Ultimate Guide to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

By: Kathleen Seiler Neary  | 

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The 95th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will feature mix of giant character balloons, floats, marching bands, musical stars and of course, Santa Claus. Macy's

On the fourth Thursday of the month, the same day that most Americans gather around the dining table and gobble turkey to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade marches through the streets of New York City. Elaborate floats, marching bands, clowns and celebrities create a carnivalesque atmosphere. But the main attraction is the parade's giant helium balloons, many of which are depictions of cartoon characters.

For 95 years, the parade has drawn spectators who line the streets and cheer on the participants. "For more than nine decades, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has served to bring joy to millions, who gather with friends and family to experience this one-of-a-kind holiday celebration along the streets of New York City and in homes nationwide," Will Coss, executive producer of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, said in a press statement. "We can’t wait to help New York City and the nation kick-off the holiday season with the return of this cherished tradition."

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The parade starts its 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) route at 77th Street and Central Park West at 9 a.m.; from there it goes to Columbus Circle turning onto Central Park South and heading down Sixth Avenue before turning west at 34th Street and ending at 7th Avenue in front of Macy's Herald Square.

In this article, we'll look at the history behind the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and how the parade's balloons and floats are created. We'll also look at some balloon-wrangling mishaps and learn about the logistics involved in staging a show for an audience of millions.

History of the Macy's Parade

Macy's Day Parade
The first Macy's Day Parade marched down Broadway in 1924. Today more than 50 million viewers are expected to watch it on live TV or streaming online. Macy's

Macy's staged its first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924. That year it was called the Macy's Christmas Parade, and it followed a route from 145th Street and Convent Avenue to the Macy's store at 34th Street and Broadway. Three floats (pulled by horses), four bands and zoo animals from the Central Park Zoo — camels, donkeys, elephants and goats — starred in the parade. Santa Claus was last in the lineup, a tradition that continues to this day.

The parade took shape during the Roaring '20s, a time of prosperity and pleasure. It was staged by Macy's employees, many of whom emigrated to America from Europe and longed to stage a celebration similar to the ones in their countries.

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In 1927, the gigantic balloons that are now the signature element of the parade made their first appearance with the help of helium. The balloons replaced the zoo animals that were frightening to some children, and the first balloons included cartoon characters like Felix the Cat. At the conclusion of the parade, the giant balloons were released into the air.

In 1928, Macy's began offering a $100 reward for any returned balloons, which were affixed with return address labels [source: McCarthy]. In 1931, pilot Col. Clarence E. Chamberlain snagged a balloon with his airplane's wing, leading to a ban on retrieval by airplanes the following year. But after the 1932 parade, another pilot attempted to capture a balloon and nearly crashed, leading Macy's to discontinue releasing the balloons at the parade's end [source: McCarthy].

In 1934, celebrities became an important element of the parade, with singer-actor Eddie Cantor joining the event that year. The Mickey Mouse helium balloon was also introduced that year.

From 1942 to 1944, the parade was canceled because of the shortage of helium and rubber during World War II. Those three years are the only time the celebration has been called off [source: Macy's]. When the parade returned in 1945, it was broadcast on television for the first time and was bigger than earlier versions. In 2020, the parade wasn't canceled, though few spectators were allowed along the parade route because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was no giant balloon Inflation Celebration and no marching bands.

Every year, the Macy's team behind the parade works to outdo the previous year's event. This evolution has meant bigger balloons, more floats, better materials and new technologies, all resulting in the flashy spectacle that rolls through the streets of New York today.

The 2021 parade will feature 15 giant character balloons, 28 floats, 36 novelty and heritage inflatables, more than 800 clowns, 10 marching bands and nine performance groups, a host of musical stars, and of course, Santa Claus.

Macy's Parade Balloons

Snoopy
Snoopy, seen here floating down Central Park West with his pal Woodstock in 2014, will make appearance No. 42 in 2021, the most of any character. His first was in 1968 as the Flying Ace. Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images

Balloons were introduced in 1927, three years after the inaugural parade, and featured cartoon animal characters to replace the live zoo animals. Initially, the balloons were air-filled and carried by string. Later, a mixture of low-density helium and air was used. This enabled parade designers to create large-proportion balloons like a 50-foot-tall (15-meter) hummingbird.

Today, in a former Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City, the balloons are created by the Macy's Parade Studio. Depending on what's being depicted, a figure may be fashioned vertically, horizontally or somewhere in between.

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It all starts with a pencil sketch. Aerodynamic and engineering consultants assist with calculations to make sure the balloon will fly properly. An exact-scale replica made out of clay and a painted model (also an exact-scale replica) are fashioned before the actual balloon is cut out of fabric. Each balloon has several chambers and includes a zipper, an inflation device and a high-pressure valve. Flight, inflation and deflation tests are run, and cosmetic adjustments are made. Finally, the balloon can appear in the parade, up to one year after the process began.

