The loveable Winnie the Pooh might have said it best: “Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.”
That statement was certainly true during Saturday night’s Balloon Glow event at The Villages Polo Fields, as several thousand people came out to get up close and personal with majestic hot air balloons boasting an array of bright colors.
“This is awesome!” said a beaming Sandy Foreman, of the Village of Pinellas, as she activated a propane burner to light up the inside of pilot Bubba Winston’s 10-story-high purple balloon. “It’s my first time being this close to a hot air balloon and it’s just phenomenal.”
Like Foreman, the 72-year-old veteran pilot was all smiles as he answered questions and shared information about his Eagle balloon named Cristel Delight.
“It’s like owning a Studebaker,” Winston said of the balloon he first started flying in 1985. “You’ve got to fix it yourself and you can’t find parts.”
Winston and his wife Pat – they’ve been married 51 years today – own a home in the Village of Largo but spend most of their time in the Richmond, Va., area. It was there in 1985 that the hot air balloon bug first bit Winston after a man who owned a ballooning business invited him on a flight.
“When I came home that night, Pat asked, ‘How did you like it.’ I said, ‘I bought it.’”
Like Winston, pilot Jim Duncan, who owns a home in Warm Mineral Springs and another in New Jersey, has been flying since the early 1980s. He was the first to make his hot air balloon, Cloud 9, roar to life Saturday night. And he was assisted by a longtime friend and fellow pilot, Ian Foy, of Towson, Md., who also owns a home at Love Field in Weirsdale.
“We were just down here a month ago, but he called me up a week ago and said, ‘Do you want to go back to Florida and play with balloons?’” Foy recalled. “I said, ‘Pick me up.’”
Meanwhile, Bud Hebrlee, of the Village of Dunedin, was getting ready to inflate his bright yellow balloon named Diamond Girl in honor of his wife, Judith. Both agreed that their favorite part of ballooning is quite simple.
“We meet so many interesting people from all over the world, from many walks of life,” Bud said.
“And we remain friends over the years,” Judith added. “So it’s really a neat sport.”
For Patrick Fogue, a longtime pilot from Columbia, Mo., who is overseeing the three-day event, part of the goal is to reintroduce the Sunshine State to ballooning.
“We haven’t had any competitive stuff down here for a long time,” said Fogue, who pilots balloons for companies such as Pepsi, IMTS and Marvin Windows. “That’s something we’d like to see come back.”
Fogue said he hopes the Balloon Glow, which wraps up Sunday night, helps accomplish that goal and more.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “This is a good area to fly in, so there’s a possibility of doing something on a much bigger scale here and competitive balloon events.”
For those in the crowd Saturday night, the anticipation was high as pilots meticulously prepared their aircraft for the show.
“We’ve experienced this in other parts of the country and I hope it can become an annual event here,” said Village of LaBelle resident Art Donnelly, who serves as the VHA’s assistant vice president for the South Region. “We were hoping to come (Friday) night but the weather was a little tough. But tonight should be fantastic.”
Caterina Taylor and Nancy Engle, along with a group of friends, came from Orlando. While both said improvements are needed in parking and bathroom facilities, they were more than enamored with the hot air balloons.
“They’re beautiful and this polo field is really nice,” Taylor said.
Added Engle: “I’ve been up in hot air balloons, but I haven’t been amongst eight of them. I love it.”
Ocala’s Paul LaRocco agreed, adding that he’s always wanted to experience a hot air balloon ride.
“I just want to go up and look below and see the world,” said LaRocco, who was enjoying the day alongside sons Paul Jr., 24 and Nick, 22; daughter Jessica, 17; and Nick’s girlfriend, Allie Poirier, 23. “It’s exciting to get off the couch and experience life before you’re rendered to the couch.”