Balloon-Festival NJ – Behind the fence with VIP-status

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Hey everybody! Today I want to write about our experience of the Balloon-Festival in NJ with VIP-status. A few weeks back my Facebook-feed showed me advertisement for the NJ Balloon-Festival, an annual event at Solberg Airport in Readington, NJ (here is the link to the 2015 Balloon-Festival, the 33rd of its kind).

I remember that I was there either during my AuPair-year or shortly thereafter, I will look through my paper-pictures 😉 and it was a cool experience of hot air balloons and open-air music. A good previous experience and our friends who wanted to go, too, made us decide we want to go, too. Then Facebook showed me an add from Unique Photo, a local and online retailer of cameras and accessories but also a provider of photo courses (link) – and they had a special VIP-course for the balloon-festival!

Here is what the class stated (link):

Festival of Ballooning Workshop with Behind the Scenes Press Pass

Skill Level: Everyone

Join Michael Downey for a photo workshop featuring the annual QuickChek NJ Festival of Ballooning, the most photographed event on the East Coast!  Don’t miss out on capturing the breathtaking visuals of hot air balloons from around the world!
General Registration includes:
– (1) Balloon Festival admission ticket for Friday (6:30pm Launch), Saturday (6:30am Launch), or Sunday (6:30am Launch)
– (1) Special “Behind the Scenes” field access press pass for the selected day’s launch.
You may arrive and leave the Balloon Festival at any time on the day that you choose. Please be sure to get to the Launch Area about 45 minutes before the launch time.
Parking is not included.  Michael Downey will be at the launch areas during the launch times.

BALLOON-FESTIVAL (Your Choice): Friday, July 24th – Saturday, July 25th – Sunday, July 26th
Enjoy the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning at Solberg Airport in Readington, New Jersey!

You’ll receive “Behind the Scenes” press pass access at the launch area, which allows you to get closer to the balloons as they’re inflating and being set up for launch!

For those attending the festival on Friday, you will receive special “Behind the Scenes” access to photograph the Friday evening launch (6:30pm). Please plan to arrive at the launch area by 5:45PM.

For those attending the festival on Saturday, you will receive special “Behind the Scenes” access to photograph the Saturday morning launch (6:30am). Please plan to arrive at the launch area by 5:45AM.For those attending the festival on Sunday, you will receive special “Behind the Scenes” access to photograph the Sunday morning launch (6:30am). Please plan to arrive at the launch area by 5:45AM.

They also offered an additional VIP-Ticket including a balloon-ride but we wanted to stay on the ground for this time 🙂 so we booked a day before the introductory class and paid $99 per person.

Escape today

The introductory class for the Balloon-Festival



The class for preparing for the Balloon-Festival took place at Unique Photo SuperStore

(123 US Highway 46 West, Fairfield, NJ 07004) – it’s not only a store but offers two classrooms. We got there and received our “goodie-bags” filled with the driving instructions, entrance ticket (value of $20-$35, depending when you would have booked), the VIP-behind the Fence badge, and a blue Unique Photo t-shirt so we could recognize each other. The course was about an hour and a half and Michael Downey, the teacher, explained to us what camera-settings we should use and how the balloon-festival activities will proceed. Important take-aways:



(1) Prepare and bring your camera – not matter what camera you have, there will be some great pictures there!

(2) If you want to you can rent a camera or a different lense from Unique Photo – their websites lists prices – we decided that our iPhone 5, a GoPro, and our Canon PowerShot SX40 HS were enough :). I did bring a selfie-stick and a tripod but used neither. Take as many batteries that you can though – there is no way to charge them there!

(3) Traffic is a nightmare – be there early!!!

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The Balloon-Festival

We left our apartment at 4:30 AM on Saturday and it took us about one hour to get there. At 5:30 AM, when we got there, there were about 10 cars at the first parking-lot in front of us and nothing moved… Some cars turned around after talking to one of the people there – he told us later that they were the balloon-pilots and some VIP-people with preferred parking which as a different lot. At about 5:45 AM they finally had enough workers there to open the lot, we paid $10 for parking in the field (yes, it is a field so do not bring your Ferrari 😉 ) and were in the first row. A quick toilet break at the portable restrooms (Porta Potty) outside the grounds and in we went. Our VIP-badged got us and people riding the balloons in earlier than the normal crowds so we could skip the line.