Balloons are constructed of polyurethane, though they used to be made of rubber. Since the switch from air to helium, the behemoth balloons have coasted along with a big dose of help from volunteer balloon wranglers. But it hasn't always been that easy to keep the balloons afloat. In 1958, the balloons were filled with air and hoisted by cranes onto trucks due to a helium shortage. Poor weather conditions kept the balloons from being inflated at all in 1971.

The balloons' dimensions vary, but most are about five to six stories high and somewhere around 60 feet (18 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. Each balloon needs around 90 handlers. In all, there are around 2,000 to 3,000 balloon handlers.

These handlers must weigh at least 120 pounds (54 kilograms) and be in good health. Of those, only a few hundred team leaders are required to attend training, though all are invited. Training includes lessons on aerodynamics, geometry and physics. Then, volunteers practice handling one of the big balloons on a field. The team leaders include an overall leader, pilot, captain and two drivers. A police officer marches with each balloon. The handlers dress in outfits that coordinate with their balloon and hold the ropes to guide the balloon. Each balloon is also tethered to two 800-pound (363-kilogram) utility vehicles.

In recent years, balloon accidents have made news, but there were other balloon bumps over the years. A Mighty Mouse balloon collapsed due to strong winds in 1956. Rain drenched the Kermit the Frog balloon in 1985, and he had to be carried. The Sonic the Hedgehog balloon injured an off-duty police captain in 1993. More recently, in 1997, a woman was in a coma for nearly a month after the Cat in the Hat balloon careened into a lamppost, raining debris on spectators. In 2005, an M&M balloon injured two sisters when it hit a street lamp and part of it crashed into them.

Of course, true "balloonatics" — ardent fans of the parade — aren't dissuaded by such rare occurrences. But as you'll find out later, the city of New York takes these accidents seriously and has put guidelines in place to make balloon wranglers and spectators more safe.

Thomas the Train, balloon, Macy's parade
You can get up close and personal with the giant balloons on Thanksgiving Eve when crews are filling them with helium at the Inflation Celebration event.
John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Images

Macy's Parade Floats

legos float
Lego's history with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade dates back to the 1960s. Carol Seitz/Macy's

Floats have been a mainstay of the parade since its inception in 1924. The float didn't achieve its spectacle status until 1969, when Manfred Bass began creating the floats. Bass designed them so that they could be flattened for their trip through the Holland Tunnel. They were then reassembled during the predawn hours of the parade.

Today, floats are constructed of materials including wood, metal, fiberglass, fabric and foam. The Macy's Parade Studio team starts with a sketch and then makes an exact-scale drawing of the float. The pieces of the float are built, starting with a flat base called a floatbed, and then painted. Props are added, and the float is fully assembled in the studio. As is the tradition, the last float of the parade carries Santa Claus, ushering in the start of the Christmas season.

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Every year the floats vary. For 2021, six new floats will debut, including "Birds of a Feather Stream Together by Peacock; Celebration Gator by Louisiana Office of Tourism; Colossal Wave of Wonder by Kalahari Resorts and Conventions; Gravy Pirates by HEINZ; Magic Meets the Sea by Disney Cruise Line; and Tiptoe's North Pole.

Parade Security and Logistics

marching band
Ten marching bands will play in this year's parade, including the Macy's Great American Marching Band. Macy's

Though the New York Police Department doesn't release exact numbers on how many of its force patrol the parade, police presence is obvious. Safety precautions have increased in recent decades. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed a task force to review the 1997 incident where a Cat in the Hat balloon crashed into a lamp post, seriously injuring four people. In 1998, guidelines were set that prohibit balloons from flying if sustained winds exceed 23 miles (37 kilometers) per hour or if gusts exceeded 34 miles (55 kilometers) per hour. Balloons now can't be more than 70 feet tall, 40 feet wide or 78 feet long (21 by 12 by 24 meters) [source: Chan].

In 2006, former mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a task force to review a 2005 balloon incident where an M&M balloon forced a street lamp top over, injuring two sisters [source: Chan]. The task force found that balloons should be flown at lower heights to avoid obstructions. The guidelines for how high a balloon should be flown vary for each balloon.

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In addition to these guidelines, anemometers — instruments that measure the speed of wind — are mounted on poles at key points on the route, and each one is monitored with a portable computer by a police officer and a New York City Office of Emergency Management representative.

2021 parade route
2021 parade route
Macy's

Macy's begins planning for the parade at least one year in advance and includes float and balloon creation, celebrity booking, volunteer coordination, and training for clowns and balloon handlers. As the parade grows closer, the preparations get more intense.

Well before the parade begins, objects that could obstruct balloons — including arms of lampposts, traffic-signal poles, streetlights and trees — are either altered or removed. On the eve of the parade, the balloons and floats are brought to New York City, and setup begins. By 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, the balloons and floats are ready to go, and parade participants take their places for the 9 a.m. parade start.

After the parade, floats are immediately disassembled, balloons deflated and everything returned to its warehouse in Hoboken, New Jersey. Mechanical street sweepers are used to clear the mess.

Originally Published: Nov 17, 2019

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