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Setup for 33rd-annual Plano Balloon Festival starts Tuesday
With a little over a week left until the Plano Balloon Festival returns to Oak Point Park, balloon master Richard Ret is hard at work preparing himself and his crew for the weekend event.
"For me, it's a matter of making sure all my equipment is in good, sound condition [and] that my proficiency is up-to-date," he said. "As a matter of fact, I just went up to fly in Celina on Sunday to get some practice. If you go skiing, the first run is always a little rusty, but then you learn real quick as you go down the mountain and it all comes back to you."
The festival, which is in its 33rd year and sponsored by InTouch Credit Union, will run from Sept. 21-23. This year's event will feature live music, skydiving shows, and -- if all goes according to plan -- an eye-catching selection of eye-grabbing balloons scraping the Collin County skies.
In addition to conducting test flights, Ret said he is keeping a close watch on the same wind and weather data used by airline pilots to make sure he and his crew are well-prepared for the event.
"Balloons are very weather- and wind-dependent as opposed to other aircraft," he said. "We're flying seven-story buildings without a steering wheel, so we have to make sure that the conditions are ideal."
While it will only take three days to bring the electricity and equipment necessary to transform the park into a crowd-ready festival zone and launching point, planning for the event goes back nearly a full year, said Jo Via, executive director for the festival.
"There are so many components," she said. "You've got all of the media; you've got all of the PR that's done for it. You have the marketing sponsors that are procured to help fund it. You have the merchandise vendors, the food concessionaires, the nonprofits, the service providers that man our gates, our parking lots and our kids fun zone ... We have all of the pieces that have to come together to make the festival be successful."
Organizers are currently in the process of finalizing planning and operations, and on-site construction and equipment setup is set to begin Tuesday, Via said.
"The actual logistics of putting everything in place after we get to the park, those are very long days, because we have so much load-in of equipment that has to take place," she said, "but it's all the preparation that's gone on before that makes that easier. We have very extensive maps of where all of the tents go, where all of the lighting goes, where all of the sound equipment goes."
One new feature this year will be an antique car and truck show held Saturday afternoon by the Allen-based Morning Maniacs car club. The 5K, 1K and half-marathon runs -- introduced last year -- will return, an aspect of the event that is expected to draw between 1,200 and 1,500 runners, Via said.
And of course, no Plano Balloon Festival would be complete without some brand-new balloon shapes. This year will feature Cosmos, a new glowing piece that should take off Saturday night, along with a handful of other new, colorful shapes.
"Recruiting special shapes that haven't perhaps flown here before or haven't flown here in a year or two, we think that adds freshness to the festival," Via said. "... Beyond that, it's really just making sure that we continue to do this event in a very professional and well-run manner. We don't ever want to see the operation of this event be anything than top-notch."
Millerann Jockel, marketing assistant for the Plano Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said the event tends to draw many attendees and balloon operators from out-of-town, boosting local tax revenue.
"The balloon festival is one of Plano's most signature events," she said. "Our director, Mark Thompson, always says it showcases everything that's great about Plano, and when people think about Plano, they usually do think about a hot air balloon and associate it with us. Every year, we see about 95,000 visitors at the balloon festival, so it is really exciting for us every year to host such a great event that is so well-known."
Last year's event drew about 85,000 attendees, a number Via said would have been higher if not for the rain that stopped all balloon flights after Friday morning. The last record-breaking event was in 2008, when more than 100,000 attendees came to the festival.
"No matter how much planning we do prior to, how much planning we do the days we're out there setting up the park, it still all comes down to what the weather does because of it being an outdoor event," she said. "That's part of what makes it be fun and challenging."
Ret, who flies in about eight balloon festivals per year, said the Plano festival is one of the more well-run events he is familiar with and that he is looking forward to taking to the skies.
"As far as the ballooning community is concerned, we're all excited," he said. "It's been a long-time running event that's extremely well-run and a wonderful opportunity for families to bring everyone with them out to the event and enjoy a tremendous array of activities and entertainment, and as one of the balloonists we just love to entertain the crowd."