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IPFW prepares mastodon balloon for the Three Rivers Festival parade

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Each year, more than 50,000 people line the streets of downtown Fort Wayne to see colorful parade floats, balloons and parade walkers. The parade starts at 9:45 a.m. Saturday, so make sure to get your spot early. The route begins on Van Buren Street near St. Joseph Hospital, then weaves along Main and Berry streets, and ending along Calhoun Street.

Participants compete for a parade trophy in these categories:

Sweepstakes trophy:
Best overall float with outstanding presentation and design

Mayor's trophy:
Most original float with creativity and imagination that is uncommon
Festival parade committee trophy: Float that best portrays "Made Here" theme

Admiral Andy's trophy:
Float that is most educational or has the best appeal for children

Specialty Commercial trophy:
Commercial unit that is not a float, balloon, or band. Trophy awarded based on the Parade Judge's choice.

Speciality not-for-profit trophy:
Not-for-profit unit that is not a float, balloon, or band. Trophy awarded based on the Parade Judge's choice.

Saturday, July 13, 2013 - 12:01 am

What does it take to fly a balloon in the Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival parade?

For IPFW online marketing specialist John Kaufeld, he begins with a little bit of patience and a heck of a lot of helium. Well, nine tanks worth to be specific.

“There is an actual order we have to do on the parade day. The first thing we do on parade day is the tail, the two ears and the tuft. Then we do the head, the tusks and then we start filling up the body,” he said. “It's always interesting.”

Pulling an enormous balloon along the Three Rivers Festival parade route is no easy task, which is why it takes exactly 18 people to carefully navigate.

One daunting part of the route is the electrical line on Berry Street.

“Every year before the parade we walk the parade route looking for low-hanging wires because this is kind of like driving a flying semi through downtown. We have to be very careful as to what is up in the air. There are a couple of points that can be exciting,” he said. “We have to come way over to the side of the road right next to the people watching and sneak under the wire.”

TRF Executive Director Jack Hammer said over the years that many participating companies have done away with balloons due to the physical and organizational challenges presented. He also cites that change to the overall evolution to the parade in general.

Gary Travis, marketing designer at IPFW, used to design, build and execute elaborate floats before the university acquired the balloon.

“There is a lot of layers to building a float. It takes a lot of manpower .... We found there is enough in just the balloon. The initial investment (for the balloon) carries on each year as opposed to a yearly investment for materials for a float. The manpower behind this stuff really adds up. It's a lot more than people think it is,” Travis said.

Another challenge is the cost of purchasing, maintaining and filling the balloon properly. It's a very dangerous task due to the pure helium needed to fill the balloon. We are not talking your regular party balloon gas; this is a concentrated high-pressured gas.

“This is very toxic stuff. I've gotten horrendous headaches before. There's two big bladders in the balloon and during take down you have to unzip it quick, run and let it deflate. You can see the fumes coming out of there. It comes out quickly,” Travis said.

It may be no surprise due to the many challenges and responsibilities that go along with flying a balloon that IPFW is the only one doing it this year.

In previous years, companies such as Vera Bradley and Ivy Tech have flown balloons. But this year, Hammer said festival organizers are challenging and pushing participants to step up their float-making game.

Hammer said this year there are 170 participants in the parade this year.

“Because of the way our street lights hang, we've never been a big balloon town and that is why that IPFW mastodon stands out so much in the parade,” Hammer said.

This year's parade is sponsored by Lutheran Health Network.

No matter the challenges and responsibilities, IPFW still continues to proudly display the university's mascot.

“We come around the corner and you can hear the crowd cheering,” Travis said. “It's the big blue mastodon!”

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