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7 things to know ahead of this weekend’s N.J. Balloon Festival

The 38th annual New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning is returning to the Solberg Airport in Readington Township this weekend for the first time in two years.

The festival was postponed and canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Just prior to the epidemic sweeping the country, the New Jersey Lottery became the new title sponsor of the festival after QuickChek decided to exit that role in October 2020.

Festival organizers bill the three-day event as the largest summertime hot air balloon and music festival in North America. Upwards of 165,000 people flock to the festival each year, and even more are expected to travel to Hunterdon County this year due to the event’s absence in 2020.

Ken Leota, a resident of Howell, has been piloting hot air balloons for over 30 years. He told NJ Advance Media on Friday morning that he was ecstatic to return to the grounds of Readington Township to participate in an event that’s “just a blast.

“It’s so nice to see the crowds back, and the excitement building for the concerts and the kids’ rides and all the activities that happen at the New Jersey Festival,” he said. “It’s great that we’ll be back to normalcy for this event, because it’s a great mainstay for the folks in Jersey. I’ve been coming up here for a long time, and I look forward to it every year.”

Willing you be attending the hottest event happening in the Garden State this weekend? If so, here are 7 tips you should follow to ensure you make the most of your visit to Hunterdon County:

37th annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning on Friday, July 26, 2019

Scenes from the 37th annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning on Friday, July 26, 2019. (Kathy Turpin | for NJ Advance Media)

1. Look to the skies!

Approximately 100 hot air balloons will soar amongst the clouds throughout the three-day extravaganza, including new special-shaped balloons like the 135-foot-tall New Jersey Lottery Sunny Days sun-shaped balloon with 65-foot-wide sunglasses, a giant sloth and a bright, colorful unicorn.

All hot air balloon rides have sold out, but attendees can still participate in a five-minute tethered balloon ride for $20 or simply enjoy an unmatched view of the hot air balloons floating over their heads. Weather permitting, ascensions will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and 6:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Leota described hot air balloon rides as a “very easy addiction.”

“Being cooped up — not seeing anyone — it was kind of depressing,” he said. “But now since they’ve opened things up and we get to see our friends again and see the smiling faces, it’s just fabulous. It really is.”

2. Leave your AirPods at home.

Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, Barenaked Ladies and Styx are all featured headliners performing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the festival, respectively. Additionally, Laurie Berkner is headlining the children’s concert on Friday afternoon.

Other artists and bands will be performing on the main stage and in the family fun center and pavilion throughout the festival. Moreover, for the first time in festival history, more than two concert stages (the main stage and the children’s concert stage) will grace festival grounds.

The CASH POP! New Jersey Emerging Artist Stage, erected in a brand new entertainment complex at the festival known as “Lottery Land,” will showcase eight different emerging New Jersey artists throughout the weekend. In addition to live performances, the stage will also feature a DJ and an emcee interacting with the crowd throughout the weekend.

3. Get competitive.

Festival-goers will have much more to enjoy in Lottery Land than musical guests. Individuals ages 18 and older can interact in the Quick Draw Lounge, buy Quick Draw and CASH POP! games, and play a Beanbag Bucks giant cornhole game to win Scratch-Off prizes as well as an actual cornhole set.

The New Jersey Lottery will also debut the appearance of Big Jack, its new Fast Play Progressive 12-foot-tall inflatable mascot, in Lottery Land.

4. Harness your inner Devil.

New Jersey sports fans would be remiss not to check out the festival’s brand new New Jersey Devils’ exhibit, a 45-foot trailer where players from the team will make appearances throughout the festival.

Festival-goers will be able to get autographs and pictures from select players and participate in small hockey activities available in the exhibit.

5. Get vaccinated!

Festival organizers are partnering with the New Jersey Department of Health, the Hunterdon Medical Center in Raritan Township, and Wegman’s to offer festival-goers shots of the Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at the main gate of the festival on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Special prizes and incentives for those who get the shot at the festival include discounted general admission tickets, co-branded vaccine cardholders courtesy of the state Department of Health and entrance into a sweepstakes. Prizes include an air balloon ride for two in one of the festival’s special shaped balloons, Meet & Greets with artists or bands that will be performing, VIP concert tickets to that night’s concert, an upgrade to the VIP Blue Sky Club, and a tethered balloon ride for two.

39th annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning

The 39th annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning at the Solberg Airport in Readington Township on Friday evening, July 26, 2019. (Rich Maxwell | for NJ Advance Media)Rich Maxwell | for NJ Advance Me

6. Game, watch, eat, repeat.

At 1 p.m. on Friday and 8:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, the Wizard’s Festival of Fun Amusement Rides will be open to all festival-goers through to the nighttime. Magic shows, live radio broadcasts, and crafts and activities will also be taking place throughout the festival.

While the 4,425-square-foot air-conditioned pop up QuickChek that previously stood on festival grounds will not be present this year, the festival concessionaire Greenlight Food Service is bringing in a number of specialty restaurants and food trucks that will be serving crowd favorites including hot or sweet Italian sausage sandwiches, cheesesteaks, and freshly-made pizza.

7. Delight in your favorite past times.

Long-held customs of the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning remain in place in 2021, including the 5K Running with the Balloons and Sunrise Yoga on Sunday morning, Sunset Yoga on Sunday evening, multiple human cannonball launchings, a firework extravaganza on Friday evening and a night-time balloon glow on Saturday evening.

To stay up to date on the latest information about the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, individuals can download the NJ Lottery Balloon Festival app and follow the festival on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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Caroline Fassett may be reached at