Citrus Classic Balloon Festival flying high; breaks attendance records
By Peggy Kelly
Santa Paula News
Published: July 31, 2013
Record crowds attended the 6th Annual Citrus Classic Balloon Festival, which lit up the sky east of Santa Paula with a Saturday spectacular Glow that thrilled more than 8,000 visitors. Although festival weekend had periods of wind and fog that impacted balloon pilot competitions, for the most part there was plenty of floating time in tethered balloons if you timed it right.
“I didn’t get to go up,” said Theresa Badour of Oxnard, who admitted flying above the city in a balloon basket had long been on her bucket list. But her daybreak flight was grounded by fog: “There’s always next year,” said Badour, who was back Friday night to enjoy the festival and its Glow.
Norm and Linda Wilkinson had their grandchildren Tom, 8, and Sophia, 10, in tow as well as their daughter Sarah, who was helping to keep an eye on her nephew and niece. Although blasé at first, by the end of the evening the kids, residents of Orange, couldn’t contain their excitement.
The Glow Wine Dinner drew hundreds of guests, including Otto Schimmel and his wife Debbie. “I’m just happy to be here with family and friends... it’s good to be alive” at a table perfect for Glow viewing.
Schimmel said the fame of the festival is growing: “On my travels, when people hear I’m from Santa Paula they bring up the balloon festival.... I don’t whatever possessed Carla Edwards,” who founded the event, “to do it, but it’s a real labor of love.”
And according to Supervisor Kathy Long, it’s mutual: “What’s not to love? It’s a wonderful event” that she has attended each year since it started.
Shirley Diamond was excited that husband Larry won the Santa Clara Valley Hospice-Home Support Group Raffle of a visit to Windfall Farms. “I always let Larry put his name on tickets... I never win, he’s the lucky one!”
There were thousands of lucky ones who visited the festival over the weekend, where the morning would start with - if not actual sky competitions of free flight, for the most part, at least - tethered balloon rides.
The midway was vast, with dozens of vendors offering all sorts of practical and fun goodies as well as a circle your wagon array of food booths offering everything from quick snacks to full meals including Mexican food, fish and specialty hot dogs. There was a special area with kids’ rides and games, and entertainment was nonstop - top-flight bands played all weekend, and a mega Car Show Saturday drew lovers of motorized metallic.
But it was the balloons - dozens of balloons - the crowd wanted, and they weren’t disappointed especially during the famed Glows signaled by pilots and their crews rolling out the deflated nylon “envelopes” so the burners could shoot the flame that creates the hot air for ascension. As the balloons swelled and shimmered, the baskets were attached to the growing tower of globes for synchronized “glows” and other twinkling delights.
“This is incredible,” said Charlie Kimball, the famed Indy racecar driver with Chip Ganassi Racing. Kimball, the special guest at the Saturday Glow Car Show benefiting the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clara Valley, said, “Everyone is doing such a great job” staging the festival.
The Kimball family has ranched in the area for generations, and Charlie said the balloon festival is “great exposure to show how wonderful Santa Paula is.” The only time Kimball rode in a tethered balloon was “at Moonlight at the Ranch years ago... I would love to do a drift over the river valley,” which means so much to his family and their history.
“To be able to come back and give back to the community, well, it’s wonderful. The balloon festival just gets bigger and bigger,” said Kimball. “It really is incredible!”
Balloonist Cindy Wilkinson had just returned from Taiwan, where ballooning is becoming incredibly popular. But the pilot coordinator/pilot said Santa Paula is a favorite place and part-time home base for her Fantasy Balloon Flights.
“We miss Santa Paula when we’re not here,” she noted, “and there seems to be a lot larger crowd, a lot of people from out of town.” The business is a family affair, and then there is the family of balloonists who are active in the event who stay at the Kampground of America, or this year at several private homes coordinated by Jane Lax.
Wilkinson said tethered rides Saturday morning provided 300 to 400 people with plenty of thrills once the weather cleared, and those who could not go up understood the complications brought by the weather.
More and more out of state pilots are hearing about the festival and want to take part: Wilkinson said a recent survey showed Santa Paula is now the third most recognized balloon festival in the nation, “so we’re really getting to be know as a nice balloon event.”
It was the first festival for pilot Bruce Sidlinger, who said it was his fear of heights that first got him in the air, at least eventually in a balloon. Before then he flew various aircraft, but when he was in a helicopter without doors he realized he had acrophobia.
But it was skydiving that got him hooked on balloons “when I found that diving out of a balloon was best,” and he became a balloonist in 1990. The only disadvantage is “When you’re a balloonist you never get to see the event,” he laughed, and the hours can be punishing.
“Santa Paula,” said Sidlinger, “is amazing.... The people are so hospitable, and Steve and Cindy Wilkinson have an incredibly well run event.”
Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clara Valley Executive Director Jan Marholin thanked Edwards for the opportunity to host the Glow and Show Car Show: “We were fortunate to raise some sorely need funds for our club,” and visitors were impressed with the more than 150 vehicles that took part.
Visitors were also impressed with Kimball: “Charlie was a sweetheart, he was just wonderful... if people wanted an autograph he gave it to them, if they wanted a picture he posed with them. He’s very genuine, very sweet and it was an honor to meet him.”
Edwards is already planning next year’s event at least in her mind. “Saturday’s crowd of more than 8,000 alone was a one-day record, and the comments we kept hearing was how many were return visitors. For some families and friends it’s an annual tradition, and across the board they were saying it was the most fun they ever had at our festival!”
Although “a lot of hard work from a lot of different groups went into it, the sheer delight among the crowds really made it worthwhile for all of us.... Especially Saturday night, truly that glow with so many balloons twinkling was just wonderful.”
Edwards said she was also pleased by the wide variety of locales visitors were drawn from: San Diego and Orange to San Luis Obispo and Pasadena, Northridge to Los Angeles. “For many it was their first time in Santa Paula and I kept hearing people say to each other, ‘Wow, this is a great place!’ It’s a real showcase for the area and now they’ll come back for the next great thing. The look on people faces and the fact they were all really delighted with their initial discovery of Santa Paula was a thrill.”
The car show went well, Topa Topa Tractors were their usual hit, and “Our bands were great and we had people on the field later on both nights than ever before, dancing and having a wonderful time. We love John Procter and all the help he gives us, and we loved his band; all the bands were wonderful.”
Next year Edwards said she would like more nonprofits to participate: “We would love to help more nonprofits in town through the festival structure raise money, and we’re going to be inviting additional nonprofits interested in parking to apply” to operate the paid parking lots next year.
Overall, “I thought it was wonderful, I was really pleased - a little astonished at the turnout actually, but it showed the Citrus Classic Balloon Festival,” said Edwards, “has really gained fame!”