Monday, June 13, 2011

Seventh annual Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival takes flight Friday in Foley

Gulf Coast Balloon Festival - night glow.jpgBalloons light up during a night glow at a previous Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival.

FOLEY, Alabama -- Many festivals have a variety of things to see and do around the grounds of the event, but starting Friday, the sights to see with the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival could be all around south Baldwin County.
As of Friday, 49 balloonists had signed up to take part in the seventh annual festival, which is sponsored by the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce. The event will be based at the Foley Soccer Complex on U.S. 98 east of Baldwin County 65, but balloons will be filling the skies around the area in the mornings and evenings between Friday and Sunday, Tommy Rachel, one of the festival organizers, said.
"We’ll have a media flight Friday morning and then competition flights Saturday and Sunday morning," he said. "We’ll also have fly-ins and night glows Friday and Saturday nights, which are always popular."
Rachel said competition flights this year will include contests in which balloons fly to the complex from other areas and pilots attempt to drop a tennis ball into a kayak floating in the park pond.
Rachel, a local balloon pilot, said the Foley festival has grown in popularity among hot-air balloonists around the region. This year, balloons from as far away as Ohio are scheduled to take part.
"We’ve got a lot of really good people who come back every year. Maybe a half dozen are new to the festival," Rachel said. "Several people who’ve been here before from Louisiana and Missouri had to cancel because of the flooding over there."
Rachel said that since the festival began in 2005, the event has grown in popularity with balloonists from around the Southeast and beyond.
"They like the whole atmosphere of the area," he said. "The people are always very nice. It’s a nice place to fly, it’s very level and the scenery is magnificent. The chamber does an incredible job of taking care of everyone."
He said some coastal hotels and condos also help with the event by donating lodgings for pilots and area businesses contribute prizes for the competitions.
Balloons fly at times when the winds are most calm, around dawn and dusk. At those times, if the weather cooperates, the flights will be visible in Foley area skies flying into or out of the soccer complex.
Other popular events scheduled to take place this year are the night glows set for Friday and Saturday evenings. About half the balloons taking part in the festival will be inflated at sunset with the gas flames used to heat the air illuminating the multi-colored aircraft.
Between flights, during the day, the festival grounds will be filled with arts and crafts displays, food vendors, entertainment and other activities, according to organizers. This year, the Disc-Connected K9’s, Frisbee-catching dogs will return with nine performances scheduled over the weekend. The dogs, all rescued from animal shelters, have been a popular attraction at past festivals.
The festival brings in about 60,000 visitors over the three days the event takes place, Donna Watts, chamber president, said.
"Last year was a little bit light because we didn’t have the people down here with the spill, but things are looking good right now and I think we could have a really strong year if the weather holds out," Watts said.
Foley Mayor John Koniar said the event has grown into a major event for the area.
"The Balloon Festival has become an economic boon for the area with almost 50 balloons and the visitors coming down here," he said. "It brings people to our hotels, restaurants and businesses."
Admission to the festival is free, but visitors who want to park on the site, at the Foley Soccer Park on U.S. 98, will be charged $5. Participants can also take free shuttles provided by the Baldwin Rural Area Transportation System. The shuttles will pick up passengers at Tanger Outlets on Ala. 59, Foley Elementary School on U.S. 98, and Heritage Park, east of the intersection of Ala. 59 and U.S. 98.
For more information about the festival, call the chamber at 251-943-3291 or go to

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