On Cloud Nine

Where can you find a sky full of 35 hot air balloons, more than 20 hours of live music, delicious festival food, a craft wine and beer garden AND 42,000 square feet of kid-friendly amusement?

Nowhere else but the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest, this Memorial Day weekend in Fuquay-Varina.

This expanded programming is a part of the festival’s second year revamp, a response to issues seen last year at the festival in Zebulon when three times as many participants as expected showed up for the first day of the event alone.

“Probably the greatest difference is all of the other programming we have,” said Brian Hoyle, a hot air balloon pilot and lead organizer of the event. “We have a larger number of military displays, we have a merchant village which has more than 60 arts and crafts and other vendors. It’s a lot different – new community, bigger and better!”

Parking this year

Parking this year will be only park and ride, with four lots available to cars coming from Raleigh, Garner and Clayton, Fayetteville and Lillington, Holly Springs and Apex, and Sanford. The cost to park in these lots is $10 a car, and Hoyle suggests carpooling whenever possible.

From these lots, busses will transport people to the festival area. For adults 13 and up, the ride is $5. For those ages 3 to 12 it’s $3, and lap children ride for free.

If you’re from the Fuquay-Varina area or visiting friends there, Hoyle suggests skipping parking altogether and getting transportation to the festival through Fuquay’s tram services. For $5, you can pay and ride all day on the tram, which runs throughout the city.


Honoring military families

“Our field of flags is not new, but it will be expanding,” added Hoyle. “It’s a reflecting place that reminds people of what the real meaning of Memorial Day weekend is about, our military families. We are also going to be able to honor a few members of a select club you don’t want to be a part of: Gold Star families. Those are people who have had a loved one killed in action.

“Those two items are the ones that fill me with a lot of humility,” he said. “I’m honored to be able to provide that uplifting experience with those folks, and also to bring our community together and celebrate how much Fuquay has really rallied behind this.”

Project Uplift, whose mission is to extend the experience of hot air balloons to those in need of mobility assistance, has secured funding from the Raleigh Junior Chamber, aka the Raleigh Jaycees, to create a wheelchair-accessible balloon for the festival.

While traditional hot air balloons require passengers to step over the side, usually with the help of a step ladder, this balloon features a Plexiglas door which can be opened to allow a wheelchair to enter. This design pays tribute both to those veterans who have been injured while in uniform and the rest of the mobility-impaired community.

Fuquay-Varina pride

The festival’s new Fuquay-Varina location has the town excited, and it shows; more than 500 volunteers have signed up to help bring the special day to life.

“We have a good amount of military in our community because of our proximity to Fort Bragg,” said John Byrne, mayor of Fuquay-Varina. “It will be a huge activity for our community and certainly the first of its nature.”

More than six months of planning has put Fuquay-Varina ahead of the curve for an event that Mayor Byrne calls “unique to our southeastern part of the United States.”

In addition to honoring a strong military community, Byrne is excited about the crowd of young people sure to flock to the “state fair feel” of the event.

“This is part of being a dash more, the WRAL Balloon Festival being here,” said Byrne, in a nod to the town’s new slogan. “We’re trying to be a dash more for our community.”

For the full festival schedule, see wralfreedomballoonfest.com.

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