Through all of his years as a hobbyist photographer, Mike Kelly says that all hot air balloon festivals have something in common: Big, buoyant balloons, floating above a field, always make for a stunning sight.
And, the sight of those balloons never failed to ignite even bigger, broader smiles on the faces of the festivalgoers who traveled to see them.
“I saw all the people, and I told people, ‘This is something my town should do,’” says Kelly.
And, this Labor Day weekend, the city of Harvard – and Kelly, who became the city’s mayor this spring – will again welcome nearly two dozen of those balloons and tens of thousands of smiling visitors to their northern McHenry County community for another year, as the city celebrates the second annual Harvard Balloon Festival.
In 2016, after years of promoting the idea and planning, Kelly’s shared vision for the festival became a reality. The small community rolled out the welcome mat to a crowd estimated to have ranged from 35,000 to 50,000 people over the course of the three day festival, which pumped $2.5 million into the local economy and raised more than $38,000 for local charities and civic service organizations.
This year, Kelly says that the event organizers are only building on last year’s roaring success, as they prepare for this year’s festival, running from Friday, Sept. 1, through Sunday, Sept. 3.
Event organizers are expecting still more hot air balloons at the festival, offering visitors more opportunities to interact with the balloons and their pilots, he says.
In addition to more hobbyist balloonists, Kelly says that the festival also will include more commercial balloons, offering visitors more chances to take flight themselves.
In all, Kelly says that five such flights are scheduled throughout the weekend, with balloons tentatively slated to take passengers up in the air each morning and evening.
The event also will feature tethered balloons, including one offering access for festivalgoers in wheelchairs.
For those who wish to enjoy the balloons with both feet planted firmly on the ground, the festival has planned to feature “night glows” each evening of the festival.
As the sun sets, the balloonists will ascend, allowing the flames from their burners to illuminate the balloon from within, making the balloons appear as though they are giant floating lanterns.
“Walking among those balloons, it’s a magical experience,” Kelly says.
All flight plans, however, are tentative, Kelly stresses, noting that weather controls when – and if – balloonists can safely launch their balloons. Rain and storms would, of course, serve to ground balloons. But ballooning conditions also are controlled by wind, both on the ground and aloft.
“It may be a beautiful day on the ground,” says Kelly. “But balloons ascend hundreds of feet in the air, and the winds at altitude can be very different from those on the ground.”
Visitors should monitor the festival’s website and social media accounts to know if balloons will fly on a given day.
“As soon as the decision is made to launch or not, we will update,” Kelly says.
However, even if weather keeps balloons from launching, Kelly says that the event will feature a range of other entertainment opportunities, including 16 live bands on two stages, 20 inflatables for kids, “extreme rides,” bubble soccer and a host of lawn games.
Saturday morning will include the inaugural “Run with the Balloons” 5k and 10k runs.
And visitors can choose from a range of food and drink vendors, or bring in their own picnic-style meals.
Admission to the event is free, but parking will cost $20 at the festival grounds, and $10 at remote lots, which will be served by shuttle buses.
Kelly says that the event is financially self-supporting, relying on sponsors and volunteers, as well as vendor and exhibitor fees, parking fees and beer sales. All profits are shared with local nonprofits, with a portion held in reserve to pay for improvements to the park, Kelly says.
For those visiting the festival, Kelly recommends taking Metra, if possible, and riding a shuttle bus to the festival grounds. He also recommended visitors wishing to take in a night glow plan to arrive before 4 p.m. Visitors also will be able to camp on the grounds.
Organizers are projecting that at least 60,000 visitors will attend the event this year, he says.
“We’re looking forward to the smiles,” says Kelly.
IF YOU GO
Harvard Balloon Festival
DATES: Friday, Sept. 1, through Sunday, Sept. 3
BALLOON LAUNCH TIMES: Balloon Launch windows will take place from 5 to 6 p.m. in the evening and 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. in the mornings. Night Glows will start near dusk, at roughly 7:15 p.m.
LOCATION: 300 Lawrence Road, Harvard
INFO: Tune to 101.3FM WHIW for festival-related information during the event