Bayou Road Balloon Festival Soars in St. Bernard Parish

Hot air balloon festival becomes a new local tradition

By Sarah Ravits

 

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The inaugural Bayou Road Balloon Festival, held at Sidney D. Torres Memorial Park in St. Bernard Parish, soared beyond expectations and will now be an annual event, says director Mike Zalaznik.

The three-day fete took place over Veterans’ Day Weekend (coinciding with the area’s annual parade) and drew in about 30,000 people of all ages who celebrated with South Louisiana cuisine, live local music and other festivities, including the main attraction: hot air balloons.

Zalaznik, a longtime producer of the HBA’s New Orleans Home & Garden Show, came up with the idea for the hot air balloon festival in the spring of 2017, inspired by board member Brian Mills , who is a longtime hot air balloon pilot. Zalaznik had been thinking outside the box and exploring options to bring in another partnering event with the HBA.

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“One of our board members is a balloon pilot, so we started to talk about that. We cover seven parishes — we wanted to put it in a different parish than the home show [which takes place in Orleans Parish].”

St. Bernard Parish, he notes, didn’t recover from Hurricane Katrina as quickly as its neighbors of Orleans and Jefferson parishes. But now, the area is experiencing economic growth, new businesses, improved infrastructure and new homes.

Last year, for example, “we had seven homes in St. Bernard Parish in the Parade of Homes,” he says. “It kind of opened people’s eyes that St. Bernard is coming back, and property value is going up. So we wanted to do this festival and see if the infrastructure and support was there. Everything looked good, and the Parish was really excited about it.”

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“[The area] is really starting to pick up speed,” says Zalaznik. Part of the effort was to bring people in from other parishes who might not normally venture east seeking entertainment.

“There’s this perception that [St. Bernard] is a lot further away than it really is,” he says, noting that it’s only about a 10-15 minute drive from hotspots like New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The majority of the attendees of the Bayou Road Balloon Festival were from outside the parish, which he feels is a tremendous accomplishment. And despite its numerous attractions, the entrance fee was just $5.

He cites the willingness of Parish leaders and sponsors as part of the reason the event went so smoothly. “The sheriff’s office, the Parish president and the Parish council were really welcoming and supportive,” he said.

Another reason for the event’s success was due to the close-knit camaraderie of what he refers to as the “balloon community.”

“It’s a whole other subculture,” he says, referring to the family and friends of balloon pilots — all of whom appear to be — unsurprisingly — a fun-loving and kind group of people.

To organize a balloon festival of this caliber, Zalaznik says it’s required to hire a “Balloon Meister” (yes, that is a real title). In this case, it was Matt Torgerson who was given the designation and who rounded up a total of 16 colleagues from around the world to help make this a success.

“He was in charge of wrangling up balloon pilots. It’s a very close community; they go to festivals all around the country and they know each other really well,” notes Zalaznik.

Balloon Meister Torgerson was also responsible for overseeing paperwork, making sure that all equipment was up-to-date and going over safety precautions.

Safety is a huge concern, as is weather. Thanks to responsible planning, guests at the festival were able to experience brief rides about 50 feet into the air to view St. Bernard from above via tethered balloons.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people were able to enjoy these rides,” he says. “The tethered rides lasted a few minutes — enough to get up and hover for a while, look around and view the landscape and the festival.”

Plus, he says, at night, everyone was in awe of the glowing balloons above the water
“They glow like lightbulbs — it’s really a spectacular scene.”

For those who chose to remain on the ground, a number of other activities took place, including the “Land of the Giants” game area, which featured a larger-than-life Jenga” game and a massive inflatable dart board. There was also an area with carnival rides, dozens of food booths and arts and crafts for sale.

The festival also featured 10 live bands who kept guests dancing, including Category 6, Apollo’s Crows, Voodoo Gumbo, New Rebel Family, Christian Serpas & Ghost Town, Noisewater, Pocket Aces Brass Band, Woodenhead, Rayo Brothers and Cypress Pop Trio.

Zalaznik plans to make this hot air balloon festival a tradition in St. Bernard Parish.

“The community really embraced this event,” he notes.

“It was fun because the audience really got to participate,” he says. “I think some of the kids will want to be balloon pilots when they grow up now — even I’m wanting to get my pilot’s license now.”

 

 

 

 

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