WATERLOO | Hot air balloons, a parade, activities at Byrnes Park and downtown will all be featured during My Waterloo Days this week.

The annual summer festival celebrates Waterloo's cultural and recreational opportunities.

The festival started in 1981 as a 10-day event to showcase Waterloo's parks, a summertime festivity that celebrates Waterloo's diverse community.

"There really wasn't much going on back then during the summer except the National Cattle Congress Fair in September," said Doug Carter, a past chairman of My Waterloo Days. "So a bunch of people got together and decided they needed something to start summer off. That's how My Waterloo Days began."

Though the festival no longer lasts 10 days, the long weekend is packed with activities. Events kick off with a Waterloo Bucks game and fireworks Wednesday. A laser light show is set for 10 p.m. Saturday at Byrnes Park.

But weather permitting, each day of the festival will begin and end with more than 30 hot air balloons sailing over the city.

People in the Park will take place Thursday and Friday in Lincoln Park. Entertainment ranging from live music, face painting and belly dancing will be presented. Local artists will set up their wares for purchase.

"People in the Park is a culturally diverse array of performances, food, artists and demonstrations," said Tracey Southall, a co-chair of My Waterloo Days. "There's a lot going on at the park. It's probably the fullest we've had it in a long time."

One event not returning this year is the Dragon Boat races.

"With the unpredictability of the river and weather, a decline in participation in past years and the cost associated with bringing the Dragon Boats to the area, we had to make the difficult decision to leave them out of the festival this year," Southall said.

Southall said they could return if a sponsor can be found.

Saturday and Sunday events will take place at Byrnes Park and wrap up on Sunday with a Waterhawks water ski show at Eagle Lake.

The festival admission requires the purchase of a $2 button --  $5 at the gate -- from a festival sponsor. They are on sale at more than 60 locations, including Kwik Star, Hy-Vee, Casey's and Fareway.

Residents are encouraged to purchase a button, even if you are not able to attend, to support My Waterloo Days in the future. Children 10 and under are admitted for free.

Jim Ellis, the button chairman of My Waterloo Days, 17,000 buttons have been sold so far, with a goal of 25,000.

The festival is volunteer driven.

"The heart and soul of the event is downtown Waterloo," said Jeff Kurtz, director of Main Street. "Seeing those huge crowds of people for the parade and for the events, it's about as full as you'll ever see downtown Waterloo."

The parade, which draws thousands to downtown Waterloo will be at 6:30 p.m. Friday, but a hot air balloon flyover is set for 6 p.m.

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