The Ridiculous Cleveland Balloonfest Disaster Of '86

Culture | October 16, 2021

1.5 million balloons prepared for liftoff. (Relativelyinteresting)

When it comes to strange and weird disasters, Balloonfest ‘86 in Cleveland ranks right at the top. Chances are, you never heard of Balloonfest, so allow us to set the scene. It’s 1986 and Cleveland is trying to rebrand itself as something more than a dreary city by a lake. Their answer? Releasing a record-setting 1.5 million balloons in the center of town to benefit the United Way of Cleveland.

As Tom Holowach, project manager of Balloonfest ‘86 put it, “The guy from the United Way who dreamed this up had been in marketing at Procter and Gamble and was trying to rebrand Cleveland as cool. Cleveland had cleaned up tremendously and wanted to change their image.” Unfortunately, Cleveland’s balloon-filled coming-out party quickly went from euphoric Guinness World Record to abject disaster faster than a falling balloon.

Visually pleasing but environmentally disastrous. (Theatlantic)


Over six months of preparations went into the event and a staggering amount of planning. As Treb Heining, master of balloon releasing ceremonies put it, “It’s absolutely astonishing to try to get something like this off. A lot of technical research and research through the city permits, it’s endless. This is a prime example of what United Way is trying to do in terms of saying, ‘Cleveland, it’s your time.' It’s time to say yes. It’s time to say it is a happening city. We are on the move. It’s no longer the butt of jokes.”

How this proved that Cleveland was a major city also remains a mystery. (Boredpanda)

Triumphant Balloon Release

On the morning of the event, 2,500 volunteers spent hours filling literally hundreds of thousands of balloons with helium. Local and national media gathered in droves. The site of the mass balloon release was set for Cleveland’s Public Square, allowing for the most amount of spectators. As the jaw-dropping amount of balloons lifted into the sky, a local radio DJ covering the event deliriously declared, “There is no 'mistake on the lake' anymore. Cleveland has now broken the Guinness Book of World Records and released over one-million five-hundred-thousand balloons!”

It looks like something out of Ghostbusters. (Fox8)

A Freezing Fiasco

Unfortunately, an incoming cold front forced over a million balloons back to earth much quicker than expected. Where the organizers planned these balloons to descend finally remains a mystery but it certainly wasn’t all over the city, and the airport, and the freeways, and an Arabic horse ranch… The ridiculous amounts of balloons caused massive traffic jams and even serious accidents as people attempted to navigate the giant slow-falling helium raindrops. The Burke Lakefront Airport was forced to close for half an hour due to balloons on the runway.

How anyone thought this was a good idea is a testament to the '80s. (Thom Sheridan/Flickr/Ranker)

Never Again

Even more tragically two men who had gone fishing on Lake Erie failed to return. When the Coast Guard went out to look for them, the balloons made it literally impossible. As authorities described it, “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. You’re looking for more or less a head or an orange life jacket, and here you have a couple hundred thousand orange balloons. It’s just hard to decipher which is which.” Days later their bodies washed ashore. What caused their deaths remained a mystery. The wife of one of the fishermen sued the city for $3.2 million, which was eventually settled out of court.

Cleveland did earn the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998 print edition for mass balloon releases. However, Guinness retired the record citing safety concerns. Undoubtedly, this was an event that could only happen in the ‘80s.

Tags: Cleveland | helium balloons

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!