An aerial view of a hot air balloon festival


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There really aren’t words to answer the “what was it like?” question I’ll inevitably get after attending the 33rd annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning. Probably because I never imagined myself soaring 1,000 feet above rural New Jersey in a Wonderbread balloon.

An aerial view of a hot air balloon festival

I arrived at the festival grounds - the Sodberg Airport - in time to soak up all of my favorite bits of county fair-esque Americana. Walking up and down the runways with a funnel cake in hand, I was passing the time until the balloons' ascension with some grade-A people watching.

I walked to the field as afternoon was turning to evening, and found the Wonderbread crew waiting. Shaking hands with pilot Chris and his crew, I was ready for flight. I thought.

Slowly the hundred balloons around me started to inflate, rising from the ground to cheers from the crowd behind the fence. “God, these are huge” I recall thinking. As Chris prepped the balloon, I watched our friends - like Darth Vadar, a panda, and a dinosaur hatchling - inflate around us. Walking around the balloons as they turned from limp cloths to giant vessels before the mass ascension, I felt so small. The colors were amazing and I almost forgot where I was.

I climbed into the basket, waved goodbye to the ground crew, and took to the skies…really fast. Up in the air, it was absolutely silent. Like the quietest thing I’ve ever heard (granted I live in New York, so perhaps it was more just that I appreciated such silence). Intermittent, and rather startling blasts from the propane burner kept us floating through the air. The wind wasn’t strong so we moved slowly, over houses, backyards and crowds that gathered to watch. The people waved up at us: the balloon pilots were praised like celebrities in this rural New Jersey town.

This is the largest summertime hot air balloon festival in North America. The balloons fly twice each day for three days, compared to the nine days of ballooning in Albuquerque’s famous Balloon Fiesta which includes more than 600 balloons.

We floated for half an hour and were told we would try to land “wherever we could find room.” That ended up being in the middle of a park, where Friday-night softball leagues were playing. Games stopped as players gawked as the first balloon lowered into the field. Hoards of people ran up to greet the balloons and help pack them back into the carrier trucks that followed us across town.

Chris brought us safely back to earth and we all helped pack up the balloon. Chris, who started piloting hot air balloons in 1988, says he took it up after a family trip in a hot air balloon piqued his interest. He flies all over the country in different festivals, counting around 50 hours of air time each year.

If you have the chance to go to New Jersey Hot Air Balloon Festival: GO. If you live somewhere else, take the absolute next opportunity to get yourself in a field with 100 hot air balloons. It's unreal.

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