It was Ashley Rowles’ first time seeing a hot air balloon in person. The Jacksonville resident heard about The Villages Balloon Festival via social media and decided to pay a visit to her friends, Village of Pennecamp residents Doreen Buresh and Rodney Hampton, to see the colorful, 700-pound balloons in person. Mother Nature intervened for a short time Friday, but once the sun began to set and the wind died down, about 15 hot air balloons filled the field at The Villages Polo Club for the first night of the inaugural The Villages Balloon Festival. Day one of the three-day event featured tethered flights and a balloon glow after sunset.
Vendors at Fly Me to the Food alley served such fare as gyros, turkey legs and corn dogs. Arts and craft booths offered handmade soaps, henna tattoos, beaded jewelry and more. And six bounce houses and a hay maze kept younger attendees busy in the Kid’s Zone.
Balloon Meister Dan Stukas, a former pilot with Delta Air Lines for 25 years and a hot air balloon pilot for 30, was at the polo club bright and early opening day, checking with crews to make sure everything was in working order.
Stukas, who has been a ballon meister with his wife, Susan, for 30 years, said the lack of power lines in The Villages made organizing the event a breeze.
“Not only am I satisfied, but I’ve been going to balloon events forever, (and) this is pristine,” he said.
Although the wind forced officials to cancel Friday’s balloon flight competition, Stukas expects balloons will have no trouble going up the rest of the weekend. He said the crowd will enjoy the competition, called Hare and the Hounds, twice today if weather permits.
In the competition, a spot on the field is marked with an “X.” Pilots attempt to drop bean bags on the mark, and the pilot who throws the closest bean bag wins.
Judy and Floyd Crosby, of the Village Rio Grande, got to the event early to enjoy the festivities and entertainment before watching the balloons light up the sky.
Floyd’s favorite balloon was one shaped like an eagle.
“It reminds me of the USA,” he said.
But Judy preferred a yellow balloon with stripes because of its more traditional look.
“I just love hot air balloons,” Judy said. “We used to live in Morgantown, West Virginia, and they had a balloon festival every year. They’d pass by over the second floor of our house.”
Helen Wesolowski, of the Village of Fenney, arrived before sunset to see the balloons glow. She passed the time by trying out a cheeseburger from a food vendor and was looking forward to some Italian sausage, too.
“I just always really liked (hot air balloons), and I’ve never been close enough to see any,” Wesolowski said. “I want to see all the different colors glowing at night.”
As the sky darkened, fire shot up the center of the balloons to light them up. The crowd exclaimed.
Rowles was the first in line for a tethered balloon ride.
After her trip up, she couldn’t resist standing by to watch those who went after her.
“It was awesome, absolutely awesome,” she said. “I’ve never been up (in a balloon), and the sun was setting. I could see far and still see all the balloons behind me. It was amazing. I can’t describe it. Amazing is the only word.”
The inaugural The Villages Balloon Festival continues from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and Sunday.
Parking is available at the Polo Cllub, but a satellite lot near The Fresh Market, 3740 Wedgewood Lane, will open if necessary, and attendees will be shuttled back and forth.
Tethered balloon rides can be booked onsite for $20 for adults and $10 for children.
General admission is $15 for adults and $10 for ages 11-18. Children 10 and under get in free. Tickets can be purchased at the gate or at thevillagesballoonfestival.com.