MARICOPA — The first year Copa Glow was hosted by the city of Maricopa, it soared beyond expectations. Three years later, the event's popularity has continued to climb, and with it so has the city's hopes of expanding to new heights in the coming years.
Maricopa's first ever hot air balloon festival on Jan. 18, 2020, marked a dream years in the making for former Mayor Christian Price.
Price said he felt overwhelmed and astonished seeing Copa Glow come to life. He thought, like many first events in Maricopa, attendance would be a bit sparse, but people would continue talk about Copa Glow in the coming months and it would grow the next year.
"We were all just blown away," Price said. "From my standpoint, from a pride standpoint, it was so neat to see so many people."
Price said that receiving positive feedback from those in attendance made him realize he was "onto something."
The event's success was significant to Price for another reason as well — he had drawn inspiration from his childhood memories for Copa Glow.
As a child, Price and his family would sometimes travel to the Marana area, just northwest of Tucson, in the early morning to attend a similar festival. At the time, the area was known for its abundance of farmland and open fields.
He still remembers seeing tons of vendors and food and how "freezing cold" it was. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, he recalls seeing hot air balloons laid out on the ground, and watching them fill up and eventually float through the sky.
During one of his family trips to this festival, he met a vendor who sold blow-up hot air balloons, and that vendor eventually hired him. Each year, Price showed up and worked for the vendor for a few hours, earning money filling up the blow-up replicas while watching the real hot air balloons rise.
"I love hot air balloons; I just do," Price said. "I don't know what it is about 'em; there's just something magical about 'em."
When Price became mayor, he had the opportunity to bring in the economic attraction to Maricopa. But it wasn't without its obstacles.
Maricopa city staff encountered challenges internally and externally while trying to establish the first festival. They included variables like the weather, locating people with hot air balloons and determining if they were available.
Another challenge was timing the event so it didn't conflict with other city events, such as Merry Copa and the Salsa Festival, as well as surrounding area events — a somewhat tricky balance given that hot air balloons can only be operated during cooler times of the year.
"There's speed bumps in everything we do and it's just a matter of overcoming them and finding the way to make it work," Price said.
Though Price's initial vision had been to have the hot air balloons race, he didn't get exactly what he wanted as the balloons at Copa Glow are tethered to the ground, but a compromise was struck and Copa Glow flew.
"We just knocked it out of the park; people love hot air balloons," he said. "I guess people have had the same experience I've had... It's just gorgeous; people love that. I think there's an allure to that."
The pandemic erupted shortly after the first Copa Glow, but the event attracted more people than initially anticipated. The city estimates that at least 5,000 people attended the first event.
Everything about Copa Glow marked a new milestone for Maricopa since nothing like the event had ever been done within the city before. Copa Glow returned in full force at the beginning of 2021.
By 2022, the event was in its third year. Dozens of colorful hot air balloons floated above the Copper Sky Regional Park grounds, lighting the sky with flame every 20 minutes or so. A couple balloons were available for tethered rides, which around 500 people took the opportunity to try.
The "night market" theme was also introduced that year. The concept sought to help promote local businesses and supported the city's economy along with providing the community fun and entertaining activities for families to enjoy.
Price said that though he planted the seed for this event and helped where he could, it was city staff, such as police and fire, community services and parks crew who put in a "ton of work" to pull it off and make it "look good."
Copa Glow also had lured people from all over Arizona to attend, inspiring tourism and people's interest in Maricopa — something the city considers to be another big accomplishment.
Price believes "great things" can happen with the event if the city continues to add new attractions and keep it fresh.
"I'd like to see that it does evolve," he said. "I'd like to see that we keep pushing it to the point of where we do have a race, where we have a large swath of land...you could do 50 to 100 balloons and that's something else. People can see that from miles around. You just stare at the sky and watch it."
Though he doesn't know what happened to the hot air balloon festival from his childhood, Price remembers it was something his family looked forward to every year. They loved it.
"If you find something that people really love, they will come to it; they will stay here; they will shop here; they will buy food here," he said. "That's tourism. It helps market the city as who we are and what we have to offer."
Of course Price enjoyed having something he'd dreamed about for Maricopa come to fruition. However, he really enjoyed knowing those who attended had a good time.
"When there's an excitement that's palpable and you can feel it throughout the multiplicity of people and to see the smiling little kids' faces and adults' faces and retirees' faces — just span the gamut there — that was the most rewarding thing, (and) to say, 'We hit it on the head with this one. People really wanted this to be here,' even if they didn't say it," he said.