We are fortunate to live very close to the festival fairgrounds (Solberg Airport) so we sometimes see the balloons fly over after they launch. Well, that's an understatement. One year during my son's 2nd birthday party, this happened:
Can you imagine his face? He thought we planned it! And all of our guests were in awe! Can you see the one on the far right? It was shaped like a Pepsi can. We had just moved into our house that very week. It seemed like magic.
Balloons filled the sky above our house, and our guests later reported that they were able to stop and help fold up one of the balloons that had landed on their way home. So the next summer, we decided to visit the festival for ourselves and see what it was like.
Where Do I Buy Tickets?
I managed to snag free tickets from Bridgewater Commons mall. No catch, they just announced on their Facebook page that they had free tickets if you signed up for their email list! (Seriously? Seriously!) So we were able to attend the whole event for free. Otherwise, the tickets will set you back about $24, depending upon when and where you buy them (as of the publication of this entry, so be sure to check online prices for exact amount). You can purchase tickets in advance at any Quick Chek store, too, or purchase online at the balloon festival site.
When Can You See Balloons?
The balloons launch two times on Saturday and Sunday of the event, starting around 6:30am and 6:30pm (on Friday they launch only around 6:30pm). We were there for the evening launch on a Sunday, so I can't tell you much about the morning ones. Although I've had friends who attended the morning launches with no problems and loved their experience. I can also be honest and tell you that I have many, many friends who prefer to balloon chase. That means they don't go to the festival at all, but they stay in the area and see which way the wind is blowing, and then they try to catch a free vantage point from somewhere in the vicinity (and somewhere legal, people, I'm not promoting trespassing or anything like that here!!). This is very different from seeing the balloons launch right in front of you, of course, but if you're not picky...
|Someone told me they were tossing Kisses out of this balloon but I don't know if that's true.|
Parking and Getting There
Keep in mind that this event takes place in a giant field. That means you park in a giant field and you walk to the action. It was a bit of a hike for us, but all in all, manageable. You can also park off-site at Raritan Valley College and take a bus shuttle to the event for free. I don't remember having to pay for parking, but the website indicates there is a fee if you park on-site. I couldn't seem to find a fee listed, though (sources tell me it's around $10).
What Can You Do There?
Before you attend, I highly recommend that you check out the map of event on their website. If they do not have this year's map posted, check out last year's map so you have a general idea of what to expect (note that if you are on mobile, the balloon fest site links will direct you all to their main page and you'll have to navigate from there). The event consists of vendors (mostly advertisers), some craft tents, small rides (extra fee), pony rides (extra fee), bounce houses (extra fee- of course!), an open concert venue and more. Notice there are a lot of extra fees? So if you want to participate in those add-ons, bring some extra cash!
|A giant cow! Giant ice cream!|
There's a lot to see and do, so check out their website for all of the entertainment available, too. You can sit on the lawn and hear the concert for free, or purchase tickets (for an extra fee) to have an actual seat near the stage for the show. If you sit on the lawn you really can't see the performers, but you can hear them just fine.
Friday evening they usually offer fireworks, and on Saturday nights they have a balloon glow. Check their website for all details, because everything is subject to change based on weather. You can also purchase tethered balloon rides and an actual experience in a hot air balloon, so if you're interested (and brave enough!) check their site for details.
This was a shot of the shark balloon from years past. See how the sky got really gray? Keep in mind that the balloons will NOT launch if there is a threat of bad weather, rain, or even wind. So when you go, there is NO guarantee that you will see the balloons launch. We were able to see them launch, but the shark, he stayed grounded. Whether it was the approaching gray skies or the sheer size of him, I don't know what kept sharky grounded. But it made for a good picture. Check out the special balloon shapes to be featured at this year's festival.
|This unusual shaped balloon took off but didn't make it far, landing in a yard near the exit!|
Anyway, I have friends who loooove the sponsor/vendor section of this event (and some who hate it and totally skip it). As you walk through, you are bombarded with freebies- all companies, businesses, organizations, sponsors, etc. who really, really want you to try their products. The year we went we sampled new ice pops, M&M's, new flavors of Pepsi, potato chips and more. They even give you free bags to put all of your goodies in. So that was kind of fun. My son skipped the rides and bounce houses because it was ridiculously hot, but he did go on a little pony ride, took his picture next to a monster truck, (free) and toured an RV (which was actually pretty cool, and free, too!). Later on we paid $1 to have him run around inside a giant hot air balloon that was on its side so the kids could see what it looked like. He enjoyed that, but it was really hot in there!
