With gas prices pummeling records, inflation at a 40-year high and everything from steak to socks becoming unaffordable, we all wish our financial troubles could just float away.
At the New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning, the largest summertime hot air balloon and music festival in North America that returns to Solberg Airport in Readington for the 39th time this July 29-31, it will almost seem that they can.
The festival, known for its twice-daily 100-balloon ascensions, is one summer attraction that hasn’t increased in cost. General admission tickets still cost $12 to $15 per child and $32 to $40 per adult, just as they did last year.
“We are very cognizant of what the economy is like right now, and we wanted to keep prices the same so families could afford to have a nice day out with the kids,” said Howard Freeman, festival executive producer.
Due to gas prices, airline woes and predictions that New Jerseyans will take more day trips this summer, Freeman anticipates at least the normal turnout this year, which is between 150,000-175,000 people throughout the weekend.
“More people understand that this is the summer for staycations,” Freeman said. “We are right in the middle of everything and with gas prices, many people will rather drive an hour to a family-oriented festival where the average stay is seven-and-a-half hours. It’s probably not the year to go to Williamsburg or Myrtle Beach.”
With past headliners including the Beach Boys and Third Eye Blind, as well as then-up-and-comers Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato, concert lawn seating, which is included with every ticket, has long been a huge draw to those planning to spend a few hours in Readington during the last weekend of July — no matter their age or favorite music genre, thanks to the festival’s three stages. Reserved seating for all concerts requires additional purchase.
Laurie Berkner, a popular children's musical artist, will headline the main stage at 1:30 p.m. Friday July 29, followed by Collective Soul that night at 8 p.m. Todd Rundgren, music artist and producer known for hits like “Hello It's Me” and “I Saw The Light,” will headline Saturday July 30 at 8 p.m. Kansas will then conclude the weekend headline acts at 3:30 p.m. Sunday July 31.
However, this year the Cash Pop Summer Stage, an addition by the New Jersey Lottery, which became the festival's title sponsor last year, also will get a revamp. While last year the stage hosted emerging local artists, this year, eight tribute bands will perform. Those include Minikiss, a tribute band made up of little people that has been featured on the Super Bowl, as well as bands honoring the Spice Girls, Meatloaf, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bruce Springsteen.
The tunes wouldn’t be the same without the backdrop of 100 balloons hitting the skies. As always, ascensions, which are weather permitting, are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday, and 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
New special shape balloons include Billy The Kid, a flying saucer, a Tazmanian devil, an alien rocket ship and a tiger. The signature balloon remains the 135-foot-tall New Jersey Lottery Sunny Days, while visitors also can expect to see returning favorites like the 110-foot-tall Unique Photo panda, the 80-foot-tall Pepsi football and a pink unicorn.
Those who want to get up-close-and-personal with the balloons can do so by booking a hot air balloon ride, which costs $250 to $315. Advance reservations are recommended, as they often sell out. Or, tethered balloon rides, where a balloon is tethered to the ground and rises 75-100 feet, are also available for $20.
Visitors who would rather see balloons from afar also will find other returning festival attractions, including a fireworks display, a nighttime hot air balloon glow, children’s amusement rides, a 5K race and a human cannonball.
But some of those highlights also are getting a revamp. This year, human cannonball David “The Bullet” Smith, Jr., who is the 5K race’s “starting pistol,” will attempt to set a world record by being the first human cannonball to do a scratch-off ticket in midair. Whatever he wins will be split with one audience member.
Smith’s ticket will be a Ballooning Bucks scratch-off, which are for sale for $2 at the festival's Lottery Land.Winnings can range up to $10,000. At Lottery Land, a festival entertainment component of the festival for those 18 and older that was added last year, other lottery-themed features also will be at play.
Those include the Quick Draw Lounge, a bi-level modern lounge area for Lottery VIP Club Members and invited guests offering Quick Draw and Cash Pop games; the Cash Pop Summer Stage; and the Beanbag Bucks giant cornhole game where attendees have the chance to win scratch-off prizes as well as a cornhole set. Plus, those who previously purchased winning Big $pin Scratch-Off tickets will spin the Big $pin Prize Wheel here and are guaranteed to win $50,000 to $300,000.
However, according to Freeman, everyone feels like a winner when the balloons hit the skies — no matter what political and economic turmoil we are all grappling with at home.
“It’s all bad news right now, whether it’s Putin invading Ukraine, a school shooting or a controversial Supreme Court decision. It’s time to just have fun after the last couple of years,” Freeman said. “During each ascension, I look down the flight line and I see adults and kids of all ages smiling. Forget your troubles, leave them behind, look at the colors in the sky and get away from it all for a day.”
Go: July 29-31 at Solberg Airport at 39 Thor-Solberg Road, Whitehouse Station section of Readington; tickets range $12-$15 for kids and $32-$40 for adults; balloonfestival.com.
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: NJ balloon festival back at Solberg Airport in Readington in July