Vaccine shots, Lottery Land and the Devils. What’s new at the 2021 N.J. Festival of Ballooning.

Nichole S. Gehr

The New Jersey Festival of Ballooning will return to the Garden State later this month after being cancelled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. How does the executive producer of the event feel about the impending festival, which was postponed and then ultimately canceled last year? Just like those […]

The New Jersey Festival of Ballooning will return to the Garden State later this month after being cancelled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

How does the executive producer of the event feel about the impending festival, which was postponed and then ultimately canceled last year?

Just like those aboard the roughly 100 hot air balloons that will soar through the skies in a few weeks, he’s looking up.

“I’m tremendously excited,” said Howard Freeman, executive producer of the New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning. “After the pandemic of 1918, you had the Roaring Twenties, and it looks like that’s happening again. Everybody’s got cabin fever, and everybody’s looking for a safe place to go with their family outdoors.”

The 38th annual New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning will be held at the Solberg Airport in Readington Township from July 23 through to July 25. Billed by organizers as the largest summertime hot air balloon and music festival in North America, the event features live concert performances and numerous other activities and entertainment that attract upwards of 165,000 people to Readington Township.

And this summer, the Solberg Airport might see more visitors than ever before.

“The potential is there. We’re up probably 20% to 25% for advance sales,” Freeman said. “For those people who do want to social distance, we have enough space. Our balloon ride sales are through the roof, and for the first time we will probably sell out balloon rides in advance.”

General admission tickets to the festival can currently be purchased online, with prices ranging from $32 per adult (with a service fee of $4.50) to $12 per child ages 4 and older (with a service fee of $3.50).

Prices for adult tickets are slightly higher than they were two years ago due to inflation and other financial reasons, according to Freeman.

“It’s the first time we’ve raised prices in eight years,“ Freeman said. “The prices of everything have gone up — including Human Resources and what we have to pay people to work — because so many people got incentives from the government. And everything is costing more, and we’re spending more on talent, frankly.”

Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, Barenaked Ladies and Styx are all featured headliners performing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the festival, respectively. Additionally, Laurie Berkner is headlining the children’s concert on Friday afternoon.

This marks the first year Styx will perform at the festival. Freeman recommended that fans interested in seeing the show purchase tickets as soon as possible.

“Styx is a band we’ve been trying to get for years,” Freeman said. “If our ticket sales are any indication, that’s going to sell out. There still are tickets available, but it’s skewing about 20% to 25% ahead of our Sunday presentation in 2019, which was The Beach Boys.”

But the upcoming performance of a legendary rock band is not the only first for the festival. In light of the epidemic, organizers have teamed up with the New Jersey Department of Health and Wegman’s to offer festival-goers shots of the Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at the main gate of the festival.

Individuals who receive the Pfizer vaccine can work with administrators on site to schedule their second dose at a Wegman’s pharmacy local to their homes.

Freeman said “lots of special prizes and incentives” will be offered to those who get the shot at the festival. These include discounted general admission tickets; co-branded vaccine cardholders courtesy of the state Department of Health and entrance into a sweepstakes to win any of the following prizes: an air balloon ride for two in one of the festival’s special shaped balloons; Meet & Greets with artists or bands that will be performing; VIP concert tickets to that night’s concert; an upgrade to the VIP Blue Sky Club; and a tethered balloon ride for two.

Attendees will not be required to wear masks at the outdoor festival, but various precautions have been implemented in response to the pandemic.

“Months ago, we purchased a huge amount of extra masks if people need them and a huge amount of hand sanitizer, so you’ll see more hand sanitizing stations around the Porta Johns and throughout the festival grounds,” Freeman said.

This year’s festival is the first in which the New Jersey Lottery will serve as the title sponsor of the event, a role previously filled by QuickChek for 26 consecutive years.

“The lottery has taken over,” Freeman said. “The lottery has been unbelievable partners with us, given the pandemic and last year. But we did some Facebook Live events with them and they hung in there.”

Lottery Land, a spacious entertainment complex, will replace “the QuickChek footprint” at the festival, according to Freeman. The complex includes a stage for musical performances, marking the first time in festival history that more than two concert stages (the main stage and the children’s concert stage) will grace festival grounds.

“It’s called the CASH POP! New Jersey Emerging Artist Stage,” Freeman said. “We will have eight different emerging New Jersey artists of all different genres playing throughout the weekend, and DJs playing when the artists are not playing.”

In Lottery Land, festival-goers ages 18 and older can enjoy the Quick Draw Lounge; buy Quick Draw and CASH POP! games; and play the Beanbag Bucks giant cornhole game with “beanbags the size of pillows” to win Scratch-Off prizes as well as an actual cornhole set, Freeman said.

The New Jersey Lottery will also debut the appearance of Big Jack, its new Fast Play Progressive 12-foot-tall inflatable mascot, at the festival.

“When people say, ‘If I have to meet someone, where should I go?’ It’s Lottery Land,” Freeman said.

Attendees brimming with the spirit of competition will find a second cornhole set and other games in the brand new New Jersey Devils’ exhibit, a 45-foot foot trailer where players from the team will make appearances throughout the festival.

“You’ll be able to shoot pucks at a goalie. And you’ll have all kinds of interactive things,” Freeman said. “Team members will be present for autographs and pictures at select times throughout the weekend.”

Balloon rides are carrying on as planned, with ascensions at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and 6:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Just as in years’ past, balloon rides are $240 per person in the morning, $275 per person in the evening on Friday and Sunday, and $295 per person in the evening on Saturday. Individuals can also purchase $20 tickets on site for tethered rides, which last about 5 minutes each.

In addition to the New Jersey Lottery hot air balloon, other new special shaped balloons include a giant sloth and a bright, colorful unicorn.

While the 4,425-square-foot air-conditioned pop up QuickChek that previously stood on festival grounds will not be present this year, Freeman promised “new surprises” in food and drink options.

”Our overall concessionaire, which is Greenlight (Food Service), is bringing in a number of specialty restaurants and food trucks that they keep adding to by the day …. including meatball heroes, different steak options, and all different kinds of food from around the country and world,” he said.

Attendees of the festival can park at the Solberg Airport, where there is more than 100 acres of onsite parking available, for a fee of $10 per day. This year, there is no shuttle bus to transport festival-goers to the site from the the Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg Township.

Individuals that drive to the festival can now pay parking staff with credit cards, whereas in years’ past only cash was accepted in the parking lot and those with cards had to pay at the front gate.

“We have a new system that we’re using that’s cashless and contactless … to help the people that want to pay by credit card in the parking lot,” Freeman said.

If travelers prefer taking the bus, they can use NJ Transit’s trip planner and type in 39 Thor Solberg Road, Whitehouse Station, NJ 08889 as their destination. Those arriving by train should hop off at the stop in Raritan Borough.

To stay up to date on the latest information about the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, individuals can download the NJ Lottery Balloon Festival app and follow the festival on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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Caroline Fassett may be reached at [email protected].

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