11 awesome ways to enjoy giant N.J. balloon festival

Craig Turpin | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Craig Turpin | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Up to 125 hot air balloons were scheduled to take to the skies over Hunterdon County at the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning in 2006. (NJ Advance Media file photo)

Up to 125 hot air balloons were scheduled to take to the skies over Hunterdon County at the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning in 2006. (NJ Advance Media file photo)

One of the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning's attractions is a balloon glow on Saturday night. (NJ Advance Media file photo)

One of the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning’s attractions is a balloon glow on Saturday night. (NJ Advance Media file photo)

Balloons take to the sky over Hunterdon County at the 33rd annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning held at Solberg Airport. Readington on July 24, 2015. (NJ Advance Media file photo)

Balloons take to the sky over Hunterdon County at the 33rd annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning held at Solberg Airport. Readington on July 24, 2015. (NJ Advance Media file photo)

For the 34th year, tens of thousands of people will descend on Hunterdon County to watch over 100 pilots take off at what is North America’s largest balloon festival.

The QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning takes place at Solberg Airport in Readington Township on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The festival is much more than just balloons – there’s music, rides, entertainment and lots of food.

Here are 11 insider tips on how to make the most out of your visit to the festival:

Balloon launches

There are five balloon launches over the festival’s three days. Three take place each day at 6:30 p.m. and two are at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. If you want to avoid the crowds and heat, come to the early mass ascension to see the more than 100 balloons that will take flight.

There are a number of special shape balloons from around the world that take part in the festival, as well as local pilots.

If you’re planning on arriving for Saturday night’s mass balloon ascension at 6:30 p.m. and the KC and The Sunshine Band concert and nighttime hot air balloon glow, come earlier in the day as crowds are at their peak late Saturday afternoon.

Fireworks

Another reason to catch the evening mass ascension on Friday is the fireworks show to follow at 9:30 p.m. There will also be a crowd-favorite night-time balloon glow on Saturday at 8:30 p.m.

Music

The balloon festival always provides a wide-range of music, and this year’s lineup is no exception. There are two ways to enjoy the concerts, either buy a ticket to sit in special stage-front seating, or take your chances with the lawn seating, which fills up early.

Third Eye Blind performs on Friday night. Premium and platinum tickets are sold out, but gold tickets ($59) are available.

The Girl & The Dreamcatcher featuring Dove Cameron & Ryan McCartan perform on Saturday at 1 p.m. Premium tickets are gone, but there are platinum and gold tickets available ($40-$55).

KC and The Sunshine Band perform Saturday night and John Kay & Steppenwolf with special guest Foghat take the stage Sunday afternoon. Tickets for both shows are available ($79-$99).

Food

There’s plenty to eat at the festival. In addition to vendors throughout the festival, QuickChek will have its 2,700-square-foot air-conditioned “pop-up” store. It will also have its Hospitality Tent with baristas who will custom make more than 60 varieties of handcrafted hot and iced cold drinks.

If you come early on Saturday or Sunday, you can enjoy “Breakfast with the Balloons” catered by Black River Barn of Randolph.

Then there’s the Hot Air Balloon Funnel Cake – An Oreo cookie dipped in sweet funnel cake batter, fried to a golden brown, topped with powdered sugar and served with either strawberry, chocolate or blueberry sauces.

World-traveling balloons take part in festival

Take a flight

A unique way to take in the festival is by becoming part of the mass ascensions. Balloon flights are offered at each of the five launches. The cost is $225 per person for morning launches, and $250 per person for evening launches. Tethered balloon rides are also offered if the winds are calm at $20 per person.

Jennifer ‘The Cannon Lady’ Smith

A highlight of the festival is seeing human cannonball Jennifer “The Cannon Lady” Smith take flight. She takes flight at 3:30 and 6 p.m. Friday, at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and 1 and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. She will also serve as the starting “gun” for Sunday morning’s 5K run.

Smith will also hold meet and greet photo sessions during the weekend.

Entertainment

There’s plenty to do while in between balloon launches. The Jeep Family Fun Pavilion will have entertainment throughout the day, from jugglers to musicians to other family-friendly performers. There’s also a Theater of Magic performance tent, music at the QuickChek Hospitality Tent and on Saturday and Sunday NJ 101.5’s Big Joe Henry Live radio broadcast taking place.

Also, check out the vendors. And don’t forget the free giveaways – you can always use another tote bag or Frisbee.

Run with the balloons

A recent addition to the festival is the Advil Running with the Balloons 5K Cross-Road Challenge.

Combining the elements of cross-country with a traditional road race, the USATF-NJ certified course features a mix of surfaces including grass, pavement, gravel and dirt roads. Runners race past the balloon launch field while Sunday morning’s mass hot air balloon ascension takes place, and finishes in the heart of the Festival at Solberg Airport.

Check out the Midway

For thrill seekers, check out the rides at the festival’s unofficial Midway. It’s best to get ride tickets early to avoid long lines later in the day.

KC & The Sunshine Band still enjoy the ride

Be a Blue Sky VIP

All general admission tickets are $35 ($15 for kids ages 4-12). Another option is the Blue Sky Club, which includes general admission, prime viewing spots for the mass ascensions in the Blue Sky Club Tent with catered food (at an additional charge). Also get a reserved concert seat to one of the three major concerts.

Seats are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis.

A major plus – private restrooms with running water, vanity mirrors and air conditioning. VIP parking is only available to those who purchased Blue Sky Club tickets before July 22.

Plan ahead

Plan on arriving early. Backpacks, bags and personal items are subject to inspection before you enter the grounds.

Pack only the basic essentials and leave valuable items at home. Coolers, bottles and food are not permitted on the festival grounds. Only guide dogs and service animals are permitted.

Wear comfortable, light-colored clothing and comfortable shoes. Bring sunscreen and wear UV protective sunglasses. Baseball caps and wide-brimmed hats are recommended to protect your eyes and head from the summer sun.

There are a limited number of customer service golf carts which are available to transport patrons to the parking lots from various points throughout the festival grounds. The main parking lots are outfitted with patron trolleys designed to help get people back to their vehicles.

All handicap parking areas, as well as senior and handicap courtesy shuttles, are made possible this year by Hackensack University Health Network.

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11 awesome ways to enjoy giant N.J. balloon festival

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