LEWISTON – All systems are go for the 14th Great Falls Balloon Festival this weekend, Aug. 18, 19 and 20.

About 40 hot air balloons will fill the skies over L-A, as weather permits, but organizers are optimistic about their chances.

There are six principal balloon launch times – 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In addition, it’s likely that several tune-up flights will be happening Thursday afternoon or early evening, as well as some post-festival launches Monday morning.

The centerpoint for the Festival is Railroad Park in Lewiston, where food and entertainment share the spotlight with the balloons. The opportunity to stand near these colorful and massive lighter-than-air craft as crews inflate and release them is a memorable family experience.

The popular tethered balloon “moonglow” exhibitions are scheduled for Friday and Saturday evenings.

This year’s special-shape balloons are the Little Bees (Lilly and Joey) and Bud E. Beaver.

The Bees – hardly little at a height of an 11-story building – rise into the air holding hands and fly in tandem.

Bud E. Beaver was built by the same company that produced the Breitling Orbiter, the first balloon to circumnavigate the world nonstop. Bud stands more than 100 feet tall and holds 132,000 cubic feet of hot air. He weighs more than 700 pounds and uses dual burners to keep him flying high.

“A beautiful new tent row – world-class,” has been developed for this year’s nonprofit food vendors, said Nancy Barry, president of the festival’s board of directors. She said colorful canopies replace 8-by-8-foot wooden booths used for several years, and she describes the new vendor facilities as “a real class act.”

At midweek, veteran Balloonmeister Walter Crites said many of the pilots were arriving from all over New England, as well as from Canada and states as far as Arizona and Florida.

The crowd count through the weekend could be 120,000 to 140,000, said Crites, who has been with the festival since it began.

“The first year there were 10 balloons, and none of them launched until Sunday morning,” he said. About five years ago, the Great Falls Balloon Festival gained its current nationally recognized status with numerous shape balloons joining the launches of several dozen balloons.

When visitors can take their eyes off the skies, they’re usually looking for food. There will be more than two dozen food vendors representing schools, churches and charitable organizations. Food items available at the Railroad Park tents, as well as booths at Auburn’s Festival Plaza, include hot dogs, hamburgers, lobster rolls, clams, shrimp, fried dough, blooming onions, chowder, fajitas and pizza.

St. Dominic Regional High School Booster Club puts on a pancake breakfast from 5 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at the main food tent and they offer a chicken and ribs supper from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Bonnie Edwards is again chairing the entertainment, Barry said. Two stages at Railroad Park and the stage at Auburn’s Festival Plaza will have nearly continuous performances by rock, country, folk, jazz and pop groups.

Headliners include blues legend James Montgomery, OSB (a top New England rock band), the Timpanic Steel Drum Band, the Debbie Myers Band and Boston’s up-and-coming singer/dancer/songwriter Amy Famiglietti.

There will be bagpipers, country dancers, belly dancers and hula dancers, as well as Native American music and dance in full regalia.

Also on the schedule are a firemen’s muster, cheerleading demonstrations, a LifeFlight demonstration, and karate demonstrations. There will be a children’s activity area, a skateboard contest and a pizza-eating contest.

Barry said another new feature this year is the chance to buy a helicopter ride to get a whole new angle on the sights. MTM Helicopters, based at Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, will be flying out of Veteran’s Memorial Park at the Lewiston end of Longley Bridge.

The carnival location will be on the river side of Lincoln Street instead of beside the Bates Mill.

Great Falls Model Railroading Club offers an exhibit, and Museum L-A will be open at its nearby Bates Mill quarters. Tours of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul will be held from noon to 3 p.m. on Friday. Tours also are offered during the weekend at Bates College in Lewiston and at the Androscoggin Historical Society Museum in Auburn.

Officer Norm Bilodeau of the Auburn Police Department said the public safety role is more a matter of assistance rather than crowd control.

“It’s a very mellow crowd,” he said. “In 14 years, I may have dealt with two or three drunks.”

Bilodeau credits Dick Keene, a former APD lieutenant and now a foreman at Auburn Public Works, with developing traffic and parking plans that are still used effectively.

Auburn’s Great Falls Plaza was the site of earlier Balloon Festivals, but the activity has shifted to Lewiston’s spacious Railroad Park. Some launches also take place from other L-A locations.

For complete festival information, visit www.greatfallsballoonfestival.org.


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