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Addition of Wounded Warrior events a plus for festival

Both balloons and hearts soared this past weekend in Middletown. The 12th annual Ohio Challenge Hot Air Balloon Festival, a three-day event in Smith Park, hosted almost 40 hot air balloons, hundreds of guests, and 18 wounded US warriors.

Deemed Warrior Weekend to Remember, the festival included its customary hot air balloons, arts and crafts, live music, food, carnival, skydiving and fireworks — as well as 18 active duty and veteran men and woman of the Armed Forces injured in combat or training who were honored at the event. A 5K and golf outing were additional events hosted this past weekend to help support wounded warriors.

John Hart, the owner of Fastrax Skydiving and Selection.com, said that the weekend went soundly. Selection.com was the Ohio Challenge Hot Air Balloon Festival’s presenting sponsor, while Team Fastrax performed skydives that landed inside the festival.

“(The event) was flawless. We did so many things with the 18 warriors we had here,” Hart said. “The community embraced it, the 5K had 208 participants — it was a great turnout. We had a great crowd Friday and Saturday nights…it was packed.”

Attendance was up for the annual event, according to Patrick Venturella, the Ohio Challenge’s public relations and media director. Final attendance figures are still being calculated and will not be available for a few more days, Venturella said, noting the “balloon glows” in Smith Park remained a crowd favorite this year.

“The balloon glows are massively popular and are always a crowd favorite,” Venturella said. “When the sun sets, about half of our pilots will come out on the field, inflate their balloons and hit their propane tanks. Since it’s nighttime, the balloons light up and everything glows. The crowd was watching and everyone was cheering.”

The festival also featured two “special shape balloons.” An Angry Bird balloon, piloted by Gary Moore, was shipped directly to Middletown from South Africa for the event. The second shape balloon, Jewel the Hummingbird, was piloted by Doug Grimes, who has been flying balloons since 1979. The balloon was made in Brazil.

“These special shape pilots tour the world to do this. This was one of the hummingbird’s first appearances in the states,” Venturella said.

While these unique balloon events and features were crowd-pleasing as always, the Wounded Warrior Weekend to Remember set this year’s event apart from past balloon festivals in Middletown.

“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback on our side,” Venturella said. “It was really great to have the wounded warriors. The biggest thing I heard from people involved was that it was great to be a part of it, and great for the warriors to be around other people who knew what they were going through. It was a really positive event.”

Both Venturella and Hart said that the Warrior Weekend events will be a part of next year’s event as well.

“Next year, we’re going to keep the Warrior Weekend to Remember, and we’re going to make it a little bigger. Bring more warriors in, increase the size of the 5K and golf outing, and make it a super special weekend for families to get out here. It’s going to be one of those events that continues to grow and we continue to make special for the community,” Hart said.

“We had 18 warriors in attendance, and some were severely wounded,” he said. “They left here with smiles on their faces. Some hadn’t smiled or laughed for years. To see that, I’d say mission accomplished. Next year, we’re going to bring in more warriors to continue to thank them for the freedoms we enjoy.”

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