I managed to snag free tickets from our local 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 $17, 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, http://www.balloonfestival.com/.
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.
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.
What Can You Do There?
Before you attend, 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: http://www.balloonfestival.com/info/map/ 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. 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.
Anyway, I have friends who loooove the sponsor/vendor section of this event. 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).
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.
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.
*purchase your tickets in advance at any local Quick Chek and save on postage fees (instead of ordering online)
*check out the FAQ section of their website for info on the balloon launches and purchasing balloon rides yourself: http://www.balloonfestival.com/info/faq/
*bring your camera! It really is a sight to behold.