ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tens of thousands of spectators swarmed the launch field Saturday for the first mass ascension of the 44th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The nine-day event kicked off at dawn. More than 500 balloons representing dozens of states and nearly 20 different countries registered for the event this year. Among them were character balloons such as one depicting the head of “Star Wars” villain Darth Vader, which inevitably floated across from a Yoda balloon. Other popular draws included two bees kissing and a flying pig with sunglasses.

Organizers say it’s one of the most photographed events in the world.

“Every time I turn around, I see another one,” said Kim Kaiser, who came from Vermont. “I’ve got to get a picture of this one and that one.”

One of the big draws of the balloon fiesta is the ability of spectators to roam the city’s 72-acre balloon park to watch the morning mass ascensions.

Marilyn Oates of Michigan said nothing compares to being surrounded by hot air balloons.

“There’s no explaining the majesty of it and it’s so huge and you can’t explain it in words,” Oates said. “You have to come and see it.”