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A hot-air balloon flies over Neahwa Park in Oneonta on Friday, the first night of the second annual Susquehanna Balloon Festival. The festival continues Saturday and Sunday. (Star photo by Julie Lewis)

ONEONTA _ Good weather helped draw more than 1,000 people to Neahwa Park on Friday for the start of the second annual Susquehanna Balloon Festival, police said.

The event continues on Saturday, with takeoffs at 6:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., and the evening balloon glow at 8 p.m. On Sunday, the launch is at 6:30 a.m.

For Cathy Maxam, 58, of Otego, it presented the chance of a lifetime.

"I've always wanted to this," she said about riding in one of the hot-air balloons.

She was one of four in the multi-colored vehicle flown by Michael Ranieri of Catskill Mountain Balloon, including her son, David Bullock of Oneonta. Flights were $200 per person.

The event, which is sponsored by Otsego County Tourism and several local businesses, included nine balloons, said Ranieri, who coordinated the various pilots.

He was enthusiastic about the turnout and said he expected at least as many people as last year for Saturday's balloon glow. About 4,000 attended last year.

Other attractions on Friday were performances by "Ultimate Idol" winners, an appearance by SpongeBob Squarepants and several food vendors.

Among those visiting the cartoon character was 6-year-old Jared Brown. He watches SpongeBob everyday, he said, and enjoyed meeting him.

Katie James of Unadilla brought her one 11/2-year-old daughter, Avery, to see SpongeBob as well.

They were headed to see the balloons next, and she would like to see the event continue, she said.

Organizers encouraged people to come to the park during the day Saturday and enjoy a picnic, visit the food vendors or go to some of the other events around the county before the evening glow. No daytime events are scheduled.

Oneonta police Sgt. Douglas Brenner said that the crowds last year were a surprise for the one-day event held during the city's centennial. With a year to plan for the attendance, he said he doesn't foresee a problem in handling the 3,000 to 4,000 expected for Saturday's nighttime event.

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