ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – For the first time in more than two decades, Paul Smith will be on the other side of Balloon Fiesta. “I actually get to enjoy Balloon Fiesta now. I have been accepted as a pilot, so I get to fly in Balloon Fiesta, which I haven’t been able to do since 1995,” says Smith.

Smith is the former executive director of Balloon Fiesta. He was in the position for 26 years and officially retired at the end of 2022’s fiesta. “I think it’s in good hands. I think Balloon Fiesta is great, and I think there comes a time when you just realize it’s time,” says Smith.

Smith’s fiesta career started long before his time as executive director. Smith was a lawyer with the event for ten years prior to becoming director. His career took flight after a balloon ride in 1980. While on that ride, Smith started talking to the pilot, who just so happened to need some legal help. “He said, ‘I’ll teach you how to fly if you do my divorce.’ So it was, hopefully, a good trade,” says Smith.

While Smith says there have been many changes to Balloon Fiesta over the years, like the drone show, much of it has stayed true to its roots. “All these things are incremental changes rather than trying to change the entire situation, so it still feels like it did when you were a kid,” says Smith.

Some of Smith’s biggest accomplishments include the opening of the park in 1996 and the green grass that came a few years later. “When we got grass in the year 2000, for the first time, you could tell the difference between the locals and the people out of state because the out-of-state guests would all be taking pictures of all the balloons in the sky, and all the locals were taking pictures of 80 acres of grass on the field,” says Smith.

From his first fiesta to now, Smith says the sights and sounds are just as spectacular as they were all those years ago. “The term gets used too much – it’s magical – but it is. It’s something that you can’t really explain. You can see all the pictures. You can see the videos. You can see everything about Balloon Fiesta, but until you’re actually out here and experience it,” says Smith.