Preparation for this weekend’s Up Up and Away Hot Air Balloon Festival at the Sun ‘n Fun expo grounds began early Friday, as a balloon shaped as a white bear in a chef’s hat, the mascot of Latin American bread company Bimbo (pronouned BEEM-bo), rose into the air around 5 a.m. 

The Up Up and Away Festival is an inaugural event. Chris Antonious, president of Vitae Sports & Entertainment, said that he hopes to bring a tradition of ballooning to Lakeland.

“Central Florida is made for hot air ballooning,” Antonious said. “It’s a universal sport…. This is just an ideal, pivotal moment to bring an event, a niche event, like this.” 

By 7 a.m., three more balloons had risen to join the mascot. To inflate them, their pilots had to lay out the fabric, blow outside air into them using fans, and then heat the air with propane burners when the lower opening was wide enough. 

Balloons launch in the early morning and at sunset because of how stable the air is; during daylight hours, the thermals (vertical air flows) that develop as the earth heats up make liftoff and landing much harder. 

Ballooning has attracted an interstate, international community of aviators. Bob Carlton, who flew a red, blue, yellow and orange balloon, has been flying since 1974, flies about 200 days a year, and flew for Walt Disney Parks for 12 years. 

“We all know each other, and most of us get started by taking a ride and enjoying it and learning how to fly,” Carlton said. “We all help each other; it’s an odd business in that you’re not cutting somebody’s throat all the time; you work with everybody…. When we get together like this, it’s a family reunion.” 

Carlton works in a team with a few other men. One, Andre Boucher, is from Quebec and has been flying since the 80s. 

“It’s very peaceful,” Carlton said. “It’s like the sailing of aviation.”


The Up Up and Away Florida Hot Air Balloon Festival will launch its aircraft and its events on Friday, kicking off a weekend of activities at the Sun ‘n Fun Aviation Campus.

All weekend, visitors can pay for helicopter and tethered balloon rides, buy food and drinks from vendors, enjoy musicians and artists and visit the Florida Air Museum. The event will include archery tag, a “Kids Zone” for children, and a “Mimosa and Beer Garden.”

Weather permitting, balloons will launch early each day. A guide released by program organizers made a public request: “If you’d like to identify your property as a friendly landing zone for hot-air balloons,” it said, “lay out a white bed sheet in an open area so balloonists can spot them from the sky.

On Friday festival grounds will open to the public at 2 p.m. Events and vendors will open on Saturday and Sunday at 7 a.m.

At sunset each day, more than 30 hot air balloons will fire their burners (which supply the balloon, or “envelope” with hot air) at the same time and light up the area as the closing event. On Friday and Saturday, live music will continue afterwards. 

Performers and times

  • Audio Exchange: (Fri., Sat.) 2:30 p.m. / (Sun.) 1:00 p.m.
  • On Pointe Dance Academy Dance Show: (Sat.) 11:30 a.m.
  • Rico Monaco Band: (Fri., Sat.) 5:00 p.m. / (Sun.) 3:30 p.m.
  • Rico Monaco Band featuring Tito Puente Jr.: (Fri., Sat.) 7:30 p.m. / (Sun.) 5:00 p.m.
  • Shania the Aerialist: Daylong, (Fri.) 2:00 p.m.. / (Sat.) 12:00 p.m.

Parking will be accessible to the public from Pipkin Road; a separate parking for RVs and tented campgrounds is accessible from Rocky Road. 

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