More Than Hot Air

The largest summertime balloon festival in North America just happens to take place right here in the Garden State.

Photo by Loren Fisher.

For Howard Freeman, it was love at first flight. In 1992, the Wayne resident was offered an opportunity to purchase the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning. As part of his due diligence, he traveled to Arizona to observe an established balloon fest. Sitting in traffic en route to the event, Freeman watched as the balloons began to ascend. “My eyes opened, my mouth opened, and the people with me stopped complaining about the traffic,” he remembers. “They had about 100 balloons, but they had me at the first one.”

A year later, Freeman grabbed the tethers of what would become the Quick Chek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning. Today, the annual event he produces at Solberg Airport in Readington is the largest summertime balloon festival in North America.

The buzz about Freeman’s festival has spread worldwide. In May 2009, Freeman traveled to Inner Mongolia at the invitation of the local government to assist in the planning of a festival there. Three months later, he returned with fifteen balloons, including a Darth Vader, a jack-in-the-box, a soccer ball, and a giant dragon. “In Chinese culture, dragons are good luck,” Freeman says. “So when the balloon landed in the countryside, people would run up wanting to touch it.”

Back in the Garden State, the Quick Chek Festival is celebrating its 28th year. Scheduled from July 23 to 25, it will feature 125 sport and special-shaped hot air balloons from around the world, as well as live concerts from Air Supply, Hannah Montana costar Emily Osment, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and Rick Springfield. New this year is Running with the Balloons, a charity 5K and fun run sponsored by Trinitas Regional Medical Center beginning at 8 am on July 25. There also will be tethered and untethered hot air balloon rides; Freeman recommends booking early, as spots go quickly. For tickets, go to balloonfestival.com.

A former marketing director for the New Jersey Nets, Freeman, 57, helped open the Meadowlands Arena. His sports and event marketing agency, Promo 1, has produced the Liberty Jazz Festival at Liberty State Park, among other events. Up next: “Rock, Ribs, and Ridges,” a two-day celebration of rock and barbecue slated for August 14 and 15 at Hidden Valley Club in Vernon. The premiere event will have performances by Dave Mason, Marshall Tucker Band, and New Riders of the Purple Sage, as well as a juried barbecue competition.

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