The balloons are coming! Next to the horse race itself, hot-air balloons have become the biggest attraction of the week-long Preakness Celebration.
Literally the biggest. The elegantly bulbous flying machines will rise seven stories at Rash Field, lending drama and new perspective to the Inner Harbor land- and waterscape.
Bringing the balloons downtown from their former headquarters at Oregon Ridge is the most visible change in this year's Preakness Celebration, which begins tomorrow and leads up to the Preakness Stakes on May 18, the second jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown.
But the new balloon venue is not the only change.
"We've taken the celebration to the next level," says Terry Romanoli, the celebration's executive director.
The result is more than a week's worth of events and attractions, all worthy of the mid-Atlantic's biggest sporting event, a horse race rich in legend and allure.
"The board spent a lot of time this year re-evaluating the events and exploring ways to enhance the festivities," says Romanoli. "One idea was to create a focal point by centralizing the events in the Inner Harbor, which is a natural gathering point for residents and tourists alike."
Management at Harborplace and The Gallery estimate their weekend crowds to be as large as 50,000 a day during the month of May. That adds up to a lot of exposure for celebration events.
Here's a rundown of the week's activities -- official Preakness Celebration events as well as festivities sponsored by other agencies. Note that not all events take place at the Inner Harbor. Admission is free unless otherwise noted.
Friday, May 10
Hot Air Balloon Festival, 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Rash Field. (See Saturday also.)
Throughout the two-day festival, Rash Field at the Inner Harbor will be the site for balloon launches and demonstrations and the dramatic BalloonGlow, with a dozen illuminated balloons lighting the night sky.
There will also be family fun, amusement rides, concessions and a beer and wine garden. And there's free music -- several live acts as well as DJs from Tribe Ltd., a collective of Baltimore-based DJs, electronic music producers and visual artists dedicated to the advancement of electronic music, art and culture.
Though Friday's celebration officially begins at 4 p.m., the day features a balloon launch at 6 a.m. (and another at 6 p.m.). At 5 p.m., St. Veronica's Steel Drum Band performs. O'Malley's March, featuring Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, takes the stage at 7:30 p.m.
The day concludes at 9 p.m. with BalloonGlow, a show of illuminated balloons around the Inner Harbor.
Saturday, May 11
Hot Air Balloon Festival, noon-10 p.m.
Before the festival gets under way, balloons launch at 6 a.m. from Druid Hill Park in the "Hare & Hound" competition. The "hound" balloons chase the "hare" balloon, landing as close as possible to a marker set out by the hare. The finish point depends on how the winds are blowing. To view the launch, take Exit 7B off Interstate 83, then follow the signs to the Baltimore Zoo.
The festival continues at the Inner Harbor with hot-air-balloon demonstrations every hour on the hour from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Live musical entertainment includes the R&B group 25th Hour at 1 p.m., Syxx Trakk ('70s and '80s funk) at 5 p.m. and Slim Man (jazz) at 7:30 p.m.
The balloon extravaganza concludes with another BalloonGlow at 9 p.m.
Cosamin Preakness 5-K and 10-K, 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., Rash Field.
The Preakness 5-K fun run has become such a popular event that the celebration has expanded to include a more challenging 10-K race. Both races wrap around South Baltimore, with the 10-K course reaching to Fort McHenry.
If you haven't signed up yet, call the foot-race hot line at 410-377-8882 for an application. Entry fees are $25. Runners receive a cotton T-shirt and a bag of goodies. They also get to restore some of the calories they burn by enjoying the post-race buffet, sponsored by Outback Steakhouse and Krispy Kreme.
The Cingular Wireless/Nokia Preakness Parade, 11 a.m., Inner Harbor.
Ravens linebacker and Super Bowl XXXV MVP Ray Lewis serves as honorary grand marshal of the 29th annual Preakness Parade. Post yourself on Pratt Street somewhere between the starting point at Oriole Park and the finish line at Market Place.
You'll be rewarded with a gala parade featuring the Budweiser Clydesdales, marching bands, floats and giant helium-balloon characters. National radio personality Frank Ski is master of ceremonies.
Monday, May 13
Cointreau Preakness Pub, Monday-Friday at various bars, from 8 p.m. on.
Professional horse jockeys will be tending bar at Cointreau Preakness Pub, which moves to a different location each night. This event allows customers to chat with Pimlico jockeys such as Larry Reynolds, Mark Johnston, Frank Douglas and Nik Goodwin as they guest bartend.
Proceeds go to the Disabled Jockeys Fund. Collect coupons from each bar for a chance to win VIP Preakness tickets.