Up, up, and away! Balloon Glow and Race flies high
The Great Forest Park Balloon Glow and Race, an annual city tradition that involves the whole community, serves as a welcoming invitation to fall in St. Louis. Coming from New Mexico — home to the world’s largest balloon festival, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta — I had high expectations. While I might always be biased towards my home state, the Great Forest Park Balloon Glow and Race surprised me. It is a community-orientated event, filled with enthusiasm and good energy that makes way for the St. Louis community to come together each year for something that is both beautiful and widely sentimental to residents.
Observing the event, the sense of connected community was overwhelming. Beyond just balloons, there was vibrant music, dance, and entertainment. First-year Erin Wadsworth had commented on his experience afterwards.
“[My] favorite part about the balloon glow/race was seeing how it brought the STL community together…the energy and joy of everyone attending made me feel at home in St. Louis and eager to continue branch[ing] out and[exploring] the area,” Wadsworth said.
Looking into its history, the Great Forest Park Balloon Glow was founded in 1973 by balloonists Nikki Caplan and John O’Toole as the “first modern-day balloon race held in St. Louis,” with the event starting as a small race with just a dozen spectators. Over the years, because of leaders John Marlow, Dan Schettler, John Schaumburg, and Ted Staley — the “Fab Four” as they were called — the Balloon Race became a tradition that just kept on growing. It was in 1991 that the Balloon Glow was tacked onto the race, giving way to the elaborate festival that we are familiar with today.
While in line to grab a delicious plant-based hamburger, I had the chance to interview two recent graduates of WashU, Griffin Brown ‘23 and Gaby Musickant ‘23. This year was the first time they both attended since their freshman year. Musickant described the event as a beautiful community-oriented event, saying, “When there’s something that the whole city comes together for, I really appreciate it.” Brown added that his favorite part of the night was seeing “the glowing balloons against the sunset. [It was] so beautiful.” Throughout the evening, it became clear to me as a first-time visitor that many attendees have made personally meaningful memories at the Glow, and that year after year, there is a desire to return to the event.
Another WashU student, first-year Meghan Jachna, is a St. Louis native who has been returning back to the Balloon Glow for many years.
“[I] love that it brings people from all different parts of the community together,” she said. “I always end up seeing people I know from many years ago, and it is a great way to reconnect. Usually, my entire family and my cousins go together, and it has become a tradition that my family looks forward to every year. Now, it is a tradition that I can continue to be a part of with the WashU community.”
One of the first balloons I saw had the Washington University logo – fitting, considering WashU’s large impact on St. Louis. In a $12,000 sponsorship, the WashU balloon dubbed the “Time Traveler” glowed brightly on Friday night; It carried Dr. Anna Gonzalez, or “Dr. G,” Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, as well as a lucky student high into the sky on Saturday morning.
While the event holds many different meanings for the attendees, one thing is clear: it is an enduring tradition that has a tremendous impact on the city.