"BALLOONFEST ‘86" was held on September 27, 1986 as a fundraiser for UNITED WAY. Its intent was to break the world record for the simultaneous release of small helium filled balloons. On that afternoon, PUBLIC SQUARE was filled with up to nearly 1.5 million balloons which had been inflated by a corps of volunteers. They were staged for a massive single release.
The event was meant to bring positive publicity to both the charity and to Cleveland, but ended up as a disaster. The weather caused the whole event to go awry. The winds blew many of the balloons north of the city, and rain caused the balloons to fall immediately. The balloons caused the runway at the BURKE LAKEFRONT AIRPORT to shut down and prevented the Coast Guard from finding two fishermen who had fallen off their boat. With the balloons scattered across the surface of the lake made the task impossible and the Coast Guard was unable to find the men.
The organizers of the event did not expect that the balloons would fall down inflated, littering much of the city and clogging the city's waterways. The release also caused traffic accidents throughout the city as drivers attempted to dodge the falling balloons. Some of the balloons reached as far south as Medina County spooking a horse, whose owner would sue and settle with the United Way. Within a few weeks, the balloons had managed to make it all the way to the beaches up north in Ontario.
In the years since the release, the event has come to be seen as a major environmental disaster and has been the subject of documentaries and numerous articles.