Two major hot-air balloon festivals are returning to Warren and Hunterdon counties as the lazy days of July hand summer off to the hazy days of August.
The New Jersey Festival of Ballooning lifts off July 29 to 31 for its 23rd year at Solberg Airport in Readington, while the 2005 Warren County Farmers' Fair Balloon Festival lands at the Farmers' Fairgrounds just north of Phillipsburg for its fifth anniversary from Aug. 1 to 7.
Both the Readington and Farmers' Fair events owe a debt of gratitude to the granddaddy of all hot-air balloon festivals, the famous annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which began in 1972 and hosts more than 250 balloons each time. But that's 1,900 miles away and takes place in the fall, when most people are going back to work and back to school.
By contrast, the Farmers' Fair and Readington balloon festivals are right here in the Garden State and unfurl in the middle of summer. So while the festivals are decidedly more local in popularity and influence, the timing makes them a hugely attractive daytrip for thousands of families from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania - and even further away.
Warren County Farmers' Fair Balloon Festival
"This is truly a family event," says Giulia Iannitelli, promotions coordinator for the Warren County Farmers' Fair, which is the umbrella event for the annual balloon festival. "We always try to add more balloons each year, and the pilots, most of who live locally, really appreciate our festival because we show them a lot of respect and consideration."
Tickets for the event are $5 for adults, $3 for children 4 and over. "Our admission prices make it attainable for just about every family," Iannitelli notes.
The Warren County Farmers' Fair has been around since 1937, and its balloon festival is now in its fifth year. Visitors can book flights for $184 and tethered flights (which never leave the fairgrounds) for $10. The colorful cluster of ascents each evening of the fair (weather permitting) provides a gorgeous vision of aeronautic grace that can be seen for miles around.
"I've always been fascinated by hot-air balloons," offers Keith Erwin, a local pilot who works the Warren County Farmers' Fair every year. "Almost everyone feels the same, especially kids, because it's just not something you see every day. As a pilot, it's almost like conquering the winds, and it certainly becomes an addiction, as well as a great stress reliever."
Erwin, who also has his own balloon ride business, flies at least a hundred times a year.
Returning as the festival's largest corporate sponsor is Snapple. Its famous spokesperson, the Snapple Lady, is on tap to make an appearance. Other sponsors include Stop & Shop, Four Sisters Winery, Hunterdon Hills Playhouse, and about 50 additional corporations, media outlets, retailers and local businesses.
"Our sponsors benefit tremendously from the event, but so does Warren County," Iannitelli says. "For instance, there are many local farm stands that you come across on your way to the festival, and they pick up quite a bit of business during festival days. Sweet corn is very big at that time of the year, and the sweet corn growers will see a lot of cars stopping by on their way to and from our festival."
There will be about 35 hot-air balloons at the Farmers' Fair, and if additional funding becomes available, Iannitelli says a "Balloon Glow" will be scheduled for one of the evenings, where the firing up of the balloons against the black horizon is coordinated to music. The event is a popular one at many balloon festivals and has been likened to the effect of millions of fireflies lighting up at night. The New Jersey Festival of Ballooning also plans a Balloon Glow.
"The Warren County Farmers' Association is a nonprofit organization," Iannitelli explains, which is why funding must be sought virtually up until the last minute before the festival is scheduled to begin. "We just want to make enough money to be able to hold the event next year."
Any profits accrued through sponsorships are used to create new highlights and events to maximize crowd enjoyment.
Detailed information about the Warren County Farmers' Fair Balloon Festival can be found at www.warrencountyfarmersfair.org.
New Jersey Festival of Ballooning
"Our slogan is 'It's more than just hot air,' and we think that means a lot to the people who come out to join us," says Howard Freeman, executive producer of the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning. Freeman, who with partner John Koff took over the annual event in 1992 from its founders (which included Malcolm Forbes), uses the 'more than just hot air' catchphrase to refer to the dozens of activities that are also part of the three-day event, from concerts and amusement rides to clowns and alligator wrestling.
