As one of the organizers of Lisle's annual Eyes to the Skies Festival, Mike Shuta has seen more than his share of hot air balloon launches.
But he says the allure never seems to disappear. He's still awed when he watches the large, colorful balloons rise and then drift into the early morning or evening sky.
"It's so unusual to see," he said. "One minute there's an empty field and the next minute there's an eight-story building -- and there are 20 of them."
The 31st edition of the festival begins Wednesday, July 3, and runs through Sunday, July 7, at Community Park near Route 53 and Short Street. Admission is $5 and free for children 5 and younger. More than 20 hot air balloons highlight this year's festival, some of which will be in shapes such as the Wicked Witch and the Purple People Eater.
For Shuta, it's difficult to explain to those who've never seen it how impressive it is to be up close to the balloons when they are on the ground, and to watch as balloonists fill the envelope with hot air.
Balloon launches are available at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, July 3-6. They are free with admission, though the 6 a.m. rides do not require admission. Tethered rides cost $20 for adults, $15 for children. Space is limited and rides are on a first-come, first-served basis.
Additionally, balloon glows begin at 8:30 p.m. each night, when balloons are lit from within and their colors are projected into the evening twilight.
But balloons aren't the only attraction at Eyes to the Skies. The grounds feature 110 acres of land in all, including a carnival, a craft fair, a children's area, two food courts and two performance stages. Firework shows begin at 9:45 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 4-6.
Live music will be heard from the stages Wednesday through Saturday evenings, with cover bands emulating many different artists including the Beatles, Journey, Chicago, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and the Dave Matthews Band. The Chicago 6 -- a band featuring former Chicago Bears stars Dan Hampton, Otis Wilson and Steve McMichael -- also will perform Saturday.
"I think there's a little bit for everybody," said Roger Leone, former festival chairman who is still on the festival's committee. "You can pick and choose what you have a taste for. And the stages are far enough apart that the sound doesn't cross over. You can listen to one thing in one corner or something else in another corner."
Food courts will feature 30 different vendors divided between two locations.
Leone said the children's area is slightly different from past years. The festival took more of an obstacle course approach with the children's area this year. The area is geared toward kids between the ages of 3 and 10.
Otherwise, Leone said, the festival is much the same as it has been in the past.
"I think it is a known entity, something that is consistent," Leone said. "People know they can go and not be in for any bad surprises. It's comparable to why McDonald's keep going: because everyone knows what they're going to get."
In Leone's eyes, the best feature of the festival might be the 100-plus acres the festival is spread across. It's not an elbow-to-elbow experience, he said. And with so many entertainment options, there is a little bit for everyone.
The only thing that could dampen spirits might be the weather. Hot air balloons require clear weather and ideal wind conditions of 4 mph to 6 mph, although they can fly in winds as high as 8 mph or 10 mph. Balloons are flown early in the morning and late in the evening because cooler temperatures make for easier flights and wind speeds are less dramatic in the early hours.
Shuta said Eyes to the Skies is a well-kept secret and there isn't a festival quite like it in the Chicago area.
"You just don't get to see hot air balloons every day," Shuta said. "I truly believe family memories are being made on our grounds."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.