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Elvis among new balloon shapes at New Mexico event

The Associated Press, Friday, October 5, 2012, 2:25pm (PDT)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A giant Elvis, an ice cream cone and a child in a wheelchair are among the new shapes set to take to the sky at an annual hot-air balloon festival in New Mexico that's expected to draw more than 700,000 visitors from around the globe.

The 41st Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is scheduled to begin Saturday with the launch of hundreds of hot-air balloons.

Fiesta officials hope for better weather at this year's nine-day affair after wind and rains sidelined balloons for a few events last year, cutting attendance by around 100,000 visitors.

Still, organizers last year were able to break a world record by sending up 345 balloons at one time.

"There were some things we just couldn't control," director Don Edwards said. "But we still tried to put on a good show."

Officials aren't planning to break any records this year, but more than 550 pilots have signed up to fly balloons at the fiesta, Edwards said. That's slightly higher than in most years, he said..

Last year, the event drew slightly more than 700,000 spectators. That was down from 800,000 visitors from 2010, officials said.

The forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies in the area Saturday and Sunday, with winds up to 12 mph.

Winds faster than 11.5 mph, less than three miles visibility and clouds below 1,500 feet would postpone or cancel any launch of balloons. However, winds vary near the Fiesta Park launch site because some are blocked by the Sandia Mountains. Officials determine whether balloons can be launched by measuring wind speeds at the site.

Making its first appearance at the event this year is the Spain-made "Shining Star" balloon, which is shaped like a child sitting in a wheelchair reaching for a star. Other balloons set to make their fiesta debuts include "Simba the Lion," ''Cosmo the Astronaut" and "Little Fireman," a balloon shaped like a fire helmet.

Officials said this year's event will have more activities for the balloon pilots, with chances of winning a horseback-riding trip in New Mexico's Sandia Mountains or a whitewater rafting trip on the Rio Grande.

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Online:

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta: http://www.balloonfiesta.com/

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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