Balloonfest '86

Balloonfest '86 was a 1986 event in Cleveland, Ohio, United States, in which the local chapter of United Way set a world record by releasing almost 1.5 million balloons.[2] The event was intended to be a harmless fundraising publicity stunt, but the balloons drifted back over the city, Lake Erie, and landed in the surrounding area, causing problems for traffic and a nearby airport. The event also interfered with a United States Coast Guard search for two boaters who were later found drowned.[1] In consequence, the organizers and the city faced lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages,[1] and cost overruns put the event at a net loss.[3]

Balloonfest '86
DateSeptember 27, 1986 (1986-09-27)
TimeAround 1:50 PM EDT
LocationPublic Square, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Coordinates41°29′59″N 81°41′38″W / 41.49972°N 81.69389°W / 41.49972; -81.69389Coordinates: 41°29′59″N 81°41′38″W / 41.49972°N 81.69389°W / 41.49972; -81.69389
Organized byUnited Way of Cleveland
  • World record for simultaneous release of balloons[1]
Deaths2 (indirectly)
Non-fatal injuriesMultiple horses
Property damageMultiple traffic collisions
Litigation2 lawsuits


The stunt was coordinated by a Los Angeles-based company headed by Treb Heining, Balloonart by Treb, which spent six months preparing for it. A rectangular structure the size of a city block was set up to hold the balloons on the southwest quadrant of Cleveland's Public Square. It measured 250 feet (76 m) by 150 feet (46 m), was three stories high and was covered with a one-piece net of woven mesh material.[3][2][4] Inside, 2,500 students and other volunteers spent many hours filling the balloons with helium.[1][3][5]

United Way originally planned to release two million balloons, but eventually stopped at over 1.4 million.[4] Children sold sponsorships to benefit United Way at the price of $1 for every two balloons.[4]


On Saturday, September 27, 1986, with a rainstorm approaching, organizers decided on an early release of the balloons at about 1:50 p.m. EDT. Close to 1.5 million balloons rose up from Public Square, surrounding Terminal Tower and surpassing a world record set the previous year on the 30th anniversary of Disneyland.[1]


Typically, a helium-filled latex balloon that is released outdoors will stay aloft long enough to be fully deflated before it descends to Earth.[6] However, the Balloonfest balloons collided with a front of cool air and rain and dropped towards the ground, still inflated, clogging the land and waterways of Northeast Ohio. In the days following the event, many balloons were reported washed ashore on the Canadian side of Lake Erie causing water pollution.[5]

Two fishermen, Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, who had gone out on September 26, were reported missing by their families on the day of the event. Rescuers spotted their 16-foot (4.9 m) boat anchored west of the Edgewater Park breakwall. A Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter crew had difficulties reaching the area because of the "asteroid field" of balloons.[7] A search-and-rescue boat crew tried to spot the fishermen floating in the lake, but Guard officials said balloons in the water made it impossible to see whether anyone was in the lake.[1] On September 29, the Coast Guard suspended its search. The fishermen's bodies subsequently washed ashore. The wife of one of the fishermen sued the United Way of Cleveland and the company that organized the balloon release for $3.2 million and later settled on undisclosed terms.[1]

Balloons landing on a pasture in Medina County, Ohio, spooked Louise Nowakowski's Arabian horses, which allegedly suffered permanent injuries as a result. Nowakowski sued the United Way of Cleveland for $100,000 in damages and settled for undisclosed terms.[1]

Burke Lakefront Airport had to shut down a runway for half an hour after balloons landed there.[1][3] Traffic collisions were also reported "as drivers swerved to avoid slow motion blizzards of multicolored orbs or took their eyes off the road to gawk at the overhead spectacle".[3]

The 1988 copy of The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the event as a world record "largest ever mass balloon release", with 1,429,643 balloons launched.[8][9] Because of the damage caused, Guinness no longer measures environmentally unsound events like balloon releases.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kroll, John (August 15, 2011). "Balloonfest 1986, the spectacle that became a debacle: Cleveland Remembers". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
  2. ^ a b Bellamy, Gail Ghetia (2013). Cleveland Summertime Memories: A Warm Look Back. Gray & Company. p. 65. ISBN 1938441508.
  3. ^ a b c d e O'Malley, Michael (September 26, 2011). "25 years ago, thousands watched a balloon launch on Public Square". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved May 5, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c McCormack, Simon (April 24, 2014). "Releasing 1.5 Million Balloons Into The Air Is A Bad Idea". The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 4, 2014.
  5. ^ a b Livingston, Tom (August 8, 2013). "Cleveland's 1986 Balloonfest, the world record that went bust". WEWS. Archived from the original on October 18, 2015. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
  6. ^ Burchette, D. "Balloon HQ Presents: Balloon Releases and the Environment". Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  7. ^ Kushins, Jordan (April 22, 2014). "That Time Cleveland Released 1.5 Million Balloons and Chaos Ensued". Gizmodo. Retrieved May 5, 2014.
  8. ^ 1988 Guinness Book of World Records. New York: Sterling Publishing. 1987. p. 438. ISBN 9780806965994. OCLC 18803488. Retrieved July 8, 2018 – via The Internet Archive.
  9. ^ "Claim to world record for 'Balloonfest '86' is not all hot air: Michael K. McIntyre's Tipoff". Retrieved November 13, 2018.

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