But it is clearly the 125 hot-air balloons from the U.S. and abroad that initially attract the crowds to the Readington festival.
"It's a unique opportunity for the whole family to get up close and personal with the balloons," explains Larry Konash, who oversees all flight operations at the festival. Officially known as a "balloonmeister" (a term used throughout the world), Konash is well aware that when hot-air balloons prepare for takeoff, and then ascend en masse into the calm blue sea just below the clouds, they are merely in the final stage of a comprehensive process that began months earlier.
But it is the final stage - the festival itself - that really counts for Freeman, Konash, event sponsors, and even the local municipalities. When the crowds are huge, as they always are, quite a bit of money is pumped into the local economies.
"Businesses and individuals in Hunterdon County, Somerset County, Readington and White House Station reap about $8 million from our festival each year," Freeman says. "It comes from the people who pass through, stay in hotels, buy gas, go shopping and do so much more."
Of equal or even greater pride to festival organizers is the fact that more than $100,000 is raised each year for such charities as the Children's Miracle Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds for juvenile hospitals across North America.
Daily balloon ascensions occur at 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Those times are regarded as the safest, because the surface winds are typically less than six to eight miles per hour. (As the sun heats up the atmosphere, it creates breezes knows as thermals, which can sometimes affect the paths and distances the free-flight balloons will take.)
Visitors can book morning or evening flights for $175 or $185 respectively, or tethered flights for $15. Special couples packages with wine and photo keepsakes are also available. All flights are weather and wind permitting. Advanced reservations are strongly recommended.
"The original owners made the festival as big as they could get it," Freeman says. In those early days, when Forbes and USA Today cofounder Tom Curly ran the show, there were typically just 30 balloons at each event and 30,000 spectators. "But we brought in Quick Chek Food Stores as a partner and title sponsor, and with their help, we have built the festival to the point where we expect 125 balloons to be on hand and 165,000 people to watch."
The event, which is frequently referred to as the Quick Chek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, is also sponsored by PNC Bank, Marriott Bridgewater, Delta Airlines, New Jersey 101.5 FM and several more. Tickets purchased in advance (available at all Quick Chek stores and online at http://quickchk.balloonfestival.com) are $17 for adults and $7 for children over 3. Prices are slightly higher at the gate.
More than balloons
Both the Readington and Warren County festivals are known nearly as much for their ancillary events as for the balloons themselves.
The Doobie Brothers and Peter Noone with Herman's Hermits will be among the musical highlights at the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning. Other events there include a barnstorming air show, magicians and jugglers, fireworks displays, and more.
Over at the Farmers' Fair, tractor pulls, a demolition derby, and a 'mud bog' competition are among the attractions, as well as a "Cooking for Kids" exhibit and a classic car show.
Giulia Iannitelli had been attending the Farmers' Fair since she was a young girl, and her brother had subsequently been on its board of directors. Several years ago she had the idea to turn the fair into more of a festival, so she approached the association, and the hot-air balloon event was a natural progression from her initial brainstorm.
Ballooning as a spectator attraction has actually been around since the mid-1700s, but the hard work and dedication of all the organizers and pilots who help turn New Jersey into a hot-air paradise hasn't made it any less of a novelty two and a half centuries later.
There are also several companies around the state that offer daily ascensions, weather permitting.
A ride with Balloonatics and Aeronuts in Phillipsburg offers spectacular views of the Delaware River, the rolling hills of the Skylands Region, and - on a clear day - New York City. Call (877) 4-FUN-FLY or visit www.aeronuts.com.
"In Flight" Balloon Adventures have been ballooning since 1974, and offer daily flights from West Asbury. Call (888) 301-2383 or visit www.balloonnj.com.
Year-round and weekend flights can be ordered up from Two Angels Hot Air Balloon Team in historic Deptford Township. Call (609) 965-6313 or visit www.firstandfinest98.com.