Balloon race promises music, fun

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 31, 2005

The slight chill in the Natchez air is a good sign, Sallie Durkin of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race said Friday. &8220;Let&8217;s get this front through here and, Lord willing, we&8217;ll have perfect weather, a nice easterly breeze next weekend,&8221; she said.

The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, a spectacle and festival rolled into a weekend packed with events, begins Friday at 6 p.m. with the traditional balloon glow on the bluff at Rosalie Bicentennial Gardens in Natchez and on the riverfront in Vidalia, La.

Fifty-nine pilots are bringing their colorful hot-air balloons to Natchez, Durkin said. However, many are not bringing the usual number of crew members along because of a scarcity of hotel rooms following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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&8220;We&8217;ve been able to place all the pilots without using too many private homes,&8221; Durkin said. &8220;Comfort Inn opened 10 rooms for us, Isle of Capri had 30 and Comfort Suites had 11.&8221;

Without the crew who usually accompany them, however, the pilots will rely on Natchez-area volunteers, Durkin said. She will have a training session for volunteers at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Visitor Reception Center in the theater.

&8220;It will take probably about 180 crew members for the 59 balloons,&8221; Durkin said. &8220;I&8217;m hoping we can get a new volunteer group of about 100.&8221;

Balloon sponsors often round up the crew for their pilot. Some have done that for many years.

Associations between pilots and sponsors have grown into friendships that carry into the rest of the year between races, Durkin said.

&8220;Dennis Barrett has been sponsored by the (Kenneth) Stubbs family for years, &8220; she said, naming other long-time relationships.

The enthusiasm of balloon pilots continues to amaze her, Durkin said. The Carlos Zuniga family, who came for the first time last year, will return this year, traveling from their home in Miami, Fla., with their children along.

First balloon sightings could be as early as Friday at 7 a.m., when pilots will take members of the media on complimentary rides to get photographs and stories to publicize the event.

At 6 p.m. Friday, the gates will open at the Rosalie site, located at the south end of Broadway. The balloon glow will be the first event at the site. Pilots tether their balloons and light their burners to give the giant envelopes the glow of a pumpkin &8212; a sight that never fails to delight those in attendance.

Laura Godfrey, director of the balloon race, said the entertainment is top-notch. &8220;We were so glad to get these wonderful musicians despite all the turmoil caused by the hurricanes recently,&8221; she said.

Entertainment will begin at 8 p.m. Friday at the Rosalie site with music by Zu Zu Mud. The band will play until 10 p.m.

Another early morning flight, weather permitting, will begin the festivities on Saturday. An afternoon flight will take place, also, weather permitting.

Entertainment on Saturday will begin at noon with Black Bayou and continue throughout the day at the Rosalie site, with Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, The Radiators, Sister Hazel and, finally, the Patrick Smith Band.

The Sunday early morning flight will be at 7 a.m., weather permitting. Entertainment on Sunday begins at 1 p.m. with Maggie Brown and continues with Tony Jo White and Irma Thomas.

Pilots will take their balloons up once again on Sunday afternoon, weather permitting.

Tickets are available in advance at Natchez Visitor Reception Center, 640 S. Canal St., or by calling the center at 800-647-6724 or 601-446-6345; or at the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce, 211 Main St., or by calling the Chamber at 601-445-4611. Tickets also will be available at the gate each day.

Children under age 6 may enter free. Tickets for children 13 and older and for adults are $5 for Friday, $15 for Saturday, $10 for Sunday or $25 for the weekend. Tickets for children ages 7 to 12 are $1 for Friday, $3 for Saturday, $3 for Sunday or $5 for a weekend ticket.

In addition to the musical entertainment, the festival includes many rides and games for children. Vendors sell a variety of food.