Balloon Stampede hits 40 years ... and still flying over Valley

Kate Moon points out a couple of airborn balloons to her son, Oliver, held by Corky York during this morning's pre-Balloon Stampede event. Balloons were suppose to stay tethered due to high winds at several hundred feet.

Kate Moon points out a couple of airborn balloons to her son, Oliver, held by Corky York during this morning's pre-Balloon Stampede event. Balloons were suppose to stay tethered due to high winds at several hundred feet. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — Don’t expect the coordinators of the 40th annual Walla Walla Balloon Stampede to be watching the Weather Channel this week.

If there’s one thing Scott and Laurie Spencer have learned in their years as pilots and organizers of hot air balloon festivals, it’s that Mother Nature does what she wants when she wants.

If you glow

This year’s “Nite Glow Spectacular” will be a family-friendly event Saturday evening at Walla Walla Community College with food from the Wine Country Culinary Institute, the Coca-Cola “Happy Dance” and Columbia Bill Lloyd’s original hot air balloon.

In the shadow of WWCC’s Dietrich Dome, the public can begin gathering at 4:30 p.m. for demonstrations, according to an announcement from WWCC. Balloons such as the giant Coca-Cola bottle, the Liberty Bell and more will be inflated. The littlest ballooning pals (up to age 6) will get a chance to celebrate ballooning with the Coca-Cola “Happy Dance” under the “Olympic Spirit” hot air balloon.

Dan Thiessen, executive director of culinary arts at WWCC has organized a Kid’s Food Barbecue. Additional snacks will be sold by WWCC Student Clubs. Bring a blanket and chairs. Alcohol will be prohibited, and pets should be left at home.

The voice of ballooning in the Northwest, Walla Walla’s Jim Bock, will announce the “Nite Glow Spectacular,” beginning at dusk and sponsored by Columbia Rural Electric Association.

“The one thing I can’t control is the weather,” commercial balloon pilot Scott Spencer said via telephone just days before departing Boise for a week in Walla Walla on the cusp of the Stampede.

“The week of the event I don’t even look at it. It’ll just make you a nervous wreck.”

Instead, the Spencers have focused on what they can control: venue changes, sound system, details to streamline the event.

And there are a lot of such details.

Along with being new at the helm themselves — the Spencers were asked to take over the coordination of the Stampede after more than 20 years of it under the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s leadership — the Boise residents scrambled to assemble the event for an anniversary year.

Able to secure enough sponsors, they’ve held steady with the number of balloonists — 35 — coming for the trip.

But the changes are plentiful: This year the Stampede makes a major move from the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds.

Using the space came with a roughly $11,000 price tag, which Scott Spencer said is almost 40 percent of the event’s total budget.

The media launches that start the weekend today have been moved from the veterans hospital grounds to Howard Tietan Park in what Spencer described as a “throwback” to the days when the event took place there.

Nite Glow, the post-dusk illuminated inflation of tethered balloons, will take place at Walla Walla Community College.

The early-morning launches Friday through Sunday — all slated for 6 a.m. at Garrison Middle School — will have a new look, too. There will be a 30-by-60-foot tent set up as a pilot briefing area.

In front of that will be a stage, where emcee Jim Bock will take the microphone and belt out his famous Balloon Stampede lines through a new high-wattage sound system.

Music, for the Spencers, is an intrinsic component of a good balloon festival. So not only will there be lots of it, but it will be transmitted far and wide.

Some of the changes are designed in particular to commemorate the 40th anniversary of community’s balloon festival. Nite Glow is an example, Spencer said.

Other changes are meant to address challenges or find alternative solutions for the event’s needs.

“I’m really happy with the way things are shaping up,” he said. “We really wanted to do something special to mark the 40th anniversary.”

Spencer, who will pilot the special appearance of Disney’s Mickey Mouse hot air balloon for the event, got his first balloon at 14. After having his first plane ride at 7, a young Spencer knew he was destined to take flight.

His mother, initially hesitant, told his dad to double the money if their son would agree to buy a truck instead. Scott wasn’t interested.

On his maiden voyage, the young Spencer set 40 acres of his dad’s wheat on fire. His parents who met in the Tri-Cities in 1948 when his dad was an electrician at Hanford and his mom was a school teacher, have continued as his biggest fans. Now 86 and 88, they’ve made the trip to Walla Walla for the Stampede.

For Spencer, who has flown balloons for Disney in movies such as “Oz the Great and Powerful” and who flies the corporate Coca-Cola and Tony the Tiger balloons, too, Walla Walla is a special place.

It was where he flew for his first official event as a younger pilot.

“It’s like a first kiss,” he said. “You never forget.”

When the Chamber wanted another operator to organize the Stampede, the Spencers had the history, the experience and the loyalty to the event.

The weekend’s forecast was looking promising at last check for the Spencers. Even if it sours, the show will go on

“Even if it’s a little too windy to fly, we’ll be out on the field,” Spencer said. “We’re not there for us. We’re there for the guests that come to the field.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, vickihillhouse@wwub.com or on Twitter.

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