Balloon festival hovers over Olathe this weekend

It started three years ago on 320 acres of farmland. Since then, it’s grown into a summertime staple that more than 50,000 people are expected to attend.

The third Great Midwest Balloon Fest kicks off Friday as about 50 pilots from across the country head to the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe for a weekend of hot air ballooning.

Probably the most anticipated part of the weekend comes from the balloon “glows,” which start after 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Grounded by tethers and perched about 80 feet off the ground, pilots fire up their balloons, including some shaped like ladybugs or dragons.

During the weekend, people can also take tethered balloon rides in the daytime, as well as 50-minute rides that can be booked in advance.

Although the festival will be held Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., on Saturday and Sunday morning pilots compete in a series of challenges, flying in to scoop up prizes attached to the tops of poles without hitting the ground or flying over. They also do target tosses, dropping bean bags from the air on specific targets.

Disney performer Shealeigh will appear Friday night, and country singer Clay Walker will perform on Saturday.

Almost $50,000 taken from admission and sponsor fees was raised last year for charity, said event organizer Robbie Small. This year’s charities are the United Service Organizations, Olathe Mayor’s Christmas Tree Funds and Harvesters.

Small conceived the idea of the balloon festival after visiting her daughter in New Mexico during the famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

“There’s a special draw,” Small said. “It appeals to kids of all ages, from children with their mouths open and seniors that get goose bumps looking up.”