Darth Vader might never have ruled the “Star Wars” galaxy, but his image will dominate the Kansas City sky this weekend.
A hot air balloon in the shape of the Sith Lord’s helmet will join 60 others at the Great Midwest Balloon Fest, a record registration. Of course, local storm troopers and Princess Leias are welcome to attend — light sabers and all.
For the first time, the Kansas Speedway will host the annual gathering. Previously at the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe, the festival coordinators sought a larger, more centralized location, director Robbie Small said.
“We outgrew where we were because there was only so much land,” Small said. “The other thing is that we always wanted to be a metrowide-and-beyond event.”
Five special shapes will float among the traditional balloons Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Old Lady in the Shoe, Sharky, and Lindy the Cool Balloon are popular returners. Two stars, however, are an Elvis balloon — white jumpsuit included — and, of course, Darth Vader.
“Darth Vader has appeared in Europe and Asia at the world’s biggest balloon festivals,” Small said. “He’s one of the most famous balloons in the world.”
Don’t underestimate the power of the dark side. Hailing from Belgium, the 86-foot-tall mask weighs about 640 pounds. This is the balloon’s first trip to Kansas, and owner Benoit Lambert said he’s eager meet the fair’s attendees — as well as learn about the tornadoes and farms he’s heard about.
“When we decided to make this balloon, we never imagined the positive reaction from people everywhere we go, it was a dream of mine and I am happy to share it with people,” Lambert said in an email. “People are happy, crying, playing Jedi or Sith when they see our balloon.”
In a clash of cultural icons, a few “kings of rock ’n’ roll” will be present, too. Elvis tribute artists will perform a noon concert on Sunday, a new element of the fair, in recognition of the 105-foot balloon.
“When we found out we were getting the Elvis balloon, we started searching around for somebody here locally who … coordinates Elvis concerts regionally,” Small said. “It’s a big deal.”
Other activities include a Balloons and BBQ competition with 50 to 60 grilling teams from all over the country and a modified contest for kids — hey, we train them young in the Kansas City barbecue scene.
“They give each kid a little bit of ground beef,” Small said. “They get to grill it, and they get to dress it and do what they want with it, and it gets judged. It’s just a chance for them to participate.”
In traditional fair fashion, a pie-eating contest and Krispy Kreme doughnut-eating contest are Friday. Besides the weekendlong barbecue, a chef’s competition is scheduled Sunday. Food-centric events were a hit last year, Small said.
Activities for kids include bounce houses, craft tents, face painting, balloon art and the KC Symphony instrumental petting zoo — all included with the price of admission. A kids carnival area has been expanded.
A 5K called Race with the Balloons to benefit Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care takes place Saturday at Legends.
“What makes ours perhaps a little bit different is that the people who are walking and running in our race get to participate with the balloons flying overhead,” Small said. “They get that added magic.”
Naturally, attendees have the opportunity to go up, up and away in those beautiful balloons. Untethered balloon rides cost $225 per person and need to be booked. For a tethered ride, about 50-75 feet in the air, it’s $10 each. This year, the tethered rides offer bigger baskets, making access easier.
Rick Goosey and wife Karmen own one of the participating balloons. They’re both balloon pilots from Pleasant Hill, along with their son, Jacob. The Gooseys’ daughter, Tara, plans to get her license soon.
The sport is a family affair for them, but Goosey said the entire ballooning community is tight-knit and excited about the bigger-than-ever Midwest Balloon Fest.
“Even the amount of years I’ve been doing it, I still get superexcited to see all the balloons up at one time,” Goosey said. “It’s just like you’re being a little kid again. You can see all the different colors, all the different shapes, and they’re going up and down like a big bubble gum balls.… It’s an experience like you’ve never had before.”
More balloon information
For more information about schedules and events, go to Midwestballoonfest.org. Balloon events are dependent on weather conditions and might be delayed. The greatest variable is wind, director Robbie Small said.