You enter the Balloon-Festival on the runway of the airport and we were told to keep left for the tent with the balloon rides, where just in front we were greeted by Michael. With some time left before we were to meet again, we went to the Quick Check tent to get a coffee ($2?), a sandwich($5?), and two bottles of sparkling water ($2.50 each). It was very early so there was no crowd 🙂 We walked a bit up and down the runway before returning to our meeting point at 6:30 AM – it was too early and everything was still closed.
We entered the hot air balloon fenced-off area around 6:40 AM with a group of about 10 or 15 other photographers and just when the sun was rising…
IMG_0280 IMG_0313



We scouted the ground and started to take pictures…
The Balloon-Festival is a race: one balloon takes of and will go down somewhere, placing a mark on the ground where the other following balloons are trying then to put a weight as close to the mark as possible. Not all balloons participate in the race, some stay on the airfield and offer tethered rides up-and-down.
We basically did not stop taking pictures until most balloons were launched around 8:30 AM…
IMG_0981With more people now at the Balloon-Festival, more places were open and we got to try Honest Tea, Monster Drink, and other drinks and got some sweet freebies. Multiple places offered raffles and games, shopping of clothes, toys, and anything around balloons and the house, and there was even a mobile museum truck on site. It was getting hot on this cloud-free Saturday morning and we decided to get a wrap ($5) and hit the road back home to take a nap and then decide if we want to return.
IMG_0632And yes, we did wanted to return so we left the apartment around 3:45pm – but this time we got stuck in traffic about 2 miles from the festival grounds and diverted to the grass parking-lot. We managed to get in the parking-lot without having to pay again – a friendly question, pointing to our VIP-badge and showing of the morning ticket did the trick.  A bus took us from the lot to the balloon-grounds which meant waiting in line. Many families were there with already cranky kids (or parents)… It was in the upper 80s and no cloud in the sky and the festival was apparently sold out IMG_0915and more crowed than ever! We made our way through to the Quick Check tent (by now it was 5:50 PM) to get some water – this time there was a huge crowd inside with a lot of un-order… We grabbed two waters ($2.50 each), 2 cheese steak rolls ($2 each – I did not like them!), and a wrap ($5) and headed to a shady place to get out of the heat.
Around 6:15 PM we headed over to the hot air balloon start site and they actually led us back in with our VIP badges (we were told before that they may not let us in again) – yay, now we were really happy. Why? Well, there were tons of people already with blankets, chairs, and more around the fence, all lined-up to see the start of the race, and we did not look forward to stand like sardines for several hours in the bright hot sun…
We stayed in the shade for a while, IMG_1250watching the pilots gather their with-flyers and then we got into the middle of it all again :). The initial balloon and one more made it into the sky while others tried but had to abort – it was all the sudden too windy.  Just before sunset many pilots tried a second time and made it into the sky…
IMG_1182We met shortly with our friends after all the balloons left and then stayed a bit for the balloon-glow. Some balloons come back (or stay) and light their flames to make the balloons glow from the inside and it looks really cool. In addition there is also a concert going on at one IMG_1251side of the field, either you watch from afar or you can buy extra tickets to sit on the chairs provided. Around 9:30 PM we decided we had enough and headed for the buses – a huge line greeted us (I guess it would have taken us 1-2 hours to get back that way) and we decided to walk which only took us about 20 minutes or so. While we were walking, none of the cars in the line out was moving and because nothing was moving we took an hour nap in the car 🙂 (it’s great to have a mini van!). At 11:15 PM the lot had emptied and we drove out easily 🙂



Tips for the Balloon-Festival

  • If you can arrive as early as possible – traffic is a nightmare! In the afternoon, the closest parking-lot is often filled and you will be diverted by police to either the Raritan Valley Community College parking-lots or the grass parking-lots.
  • The morning launch was clear and the colors were amazing. The evening launch was nice but it was a bit more hazy and the colors were not as intense. Michael said that morning launches happen most often while he experienced several evening launches delayed or cancelled. You may want to plan for this depending on the weather forecast.
  • This year they offered a shuttle between the different parking-lots and the Balloon-Festival grounds. BUT they can get crowded – so plan ahead and don’t try to get there the last minute. When you leave at night you may wait in line for quite a while to take a bus back… we actually were faster in walking to the grass parking-lot but there was a line for the College-buses from one end of the runway to the other…IMG_1256
  • You are not allowed to bring food or drinks inside but you can buy a lot of different foods and drinks inside and during the morning/afternoon they also have some freebies like drink-tastings or snack-packages, vendors will probably vary each year.
  • Have some drink and food in the car (possibly in a cooler) – you can leave and re-enter the festival with a re-entry-stamp. Plus when you leave you may be hungry and it may take a while to get out…
  • Getting out of the parking-lots is not an easy task either. Police will try to support the emptying-process but it took almost an hour for ours to empty (at around 11:15 PM).





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