Bring on the Balloons: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade History & Trivia By Christopher Frederic Lapinel (featured image Editorial Credit: Hoover Tung / Shutterstock.com)
Here you stand. Shoulder to shoulder with loved ones and strangers. The first parade balloons sway into sight above the shifting crowd. Gawking between the people ahead, straining for a good angle of the street. Thousands, like you, line the sidewalks from the American Museum of Natural History on 77th Street to Macy’s at Herald Square.
To get the best spots, the first arrived in the early morning hours, regardless of weather. A cautious few brought umbrellas. Most brought folding chairs, blankets, and thermoses.
Everyone keenly listens for the band music and tramping footfalls. Many millions more tune in from homes across the US for the star-studded televised program.
This is Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade– the most fantastic event of its kind.
Few parades snare public imagination like the Macy’s Parade. By virtue of its long, storied history, this iconic event has become an NYC institution, one that so many look forward to each autumn.
Yet, though everyone enjoys the extravagance of the spectacle, particularly the balloons, it’s arguably the parade’s quaint, uniquely American idealism that’s the real draw. If we look back on the evolution of the parade, from its start in 1924 to now, we’ll see how it became an essential part of the national holiday. And, yes, of course, the balloons played a huge role!
The First Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade melts even cynical hearts. It brings light, color, and optimism to us at a time of year when we’re literally slipping into darkness. The presence of the traditional guest of honor, Santa Claus, also heralds the beginning of the Christmas season.
The parade has changed in myriad subtle and not-so-subtle ways over the years. For instance, would you be surprised to hear that the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade wasn’t even a Thanksgiving parade?
Though it did debut on November 27th, 1924, at 9 AM, officially it was a Christmas parade. Macy’s Department Store wouldn’t rebrand their parade for Thanksgiving until 1927, three years later.
Here are a few more fascinating details about Macy’s very first Thanksgiving Day (oops!) Christmas Parade that’ll provide some fruitful insight.
According to corporate lore, Macy’s employees, many of whom were first-generation European immigrants, petitioned for the parade as a means to demonstrate their freshly minted patriotism, while also blending in their personal traditions.
In addition, Macy’s Detroit store had already planned to host a similar parade that year. This, coupled with the success of the Gimbel Brothers’ Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia, established in 1920, probably provided added incentive.
That parade, officially the first in the country. Still taking place, though now known as the 6ABC / Duncan Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade. Following their lead, Macy’s parade in NYC was primarily a promotional stunt.
It highlighted the department store’s recent growth nationwide. Most particularly the opening of the new Herald Square flagship store.
Quick historical sidebar: there had been an unofficial, loosely organized Thanksgiving parade in NYC, which preceded Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Established in 1870, known as the Ragamuffin Day Parade, it took place on Thanksgiving.
Children, often from working-class communities, dressed in ragged, castoff clothes and marched the streets, begging adults for money and candy.
Corporate interests and the media of the day derided the tradition, calling it a nuisance. The invention of Halloween and the popularity of the Macy’s Day Parade soon eclipsed the far older grassroots American parade.
Nevertheless, the Ragamuffin Day Parade has steadily continued on to the present, popping up in various neighborhoods around the city.
Another interesting historic detail is that not everybody in the city was super chuffed about the Macy’s Day Parade. Several local communities were distressed with how it overlapped the morning’s religious services, thereby interfering with the Christian observance of Advent, an important period of spiritual contemplation leading up to Christmas.
A group known as the Allied Patriotic Societies applied for a legal injunction to stop Macy’s, but they were ultimately denied. Interestingly, the parade did finish in time for fans to attend the (American) football games scheduled that day. As much as things change, a few things never will.
You’ll note some distinct differences between that first parade and the one with which you’re familiar. For one thing, there were no giant balloons.
Instead, the department store used exotic animals—like tigers, donkeys, camels, and elephants—all borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.
And the procession, only two blocks in length, started at 145th Street and Covenant Avenue in Harlem and finished at Herald Square on 34th Street.
A six-mile-long journey! A far cry from the two-and-a-half-mile route currently used.
Macy’s first parade, however, also possessed many of the elements for which it’s since become so fabulously famous. Macy’s floats portrayed well-known European fairytales and nursery rhymes, like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Moffit, and Little Red Riding Hood to capture the imaginations of parents and children alike.
The employees, marching alongside the ornate floats and the zoo animals, were costumed as cowboys, knights, clowns, giants, and princesses.
