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Barge drop not coming back to balloon race

NATCHEZ — With a little luck from Mother Nature, approximately 60 hot-air balloons will take flight over the Miss-Lou this weekend.

But one of the most popular tasks of the annual Great Mississippi River Balloon Race in years’ past won’t even be attempted.

Race organizers decided last year to eliminate the Saturday afternoon barge drop in favor of another task, and the barge won’t be back this year.

“We’re doing away with it altogether,” race public relations coordinator Sally Durkin said.

Instead of attempting to toss a beanbag onto a target on a barge floating mid river, pilots will once again be attempting to grab a key to a new vehicle from atop a 50-foot pole located in the middle of the festival grounds at the Rosalie Bicentennial Gardens. The pilot who grabs the key wins the vehicle.

Balloon race Executive Director Babs Price said the barge drop would be missed, but she said the key grab is a safer alternative to the barge drop.

“It works out because we have more balloons that will fly in the key grab flight than would in the barge drop,” she said. “And the pilots fly over the (bluff), so people get to see them up close.”

Some pilots sat out the barge drop in previous years because winds over the Mississippi River can be unpredictable.

No pilot was able to grab the key during last year’s race.

In addition, the majority of the targets at which pilots will aim on Saturday and Sunday mornings will again be behind the Natchez Mall.

In previous years, targets were placed at a variety of locations all around the Miss-Lou.

Durkin said spectators will still be able to view the balloons from a variety of locations around town, but she hopes to see a massive crowd of spectators — like last year  — gathered behind the Natchez Mall to see the pilots compete for points by tossing beanbags at targets on the ground.

The balloon race competition flights will take off at 7:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The key grab will start at 4:30 p.m.

Advanced tickets to the festival grounds may be purchased at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center or at www.visitnatchez.org. Tickets may also be purchased at the gate.

Prices for adults 13 and up are $5 for Friday, $20 for Saturday and $15 for Sunday. A weekend pass is $30.

For children 7 to 12, admission is $3 for Friday, $5 for Saturday and Sunday. A weekend pass is $10.

Admission is free for children 6 and under.