The first time Mark Oldham went up in a tethered balloon ride at the Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival a few years ago, he was stunned.
It’s one thing, the co-chairman of the Townsend Cades Cove Gateway Alliance told The Daily Times recently, to appreciate the view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the ground. It’s another thing entirely to see it from the air.
“Because of the location right there at the edge of the Smokies, it was absolutely mind-blowing and sensational,” Oldham said. “Looking up at Foothills Parkway and the fact it was dusky and it was a beautiful night, it was just an impeccable view.”
But then, as the chair of the organization that puts on the festival — which returns to the Townsend Visitors Center on Saturday — he saw something that needed his attention, and he had to return to Earth quickly. Such is the lot of those behind the scenes of the annual event (save for last year’s COVID pause), which debuted in 2017 around the total solar eclipse and has grown into one of the marquee late-summer festivals in Blount County.
“It’s the largest fundraiser for the Townsend Cades Cove Gateway Alliance, and we put it on in conjunction with Blount Partnership,” said Oldham, who’s also the CEO of Oldham Hospitality, which owns Dancing Bear Lodge. “They’re just super, super good to us, as is everybody in Townsend, in letting us use the facility and grounds of the Visitors Center and organize the event and handle the financials in terms of hiring the balloonists and running the food trucks’ side and the admissions’ and parking side.
“When all that is said and done, whatever is left over goes in the coffers of the alliance, and we use those funds to benefit Townsend in a myriad of ways,” he said.
Those ways include the murals on the retaining walls along East Lamar Alexander Parkway leading into the city, for example; or the upkeep of the website www.exploretownsend.com; or the town map distributed to lodging and tourist outlets in town for the benefit of visitors.
“It’s a fine balance, because we want to keep it the ‘Peaceful Side of the Smokies,’” Oldham said, echoing the refrain that differentiates the bucolic Townsend style with the more frenetic pace of the park’s Sevier County side. “The alliance uses the balloon festival as its major fundraiser, but the funds that we generate are definitely put forth in a way that keeps Townsend the peaceful side.”
The festival gets under way at 4 p.m. Saturday and will feature, according to a press release, “food trucks and various local vendors, and kid-friendly activities like face painting and rock climbing. The night will end with a balloon glow from 8-9:30 p.m. With exciting new additions in 2021, attendees will be able to experience a variety of festivities. Live entertainment, local crafters and food trucks are just a few of the activities. Tethered balloon rides will allow attendees to ride and bask in the picturesque scenery from the hot air balloons, weather permitting.”
“Weather permitting” is stressed by organizers and the balloonists themselves: The winds have to be right, and thunderstorms can’t be active in a several-mile vicinity, in order to keep pilots and riders safe. The other caution, of course, is COVID-19, and while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to maintain that outdoor activities are safer than those indoors, masks are encouraged.
“We’re not going to mandate anything, but if you feel like you want to wear a mask, it’s perfectly acceptable, and we’ll have masks at the gate,” Oldham said.
And because Blount Partnership recently acquired the land behind the Visitors Center, the festival footprint will be expanded this year, Oldham added.
“There’s a brand new entrance and exit to facilitate parking, and we’ve added a few more hundred tethered rides by doing the registration online,” he said. “We’re up to 12 balloons, which is the right number for this site, and that night, it’s going to be an enhanced balloon glow. In 2019, they were running a little short of propane, so they couldn’t get as much umph, but this year, we have a new vendor to make sure there’s plenty available for an excellent balloon glow.”