The musical brilliance of Rhode Island’s own Roomful of Blues and Billy Gilman, as well as high-altitude trapeze stunts, fireworks and colorful hot air balloons, will highlight the 40th anniversary of the South County Balloon Festival, set for July 20-22 at the URI Athletic Fields on Route 138 in Kingston.
Westerly’s legendary Roomful of Blues will play its danceable blend of blues, swing and early rock ’n roll to get the festival jumping at 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 20. Gilman, the Hope Valley country music star at 11 years old and more recently the runner-up in Season 11 of “The Voice,” will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 21. During both concerts, balloonists offer tethered rides, giving riders a breathtaking view of the festival and surrounding area.
Balloons are just one of the attractions of the festival, which opens at 4 p.m. Friday. The Flying Cortes family will perform high-wire, trapeze stunts several times a day. Also performing several times a day is festival favorite Bwana Jim, whose wildlife show features huge snakes, lizards and raptors. Fireworks are planned for Saturday night.
The South County Balloon Festival is one of Rhode Island’s most popular summer events. The Rotary Club of Wakefield, chartered in 1957, has raised more than $1.8 million for local charities and scholarships. Donating all net proceeds, Rotary gives attendees fun for a cause.
The festival started 40 years ago with 10 balloons in a turf farm in Usquepaug in the Town of South Kingstown. It raised $5,000 and launched the Rotary’s decades-long commitment to the event. Since hot air balloons are visible only at dawn and dusk – and only then if weather cooperates – the Rotary added activities over the years to make it a day-long family festival. The event traditionally opens with a band while balloonists fire up their burners to inflate the balloons. Tethered rides at dawn and dusk, offered for $20, have been a popular part of the festival.
Rotary president Tom Tarzwell says it takes all of the Wakefield Rotarians and more than 1,600 volunteer hours to handle all the details that go into producing a flawless three-day event. Gathering volunteers is never a problem, Tarzwell says. “Rotarians are motivated to give back to the community. The organization gives every penny of its net proceeds to South County’s charitable organizations and Rotary International.” Organizations that have benefitted from the balloon festival include SK C.A.R.E.S, Hera Gallery, Welcome House, Habitat for Humanity, Rhode Island Special Olympics, Rhode Island Community Food Bank, and dozens of others.
“This year, on our 40thanniversary, we hope to raise more money than ever for South County residents in need, arts associations, educational organizations, scholarships and other local nonprofits,” Tarzwell says.
Other highlights of the festival include the band Mixed Breed, which will perform at 4 p.m. Saturday, carnival rides and games, a rock-climbing wall, car show, arts and crafts, and a range of food vendors, including ever-popular barbecue. Children love the Rotary Club’s free fishing pond, inflatable bounce houses, face painting and train rides.
Admission is $10 per person and free for kids 10 and under. Festival hours are Friday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Parking is free. RV camping is available on site.
The South County Balloon Festival has been rated a Top 20 Rhode Island event by Yankee magazine, and is a perennial favorite among locals and tourists alike.