Balloonfest 1986, a Publicity Stunt That Turned into Cleveland’s Horror Story

Balloons are generally nice to look at – they are like colorful floating balls that easily attract everyone’s attention. But believe it or not, these can also start disasters, which is exactly what happened in Cleveland in 1986, coincidentally the event that took home a Guinness World Record.

The city was aiming to snatch a world record for the biggest mass balloon release and Cleveland went all-out in preparing for their grandest show of publicity yet. But things went from delight to horror in a span of few hours, proving that putting the place back in the map wasn’t an easy task. Ironically, it all started from the good intent of helping other people out.

Balloonfest ‘86 was a bid to snatch a Guinness World Record and to raise funds for nonprofit organizations

Fund-raising Event

The event, dubbed as the Balloonfest ‘86, was a fund-raiser organized by United Way in a bid to help other nonprofit organizations. It was held on Sept. 27, 1986, a Saturday, probably so more people could watch the publicity stunt. The local charity planned to hit two birds with one stone with this: raising funds and bringing a community together, and bring Cleveland some international recognition through the prestigious accolade.

The plan was easy: the organization thought of something that the whole town could witness and at the same time collect money for a cause. Hence, the brilliant idea of releasing 1.5 million balloons up in the air to beat the record-holder Disneyland, which released over 1.2 million balloons in Anaheim, California on its 30th anniversary. The previous record was set a year before the Cleveland disaster.

BalloonArt by Treb of Los Angeles, the same company that made it possible for the theme park to earn the title the year prior to the Balloonfest, took over the logistics. Treb Heining, the company’s founder, assured that nothing would go wrong since they had accomplished the feat many times in the past, citing Super Bowl and presidential nominations as some of their works.

The hard work in the hours leading to the release had seen the many volunteers including students working round the clock, making sure everything was perfect before the big reveal. The helium-filled latex balloons were to stay in a large mesh net for containment before the big tah-dah moment, which made the whole scene like children’s big ball pit arena sitting at the central Park Square.

The idea was to release all the balloons at once and have them ascend in the skies, painting the horizon in different colors. The balloons were expected to remain afloat until finally falling back to the ground, and eventually biodegrading. Of course, this was the scenario organizers had in mind, but they didn’t know that this will only work in the perfect weather condition. The odds were not in their favor that day and the succeeding days.

Inclement Weather

Weather forecast for that day wasn’t good either, but it was already too late to cancel the big event. Organizers might have skipped the forecast on TV because they were busy prepping for the big reveal or that they simply didn’t realize how the change in weather could affect the feat, or the whole city for that matter.

Organizers deemed it fit to release the balloons earlier than planned because of the weather changes

Upon knowing that the weather will literally pour down on their parade, organizers decided to release the balloons earlier than planned. At 1:50 pm, in front of the massive audience, 1.5 million balloons were finally freed from the net and the citizens were in awe of something that the world had never seen before.

From afar, the sky resembled a blank canvas with spatters of pink, white, yellow and blue like it had suddenly started raining confettis. At first the audience was in awe upon looking at the stunning scene – just imagine witnessing more than a million balloons go up in the air and scatter in the sky.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

But that day soon took a turn for the worse. What the organizers forgot was that what goes up must come down as shortly after the reveal, it rained, causing the balloons to land everywhere, including the Burke Lakefront Airport, which was forced to close a runway.

Despite the grand display, there were a lot of consequences that overshadowed the excitement in Cleveland

Some of the balloons also went to Medina County and landed on pastures, frightening some of the horses there. As a result, the owner sued the organizers but eventually settled. To make matters worse, some blanketed the Lake Erie, where a search operation was on for two fishermen who went missing the day before.

Because of the multicolored balloons scattered over the entire water body, it became difficult for the coast guard to locate the two missing persons or to spot their life jackets. Days later, the dead bodies surfaced and one of the deceased’s wife sued the charity but settled for a huge a amount later. Most of the balloons got blown to Canada, where residents complained of the colorful litter on their beaches.

There were even more dire consequences due to the historic event, but despite everything, Cleveland got their coveted Guinness World Record. A few years later, this record was snatched by Wiltshire, England in 1994 which released 1.7 million balloons.