Not everyone wants to live across the street from a festival that lasts for several days and draws tens of thousands of people in the process.
Roger Leone loves it. He doesn’t just enjoy Lisle’s annual hot air balloon festival, he helps organize it as a member of the Lisle Eyes to the Skies Committee.
“This time of year is almost like going into the holiday season,” he says a couple of weeks before the festival’s opening, which is today in Community Park near Route 53 and Short Street. “It’s just a great, great type of energy that comes to town.”
The festival, which runs through Saturday (with the carnival continuing through Sunday), draws people from throughout the region and neighboring states. They come for the spectacle of the hot air balloons, fireworks that light the sky for three nights, musical entertainment, a craft show, children’s activities, a July 4 parade and food, all for a $5 admission price.
What Leone likes best is the setup. A former chairman of the Eyes to the Skies Committee, he remains in charge of logistics and layout; orders tents, lighting and infrastructure; plans what goes where; and looks at the best way to get people in and out smoothly.
“I love putting things together,” says Leone, who runs his own general contracting and painting business. “It’s just a good feeling — we did it again, we made it.”
Proceeds from the festival benefit six local organizations, including the Lisle Rotary, to which Leone’s wife, Lisa, belongs. Because of his wife’s membership in the Rotary, the Leones have been longtime volunteers at Eyes to the Skies, which started 31 years ago.
When the former Lisle Fourth of July Committee disbanded in 2008 and a new committee of Lisle residents formed in 2009 to keep the festival going, Leone’s wife suggested he join.
“It’s one of those things you fall in love with,” he says. “It’s a great group of volunteers. We’re all very proud of it.”
Kari Altpeter, who is in charge of the 300 to 500 volunteers who work at the festival each year, credits Leone with helping to keep the festival committee together.
“Roger has been a good, strong, organized leader,” she said. “He lives and breathes the festival. He’s infectious.”
Because he lives so close to Community Park, Leone drives through the festival site on a regular basis and always looks for ways to improve the layout and logistics. Altpeter said that attention to detail shows.
“He really puts himself in the shoes of the guests,” she said.
Leone says he considers Eyes to the Skies the best festival in Northern Illinois. It’s been featured on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “Wild Chicago” and CNN’s “Headline News”; named to the Illinois Festival Hall of Fame; and selected for six years as one of the country’s 100 top tourist destinations by the America Business Association.
“The balloons are the key attraction,” Leone says. “We get people from all over because you don’t have a chance to see hot air balloons in the Midwest.”
Twenty to 25 balloonists are coming to the festival, with many of them from Texas and Mexico, where the climate is more conducive to ballooning. A few are local and some come from Michigan.
“They really take pride in their balloons, so it’s not hard to get balloonists here,” Leone says. “They do a great job of putting on a show.”
Tethered balloon rides, offered at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. weather permitting, are very popular, Leone says. The rides cost $20 for adults, $15 for children and are free for people with disabilities on a balloon that can accommodate wheelchairs.
Leone acknowledged that he’s too busy organizing to have taken any balloon rides himself, but he says the balloon glows held in the evenings are a sight to behold with all the balloons inflating at the same time.
“It’s an absolutely breathtaking sight,” Leone says. “It’s a kaleidoscope of colors.”
Shooting off fireworks at 9:45 p.m. for three nights in a row also sets the festival apart, he says. The fireworks on July 4 last about 20 minutes and are synchronized to music. The fireworks shows on July 5 and 6 last 10 to 12 minutes, Leone says.
The festival brings about $50,000 a year to divide among the six partnering organizations, which provide the bulk of the volunteers, Leone says. This year’s festival will be much the same as other years, but small changes have been made to improve it, he says.
The 2013 Eyes to the Skies will have a couple new carnival rides, new food vendors and an expanded children’s area. The musical lineup includes the recent addition of the Chicago Six featuring ’85 Super Bowl champs Dan Hampton, Otis Wilson and Steve McMichael performing at 5:30 p.m. July 6.
Set in an 110-acre park, the festival has room to offer two stages, two food courts and room to spread out.
“There’s something for everybody to do,” Leone says. “It’s quite a large operation.”
After the festival is over, the Eyes to the Skies Committee members will give themselves a couple weeks break and then go back to meeting monthly to plan next year’s event.
Leone, who also coaches at Benet Academy in Lisle, says he enjoys the teamwork among the 18 to 20 people who plan the festival.
“It’s a good group of people who have become friends,” he says. “I don’t think you can ever get enough of just having good relations with people and enjoying their company.”
The festival has been going on almost as long as Leone has lived in Lisle. He moved here 34 years ago after marrying his wife and the couple have raised two daughters in town.
Leone calls Lisle a well-run town and praises the Lisle Park District for how it prepares the park for the annual festival.
“It’s a beautiful setting,” he says. “I just love Lisle, so anything I can do to help improve it, I try to do.”
For more information on Eyes to the Skies, visit eyestotheskies.org.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.