Sunny skies, no surprise: 37th N.J. balloon festival ‘smoothest’ one yet

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On Friday afternoon, Howard Freeman briefly sat inside of a trailer parked near one of many entrances to the fields of the 37th annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, an annual summertime event held at Solberg Airport in Readington Township.

Sipping a bottle of water and preparing to rejoin the dozen or so staff members hovering outside of what would be his office for the next three days, Freeman, executive producer of the festival, is asked about the daily responsibilities of himself and his fellow employees. Choosing to eschew specific details, he responded, “There’s the rest of the year to sleep.”

According to Freeman, the three-day event that kicked off earlier that day is the largest summertime hot air balloon and music festival in North America, drawing in crowds of over 165,000 each year. Because of the weekend’s “spectacular forecast” of sunny skies and light winds, Freeman shared that this year he expected the festival to receive “record crowds.”

“Starting Wednesday, when I got onsite, the airport has never looked better. The forecast has never been better. And it just looks like clean living is finally paying off after 27 years,” Freeman said. “This is a dream come true. When you work three-hundred-and-sixty-two days a year to put on a party for three days, to have it come to fruition like this. It’s perfect.”

Of the 27 years that Freeman has been involved in orchestrating the festival, he described this year as “the smoothest,” and credited the hundreds of staff members and volunteers for making him feel like “a vestigial organ at this point.

“There’s always challenges. It’s good to have a challenge now and then; there’s fires you have to put out here and there. But, our people have made it so smooth. I have experienced people that know how to deal with (problems),” Freeman said.

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Director of Onsite Administration Diane LeClair has been working at the festival for 13 years, appearing onsite with the rest of the balloon festival staff at 4:30 each morning to prepare for the day’s activities. She described the festival as more organized and “patron-friendly” than ever before.

“It’s just grown. It’s tremendous … And (the staff) has just done an amazing job with organizing things,” LeClair said.

Jessi Stover, a festival staff member in charge of staff check-ins and shift changes, said that this past weekend marked her 22nd year at the festival, the past seven of which she’s attended as an employee. Stover currently lives in Australia and flew back to the U.S. to continue working at the festival.

“I grew up coming here, so it’s nice to be on the other side of it,” Stover said. “In this part of Jersey, there isn’t really a lot going on. So to have this big of a festival, it’s just nice to think, ‘I helped, I worked on it, and these are the memories people are making.’”

Pam McDermott is supervisor for the Wizard’s Festival of Fun, Inc., which provides both the amusement rides and magic shows present at the festival. Like Stover, McDermott emphasized the festival’s ability to unite people from the community and far beyond it.

“This is my sixteenth year here. I really like it here. I think it brings everybody from the community out; there’s a lot of people that come here. And they seem to love it every year,” McDermott said.

During the festival, McDermott works from 7 in the morning until 10 at night alongside Suzanne Updegrove, who oversees students from Somerville High School volunteering at the festival to raise money for Music Boosters Association. Echoing McDermott, Updegrove underscored the festival’s impact on the community in terms of uniting youth within it and enabling them to give back to it.

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“It’s really good to do service for your community. And it’s a really good option for kids to get together in the summertime. A lot of the kids who do this are in the marching band … so they have a camaraderie, and get to know each other a little bit more,” Updegrove said.

Al Belmont, executive producer of Wizard’s Festival of Fun, attributed his company’s growth and expansion around the globe to the festival, which, he said, 23 years ago first “gave us the opportunity” to succeed. He added that he continues to return to the festival each year because it is “so one of a kind.”

“It’s more family-oriented, and most of (the other festivals) don’t have the spectacular finale. I mean they may bring in an artist, a very good performing artist, but it’s not something that is so unique,” Belmont said.

Belmont, like a number of others, said the hot air balloon ascensions primarily draw him back to Readington each year.

“I remember the first time they invited us to do the festival. I said to my wife, ‘Oh, balloon festival, that’s interesting, if you like seeing balloons.’ And then that first night … they just hung there. It was like a beautiful painting. I mean there must have been a hundred balloons in the sky. And I said to my wife, ‘That’s really gorgeous. That’s really something to see,’” Belmont said.

Stover added, “There’s nothing like it. Everyone who has been to a smaller festival will say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen a balloon launch.’ And I’ll say, ‘I don’t think you get it. That there are hundreds of balloons.’”

Festival Director Brent Swanson said while ballooning is “very common” in the area thanks to its flat terrains and rural landscapes, what this festival accomplishes is unique.

“To see this many balloons congregated in one area, in one mass ascension, it’s really something that can’t be replicated,” Swanson said. “When you’re up in a (balloon), you’re seeing all of the engineering that went into the different balloons, that are different sizes and shapes and colors and builds. It’s a neat perspective.”

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Freeman described the ascension as a “spiritual experience” that makes the festival distinct from any other in the world.

“I’ve always wanted to produce a festival that I would buy a ticket to. And we’ve finally done that,” Freeman said. “Some people, most of my staff, will tell you that I have the attention span of a five-year-old. But if I could keep myself entertained, I figure I can keep most of the general public entertained. And hopefully we’ve done that.”

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