A Note About Food
We found the Quick Chek food tent to be really crowded and they had actually run out of a lot of things by the time we got there (we went on the final day of the festival, Sunday evening). There were other barbeque type stands to get food at the festival but we couldn't seem to find an open one. There were other small food stands selling lemonade and funnel cakes but they were closing or closed when we attended late on that Sunday afternoon. Again, this is just my experience. I have had friends attend on the other days with no problems getting food (although they did admit food was expensive). In my tip section below, you'll also see that some people suggest tailgating in the parking lot before the event.
Another option is a cute little cafe on Rt. 202 in Branchburg called Jenni's Cafe. They usually open early (and I mean early) on all three Balloon Festival dates. They offer eat-in or take-out options, and they serve breakfast and sandwiches. You can check them out online or on Facebook. I also listed some other restaurant options in my tips section below.
The Balloon Launch
Eventually we made our way over to the field to watch where the balloons would launch. It was pretty empty there but filled up quickly. People seemed to know to bring blankets and chairs or things to sit on. We just stood. The balloons are beyond a fence and there is a DJ playing music and announcing their progress. We were so hot and it seemed like it took forever, but eventually, the balloons started to fill and some of them started to float into the sky.
I have to be honest, it was an amazing sight to see.
Each year they have new shaped balloons. These were some of ours that year. But all of them are beautiful.
Eventually we decided to head towards the parking area, along with everyone else. The sky was filled with balloons!
...And pretty soon the parking lot was filled with people. Because we were there on the very last day of the festival, and now it was basically over (there wasn't even a concert scheduled that night), everyone was leaving at exactly the same time. We live about ten minutes from the festival grounds. I kid you not that it took us over TWO HOURS to get home that night. It was awful! My son was hot and tired, crying in the back seat, and I'll never forget that one police officer directing traffic who just would not let us turn down the street we needed to get home. "Please, officer, I have a little boy in the car, we just need to go down this road and we'll be home..." Nope, no dice for him. "You must turn that way," he ordered in a not-so-nice voice, sending us in the opposite direction with the rest of the traffic and dooming us to be stuck in a long line of cars for two hours. Oh well. We made it home eventually. But sadly, because of that traffic, (and that police officer! Hmph!), we have yet to return to the festival. It was enough to make us not want to try again another year! (If you've had a different experience with festival traffic, or if you have advice for future visits, please let me know in the comments section below!) Especially since last year, during one of the festival days, we were treated to this on our street:
There were so many balloons over our house that year, my son even got to help fold one of them up (in his pajamas, no less!). So I guess we're a little spoiled in the balloon department!
I have heard mixed reviews about morning traffic, too. Some years people attend with no issues, and others they are stuck in traffic trying to get into the event, only to miss the launch. My best suggestion would be to go super early, especially if the weather is good, to avoid getting stuck in traffic lines.
Jersey Momma Tips for Attending the Festival of Ballooning
*I honestly don't recommend attending the festival on its final day for an evening launch if you have little ones in tow. The traffic was just too much. I have heard that the morning launches are very peaceful and then you have the rest of the day to wander around to the tents, but I have never gotten up that early for one myself! Or perhaps try an evening launch, but not on the final day. Even better, look into the shuttle bus service. That's how I would do it if I went again, for sure.
*scope out your map and food sources. Like I said, we had trouble finding open food venues, but I think this was due to the day/time we attended. But know ahead of time what food to look for and that should help.
*there are some great local restaurants in Branchburg if you don't want to eat at the festival or tailgate. Check out Sol Cantina, Genie's Weenies or Jenni's Cafe. Stonybrook Grille is also yummy.
*I have heard they are very strict about bringing in outside food, including water bottles (which I find ridiculous- you should be allowed a water bottle!). So just be aware of this in advance.
*This balloon festival can be hot. It is in an open field with very little shade coverage, so keep that in mind if you are with kids or the elderly, or even if you have difficulty dealing with heat yourself. The festival could benefit from misting stations or multiple covered tent areas to sit and rest, but they have not offered this in the past.
*there are some paved areas at the entrance but most of the walking you do is over grass/dirt and unpaved areas. This can be difficult if you are in a wheelchair (they do not offer wheelchair or scooter rentals). If you're bringing a stroller, just make sure it's one that you can maneuver in all terrains.
*purchase your tickets in advance at any local Quick Chek and save on postage fees (instead of ordering online)
*some people have told me they were able to tailgate in the parking lot and have their meals/snacks before they even went into the festival. Some people claimed they tailgated in the parking lot and watched the balloons from there without even entering the festival! So you do have some options! I couldn't find any rules against doing this on their website. You do have to pay for parking, though.
*check out the FAQ section of their website for info on the balloon launches and purchasing balloon rides yourself.
*bring your camera! It really is a sight to behold if you see the launch.