Humanity has long been fascinated by flight. Long before the invention of planes, though, another device became a popular way to experience adventure from above: the hot-air balloon. It was invented almost 240 years ago in Paris, and the first manned excursion in America happened in 1793 when a balloonist drifted from Philadelphia to Gloucester County, New Jersey.
Some eighty miles north of that initial landing site, the tradition of hot-air ballooning continues to thrive today at the largest summertime hot-air balloon and music festival in North America, the New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning. Held at Solberg Airport in Readington, centrally located a little over an hour from both New York City and Philadelphia, it’s a three-day summer tradition like no other.
The stars of this show, being held from July 29–31, are the one hundred or so hot-air balloons that ascend into the summer sky at 6:30 p.m. each day as well as 6:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. You can expect to see a colorful array of sport and special-shaped balloons that dazzle both young and old alike. But you may ask: Why the super early morning launch time? It’s based on science. Ideal conditions for a hot-air balloon launch are when the surface winds are less than 6–8 miles per hour—before the sun creates breezes while heating the atmosphere—and this happens approximately one hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also get a bird’s-eye view of the festival yourself by taking a ride in one of the hot-air balloons, either sky high or tethered to the ground. With 3,500 people taking part each year, these tickets sell fast, so purchase them early if you want to have an experience of a lifetime.
As breathtaking as the hot-air balloons are, the music headliners booked for the festival’s concert series each year are equally so. Past performers to grace this stage have included the Beach Boys, Joan Jett, Styx, Meat Loaf, The Doobie Brothers, Hall & Oates, the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato, and Barenaked Ladies.
This year, popular children’s performer Laurie Berkner returns to enthrall the children’s audience with an afternoon show, and music legends Collective Soul, Todd Rundgren, and Kansas are the scheduled headliners for the remainder of the weekend. Lawn seating for the concerts is included with general admission tickets, but reserved concert tickets must be purchased separately and sell out quickly, so keep this in mind if you want to catch one of these stellar acts.
In addition to watching the balloons fill the skies and taking in a concert, there’s plenty for you and your family to do all day at the festival, including perusing hundreds of craft and food vendors (where you must seek out and try the decadent, chocolatey Hot-Air Balloon Funnel Cake), enjoying amusement rides, partaking in interactive exhibits, and even watching a magic show. You can also witness hundreds of runners participate in the annual Running with the Balloons 5K, a cross-country race that begins at and then loops back through the festival itself. And be sure to visit the festival’s latest attraction, the New Jersey Lottery’s Lottery Land, a massive complex that offers games, activities, a bilevel lounge area overlooking the festival grounds, an additional concert stage, and more.
When the sun goes down, the fun factor goes up even more. Among the nighttime attractions are a fireworks display and Balloon Glow, a popular event where the hot-air balloons light up the night in synchrony.
Approximately 165,000 people travel to the Central Jersey countryside every year to be part of this weekend balloon jam, including a record 175,000 festivalgoers in 2021. But for as many indelible memories that are made for visitors, the impact beyond the event is even greater.
A portion of the festival proceeds benefits a variety of local nonprofits, including the Children’s Miracle Network, as well as children’s specialized hospitals. The promoters have raised more than $3 million to date to benefit those in need. In addition, the festival has an annual financial impact of over $50 million on the state’s economy. In a very real sense, it’s truly an uplifting experience in more ways than one. It’s no wonder USA Today Network named it the premier family-entertainment attraction in New Jersey and New Jersey Monthly dubbed it the top thing to do in the state.
Ultimately, the New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning is so popular because it’s a great metaphor for life. This festival not only shows the heights you can reach if you dare to dream but also beckons you to let loose and enjoy all that life has to offer—whether it’s music, food, art, adventure, or simply making the world a better place.
For more info, including tickets, visit balloonfestival.com