Secrets of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is one of the biggest and most beloved seasonal events in the U.S. and a Thanksgiving tradition for generations of families. On Thursday, November 26, approximately 3.5 million spectators will watch Macy’s 89th annual Thanksgiving Day Parade wind its way from New York City’s Upper West Side to Macy’s midtown Herald Square flagship store. An estimated 50 million more will catch the procession on television.

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But what do we really know about the famous parade that includes 17 giant character balloons, 27 floats, 12 marching bands, 1,100 cheerleaders and dancers, and 1,000 clowns? Amy Kule, the executive producer of the parade, shares fascinating facts behind the legendary spectacle.

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Santa Claus riding in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Photo: Macy’s Parade Press)

Macy’s balloons only feature the most famous characters.

“You need to be able to look up in the sky and know who it is right away,” Kule tells Yahoo Parenting. “And there are no company logos or writing [allowed] — even for the Ronald McDonald balloon.” Kule says this year’s new additions have earned their places alongside the classic characters. “Everybody’s been addicted to Angry Birds for a few years now, and soon it’s going to be a movie, so Red deserves to be up there,” she says. “Meanwhile, Scrat [the squirrel] has several Ice Age movies under his belt. He’s flying with his acorn — one of the few giant balloons to fly in tandem with another one.” To date, 171 different characters have been featured in the parade.

Photo: Macy’s Parade Press

Snoopy and Woodstock are the oldest parade balloons.

Macy’s has been featuring Charles M. Schulz’s cherished characters as balloons and on floats for four decades. This year, the classic Snoopy & Woodstock balloon will mark its 38th parade appearance, the longest of any other character. Plus, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas, there’s a brand-new Snoopy’s doghouse float with snow on the ground, Charlie’s sad but loved little tree, and a bright blue abode. That’s right, Snoopy’s doghouse wasn’t always red — half a century ago it was blue.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1929. The fish balloon was 35 feet long and the tiger balloon was 60 feet long. (Photo: Getty Images)

Macy’s parade was canceled only three times in 89 years.

Just like the post office, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade goes on in rain, snow, sleet, and heat. In fact, since its 1924 debut, it’s only been canceled three times, from 1942 to 1944, due to World War II, when Macy’s donated Parade materials such as rubber to the war effort.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1933. (Photo: Getty Images)

The parade’s original route was 5.5-miles long.

Initially, the parade started in Harlem at 145th Street and Convent Avenue and traveled all the way down to 34th Street, Herald Square. Today the end point remains the same, however, the procession kicks off on the Upper West Side at 77th Street and Central Park West, making it just 2.5 miles.

A turkey float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Photo: Getty Images)

Wild animals once marched in the parade.

Lions and tigers and bears were included in the early parades (along with camels, goats, elephants, and donkeys), but in 1927, Macy’s replaced them with those famous giant character balloons.


Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1932. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the early days, Macy’s released balloons into the air after the parade.

From 1929 to 1931, Macy’s released the balloons into the air at the end of the event. If you found one, you could return it for a $50 gift certificate to the store (which, by the way, was a lot of money back then). However, the company stopped the tradition after a balloon got caught in the propeller of an airplane.

Tim Burton’s B. Boy balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tim Burton once designed a Macy’s parade balloon.

Since 2005, Macy’s has featured novelty balloons by celebrated contemporary artists, including Tim Burton’s “B. Boy,” “Rabbit” by Jeffrey Koons, and “Figure With Heart” based on a design by Keith Haring.

Macy’s marching band. (Photos: Getty Images)

The marching bands in the parade feature high school and college kids.

Bands from schools around the country audition for the opportunity to perform in the parade. The kids get a two-year notice that they’ve made the cut — and not with some cold form letter. "We go and surprise them!” Kule says. “We partner with just one person close to the band, so when the kids see [a person in a suit] walk in the room, they get nervous. We say, ‘We’ve come long and far to meet with you, and we’ve got this guy who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice,’ and then we make the grand announcement. They all lose it! We have a banner and confetti release, too.”

A Kermit the Frog balloon is inflated ahead of the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Photo: Getty Images)

The parade’s balloon inflation is its own tourist attraction.

The Macy’s Balloon Inflation event on Thanksgiving eve allows spectators to witness the characters take shape in front of the American Museum of Natural History between the hours of 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Despite the event not being televised, “This formerly sleepy tradition has become big deal,” says Kule. “More than 1 million people line up to watch the balloons come to life. The streets are covered with tarp so they’re safe from sharp objects, they stay fully inflated under nets, and security guards [keep watch] throughout the night.”

A Spider-Man balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Macy’s floats are stored in tiny boxes.

In order to make the trip from Macy’s Parade Studio in Moonachie, N.J., to the parade kickoff in Manhattan, the floats need to travel through the Lincoln Tunnel the night before. “We shut down the tunnel as the floats come through,” says Kule. “Some are up to 30 feet tall and 40 feet long, but they have to fold down into neat little boxes no more than 12-and-a-half feet tall and 8 feet wide in order to fit. It’s like Transformers!”

Photo: Getty Images

The Macy’s parade takes lots of safety measures.

Parade-related injuries are rare and minor (save for a 1997 incident, when the Cat in the Hat balloon hit a lamppost that fell onto a woman and put her in a coma). As a precaution, if there are wind gusts of 34 mph or higher, or steady winds at 23 mph on the day of the parade, Macy’s flies the balloons low to the ground and will even deflate them if necessary.

It takes 8,000 people (including 4,000 Macy’s employees) to make the parade happen.

Kule leads the procession alongside these dedicated workers who give up their Thanksgiving to make this legendary event happen. So remember to give thanks for them at your holiday feast.

Top photo: Macy’s Parade Press

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