What’s more, bringing up the rear, is a float bearing Santa Claus, sitting in his reindeer-driven sleigh, atop of a mountain of ice, just as he does to this day. Christopher Klein described the finale in detail in his article The First Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“By noontime, the parade finally arrived at its end in front of Macy’s Herald Square store where 10,000 people cheered Santa as he descended from his sleigh. After being crowned King of the Kiddies, Kris Kringle scaled a ladder and sat on a gold throne mounted on top of the marquee above the store’s new 34th Street entrance near Seventh Avenue. With a bellow from his trumpet, Santa sounded the signal to unveil The Fair Frolics of Wondertown, the Christmastime window display designed by artist and puppeteer Tony Sarg. As soon as the police lowered their crowd-control lines, children rushed to the 75-foot-long window to see the miniature Mother Goose marionette characters on moving belts frolicking in their own parade in front of a castle-like façade.”
The press didn’t have much to say about the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, garnering just two lines the next day in the New York Herald.
The public was, however, another matter. Approximately 250,000 people attended. Macy’s was so pleased with the turnout (and perhaps an uptick in sales?) that their PR department soon announced that the parade would return the following year.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade History, a Timeline
In 1927, the first balloons bobbed onto the scene. Most notably, a balloon with the likeness of Felix the Cat made its first appearance.
In 1928, the production crew opted to inflate Felix with helium instead of air– another first. Unfortunately, they had no plan to deflate the massive balloon after the event. As a result, Felix flew off into the sky. Unfortunately, the cat popped soon thereafter.
Macy’s allowed the balloons to fly away for years and tried to turn it into a contest. These balloons had a return address written on them. Whoever found and returned the balloons would get a $100 gift card.
The competition had mixed results, to say the least. On two separate occasions, Macy’s balloons nearly killed pilots trying to recover the fly-away balloons. So, the practice ended in 1932.
In 1934, over one million people attended. Around this time, Disney and Santa balloons made their first appearances, not to mention the first radio broadcasts. The parade had miraculously managed to thrive despite (or perhaps because of) the social unrest caused by the Great Depression.
On the other hand, World War II disrupted the Thanksgiving Day Parade during the early half of the 1940s– 1942 to 1944.
However, it resumed in 1945, the same year network television broadcast it throughout New York for the first time. This was followed up in the 1950s when the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade via national television definitively entrenched itself as a pop-culture event.
Perhaps the most poignant year of the parade, though, occurred in 1963. Set to take place less than a week after President Kennedy’s assassination.
Macy’s chose to go forward with the event, saying they did not want to disappoint millions of children. And in 1971, Macy’s canceled the balloons due to high winds. Television stations broadcast clips from the prior year’s parade instead.
Over the following decades, Macy’s introduced new balloons that featured characters like Snoopy, Kermit the Frog, Shrek, Superman, and Spiderman. Just to name a few.
Five Infamous Balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Macy’s Day Parade has had its fair share of mishaps. The following are just a sample of the mayhem the balloons alone have caused over the years:
- There was the 1932 airplane incident involving the retrieval of a fly-away Tom Cat;
- When spectators got drenched by rainwater pooling in Popeye’s hat in 1957, again in 1962;
- Superman lost an arm in 1985 when the balloon flew into a tree branch;
- In 1997 a mother and daughter were crushed between Pink Panther and a lamppost;
- And the Cat in the Hat broke loose twice, in 1993 and 1997, injuring a total of six people.
That Time the Parade Confetti Was Confidential
And then there was that time when the parade confetti turned out to be sensitive materials. Eagle-eyed parade attendees noted something odd when the confetti flittered through the air one year. During the 2012 parade, some of the confetti, it seems, turned out to be shredded police files.
“I’m just completely in shock. How could someone have this kind of information, and how could it be distributed at the Thanksgiving Day Parade?” Inspector Kenneth Lack said, according to an article in the LA Times.
An 18-year-old Tufts University student, Ethan Finkelstein, initially reported the discovery to a local television station. Finkelstein described puzzlement on finding a social security number fluttering from a friend’s coat as they waited along the parade route on 65th Street and Central Park West.
“There were full lines of text. You didn’t need to piece everything together. It was right there,” the young man told NPR’s correspondent Margot Adler. He added: “It fell face up and said SSN, and there was a number.”
The real question seems to be how something like this could have happened in the first place. Macy’s issued a statement, claiming that they only use “commercially manufactured, multicolor confetti, not shredded paper.” Yet, there they were for all to see; confidential police documents littering the streets.
What’s more, a Nassau County police source confided to the New York Post that the confetti would have had to come straight from their headquarters.
Conspiracy theorists, simmer down now! No evidence has suggested a cover-up. Someone trying to conceal these documents obviously wouldn’t shred everything so poorly and dump it at a very public event. That’d be like begging to get caught.
The likely scenario suggested a whistleblower, a disgruntled pencil-pusher, or a prankster hoping to exploit a vulnerability in the police force. Eventually, the official police investigation discovered that the perpetrator had been an employee whose identity and motives remain unknown.
