning at 7:30 a.m. in Redbud Park.
The Optimist Unlimited Club of Abilene holds the Balloon Fest each year as its major fundraiser. Vendor Chairman Michelle Dean said the Balloon Fest brings in money to help Abilene children.
“We help raise scholarships for local seniors, we help send cancer patients to cancer camps, and support the deaf and the blind – we basically help all kids,” Dean said. “This is not just a local club -Â we have chapters all over the country.”
One of the most popular activities at the festival is the balloon glow at 8:30 p.m. Friday night. The balloonists line up their balloons and light them from the inside.
At the festival, visitors can ride in the balloons, or go up in tethered balloons. There will also be fun-runs, staged entertainment and multiple food and craft stalls.
The Balloon Fest is held each year during the last weekend of September, in time for the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in early October.
“This is the biggest balloon festival in West Texas,” Dean said, “Most participants are on their way to Albuquerque. It holds one of the largest festivals in the country, so a lot of people come here on the way there.”
Many balloonists attend events like the Big Country Balloon Fest to help communities and programs they support.
Pat Harwell, a hot air balloonist, and his two crew chiefs, Frankie McCall and Joey Scapinatto, came to town early to visit children at the Hendrick Home for Children. They gave them tether rides and showed them how a balloon works before the festival started.
“Hot air balloonists are all pretty big-hearted people. We like to do stuff like this for kids,” Harwell said. “This is my whole crew’s gift to the children.”
This is Harwell’s sixth year to attend the Big Country Balloon Fest. Harwell, who has been ballooning for over 20 years, and hisÂ crew do about 15 balloon events a year, including balloon rides and tethers for churches.
Parking should not be an issue at the festival this year. Visitors are encouraged to park at the Mall of Abilene by Pier 1 Imports, where The Optimist Unlimited Club will shuttle them to the park.
For a schedule of events at the Balloon Fest, visit bigcountryballoonfest.com. Admission to the park is free.