LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Bill Whidden took his first flight in a hot-air balloon 30 years ago.
"It was love at first flight," Trish Whidden says.
The Whiddens quickly became passionate "aeronauts," and have owned and flown dozens of balloons.
On Thursday, they were at Lakewood Ranch before dawn to do a test launch of their balloon in advance of the Florida Wine & Balloon Festival, set for April 4-7 at Premier Sports Campus.
With the Nike International Friendlies soccer tournament this week at Premier Sports Campus, Thursday's test flight was moved a few miles northeast to the site of Ancient Oaks Gun Club, just south of State Road 64 and east of Lorraine Road.
"We had to be five miles away from the nearest airport and still be close to
Bradenton and Sarasota," Bill Whidden noted.
Wind is always a consideration for a hot-air balloon and its 1,800 yards of fabric. Gusty conditions Thursday only allowed an untethered flight of about one-quarter mile, and an ascent no higher than about 75 feet.
It was a smooth treat for the first-time passengers who were invited aboard the basket-type gondola, and who experienced a quiet, gliding ride, and a mildly bumpy landing.
Brief as it was, the test flight offered a taste of the colorful event to come in April, when more than 20 hot-air balloons are expected at Lakewood Ranch.
It will also be the first time that the Florida Winefest is paired with hot-air balloons, said board member Trey Desenberg.
Festival participants will be able to sample offerings from 60 to 70 wineries, and can sign up for a balloon ride for a fee, Desenberg said.
Among the special events planned during the festival are winemaker dinners, consumer tasting, a balloon glow dinner, balloon launch, auction and more.
Also planned: continuous live music, arts and craft vendors, gourmet food trucks, and a kid zone.
General admission tickets are expected to sell for $10 when they go on sale in January, said Winefest office manager Jan Crudele.
Ticket prices will go up to about $150 for special events, she said.
A portion of the proceeds go to charity. In the 23 years of the fest, 76 charities have benefited, Crudele said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1.