Macy’s Parade Studio
Within a 72,000-square-foot studio warehouse in Moonachie, NJ, 30 skilled artisans work year-round to prep for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This studio is where the magic happens.
The Macy’s Parade Studio functions as an HQ for the painters, carpenters, animators, and many other experts collaborating on the show’s larger-than-life elements.
If you’d like to see how balloon concepts advance from doodles to 3D models, the engineering of the floats, and more, catch a sneak peek behind the curtain on Macy’s site..
Tips for Viewing the Macy’s Day Parade
Seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in person is one of the most iconic New York bucket list items. To secure a good viewing spot, crowds begin gathering early, around 6:30 AM, along the edges of the parade route. The Parade’s duration depends on where you view it from.
For spectators at the parade route’s start, it’ll last about one and a half hours, while for those closer to Herald’s Square, it’ll last about three hours. So, be sure to:
- Dress warm
- Bring a chair and a blanket
- Prepare for a pavement picnic
- Avoid official viewing area, far too crowded
- And stick around for Santa
The Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade route proceeds along Central Park West, starting from 77th Street to Columbus Circle, it then advances along Central Park South to 6th Avenue, where it turns down 6th Avenue to 34th Street, and finally along 34th Street to Macy’s Herald Square.
Organizers advise that the best views are on Central Park West, between 61st and 72nd Streets.
For the Balloon Enthusiasts
Did you know that the balloons must now be able to fold down into 12’ x 8’ boxes, in order to be transported through the Lincoln Tunnel from the Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey?
Or that each balloon requires 90 handlers, each weighing a minimum of 120 pounds?
And did you know the parade has its own peculiar jargon? You will have probably, after all, noticed that there are different types of balloons, right?
Well, each type has a specific name and the individuals who make and operate the balloons all have official names too.
- Falloons: Float-based balloons, introduced in 1990;
- Balloonicles: Vehicle-based balloons, introduced in 2004;
- Trycaloons: Tandem-tricycle balloon;
- Balloonatics: Balloon artists;
- Balloon-pilots: Fairly self-explanatory.
For more information about the balloons, like how they’re made and stored or how much it costs to maintain them, check out the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade official page.
Utopia for a Day
The Macy’s Day Parade balloons are cultural icons with a multi-generational charm. Charlie Brown, Ronald McDonald, the Pillsbury Doughboy, et al.
They’re recognizable, figures with comforting associations that give us the fuzzies. All of which suggests the outsized importance we collectively place on our early memories, which help us recall the power of childlike wonder.
Zigzagging through this nexus of reality and fantasy we see cowboys, sailors, pirates, walking flora, jugglers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, and unicyclists.
This is a utopian vision, a place brimming with zaniness and fun. People have the freedom to be anything, even clowns, as long as they’re the harmless ones.
As James Cotton points out, a clown like Stephen King’s Pennywise, wouldn’t make the cut. “Nothing brutal or cruel exists in this benevolent vision.”
Playing their part in the parade’s idealized atmosphere are the countless spectators. They, too, put what’s best about us on display.
They enthusiastically applaud the skill of the high-school marching bands, the winsome grace of the baton twirlers, and the spit-and-polish precision of the steely-eyed soldiers.
Neither irony nor derision has a place in this parade, where onlookers throw their support and appreciation for the optimism on display.
Like this, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade marches on as a joyful, idealized reflection of our values. A “magic mirror” in which we can admire what’s most beautiful in ourselves, our culture. A respite from the daily news briefs that dog us through the year.
Every day cannot be like this and shouldn’t be. It is good, however, to get a glimpse—no matter how brief—of the order and harmony, the gratitude and joy of which we are capable. Life is not a parade, but this parade is an integral part of life. For it allows us to dream bigger, better.
A chance for society to evolve and for each of us to reclaim the dark days of the coming winter.
Kick-off to the Holiday Season
Better yet, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade kicks off the winter holiday season and festivities in NYC. If you’re attending or visiting during this time be sure to visit our holiday guides for the city covering everything from the best holiday lights, department store window displays, festive holiday pop up bars and restaurants, and all things magical during the holiday season in NYC!
- NYC Christmas Itinerary (Best Things to do in NYC at Christmas)
- Best Christmas Trees in NYC to See
- Best Holiday Pop-Up Bars and Restaurants in NYC
- Best Christmas Lights in NYC (DIY Christmas Lights Tour)
- Tricks and Tips for Visiting the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights in Brooklyn
- Best Holiday Window Displays in NYC
- Best Christmas Movies Set in NYC (Plus Elf Filming Locations in NYC & Home Alone 2 Filming Locations in NYC)
- Best NYC Christmas Ornaments