Hot air balloons are the stars of the show during Lisle's Eyes to the Skies Festival.
Eyes to the Skies FESTIVAL
♦ 3 to 11 p.m. June 29; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 30-July 1
♦ Community Park, Illinois 53 and Short Street, Lisle
♦ Admission: $5; children 5 and younger free
♦ (630) 541-6095; eyestotheskies.org
Lisle’s annual Eyes to the Skies Festival is truly a labor of love. Founded to celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial in 1982, the fest has faltered financially a few times. But each time, a community group has stepped to the plate to rescue the fest and keep it going. Over time it has become one of the biggest suburban festivals, spanning 110 acres at Lisle’s Community Park and attracting 150,000 visitors each year.
Roger Leone, fest logistics manager who is a contractor by trade, has lived across the street from Community Park for 33 years and watched the festival evolve. He’s not shy about calling it the best fest ever.
“If you talk to any festival person, they’ll say theirs is the best,” he said. “I think what is unique about ours is the fact that it’s on a 110-acre site. So you’re not confined to a food tent; you’re not confined to the beer tent. … You can go listen to a band on the hill; you can listen to a band in the other stage area, which is a cabaret area. We have two food courts. We have a craft boulevard. You can get there when we open at 11 o’clock and you can spend the whole day and never really be in the same place twice. … It’s just a good time; it’s a good venue to share with family and friends.”
And then there are the balloons — the stars of the fest.
“I think the biggest highlight is the fact that we have hot air balloons,” Leone continued. “Until you’ve seen one up close you don’t realize the size of these things.”
Eyes to the Skies balloonmeister — the person in charge of all things balloon, from inviting balloonists to determining whether to launch to safety for pilots and spectators — Guy Gauthier traded in motorcycle racing for balloon racing 35 years ago and hasn’t looked back; instead he’s looked down and enjoyed the view and the ride.
“Balloons have no steering whatsoever — it’s the last great adventure,” he said. “I mean, how many things do you do in life where you don’t know where you’re going to end up? … We never know where we’re going to land.”
Gauthier hails from Longview, Texas, where he runs a balloon repair shop. On the side he serves as balloonmeister for Eyes on the Skies and two other fests. He does not fly a balloon when he’s running a show, but he will bring one of the experimental balloons he builds in his shop — a hang balloon in which the pilot flies in a sling chair rather than a basket.
Gauthier is expecting about 27 balloons at the fest; six of them will be shaped balloons like the Purple People Eater and Pepe Le Pew.
Because of federal aviation regulations, the balloons aren’t visible all day. Weather permitting, launches occur at 6 a.m. (free viewing for spectators) and 6 p.m. (viewing included in fest admission). The not-to-be-missed balloon glows, in which pilots use their burners to light up their balloons, begin around 8 p.m. each evening.
Spectators can walk around under the balloons and talk to the pilots; as darkness falls the balloons begin to glow so that “they’re walking under these giant Chinese lanterns,” Gauthier said. “They just glow beautifully, and that’s why it’s called a glow.”
The fest also boasts two tethered balloon rides, which last 10 to 15 minutes. Serena’s Song, the nation’s first wheelchair-accessible balloon, is available from 6 to 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. to dusk all three days. Reservations are required at seaspar.org. Gauthier said the balloonists will decide who among them will offer tethered rides to the public, available from 6 to 9 a.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. on a first-come first-served basis. The pilots set the cost, usually around $20 — half of which is donated to the festival.
Along with local musical acts and a simultaneous carnival ($1 per ticket, $20/21 tickets or $40/44 tickets), the fest offers nonstop entertainment and activities in the children’s area, which is open 3 to 7 p.m. June 29 and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 30 and July 1. Check out the All American Lumberjack Show, Radio Disney, inflatable obstacle courses/jumps, picnic games, crafts, dance shows and visits from Brookfield Zoo’s “Xtreme Bugs!” exhibit, Dr. Gadget’s Robot Show, Dave Dinaso’s Traveling World of Reptiles and the Pocket Circus from Argentina among many other choices.
On top of all that, in deference to tough economic times, the Eyes on the Skies Committee cut last year’s admission fee in half, from $10 to $5 for anyone 6 and older. Proceeds from the fest go to the local Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.
♦ Millennium Park’s annual summerlong Family Fun Festival kicks off July 2. It offers a variety of free family entertainment and activities from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily through Sept. 2 on the Chase Promenade North, Michigan and Randolph. Call (312) 742-1168 or visit millenniumpark.org.
♦ Summer Studios workshops geared toward families continue from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Aug. 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago. Each week the free hands-on family project has a different theme. Call (312) 397-4000 or visit mcachicago.org.
♦ The Citadel Theatre Company presents a roving performance of The Great Snipe Hunt at 11 a.m. June 30 and 1 p.m. July 1 at Cantigny Park, 1S151 Winfield Road, Wheaton. Tickets are $10. Call (630) 260-8162 or visit cantigny.org.
Jennifer Burklow is a local free-lance writer.