“Let’s Have a Parade!” is the famous line synonymous with the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since its premier in 1924. Known for its detailed floats and life-like balloons that spread a feel-good mood to all those watching, the parade will celebrate it’s 89th event this year, which takes place in New York City on Thanksgiving morning.
The parade has gone through a lot of changes over the years, including shortening the route from 5.5 to 2.5 miles, and, in fact, planning for next year’s parade will start soon after this one is done. From building the balloons, to gathering volunteers, to booking performers—there is a great amount of preparation put into making this exciting day a successful celebration to kick off the holiday season.
Here are all the facts you need to know about the parade and how it has evolved over the years:
1. The Parade Was First Known as The ‘Macy’s Christmas Parade’
Although Santa has always been featured in the parade, Macy’s changed the original name of the event to “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” after the first parade was such a success. After the initial Macy’s celebration, the public was told to keep Thanksgiving morning open for 1925 because the parade would return. Santa has always appeared at the end of the parade except for 1933 when he led the parade.
The only years the parade didn’t take place were during World War II in 1942, 1943, and 1944. All the balloons, making up about 650 pounds of scrap rubber, were donated to the war effort due to a rubber and helium shortage during that time.
An estimated 3.5 million people will gather to watch the parade in person this year while another 50 million will have the parade on at home. Like always, the parade will be broadcasted on NBC from 9 a.m. to noon.
2. This Year a Macy’s Employee Will be Honored For 60 Years of Volunteering in the Parade
The parade will kick off with Al Roker, Amy Kule, the executive producer of the parade, and Roseann Levy, a Macy’s employee who has participated in the parade for 60 years. They will be followed by about 4,000 Macy’s employees, 1,000 of which will be dressed as clowns and received professional training from clowns in the Big Apple Circus.
This year the parade will also feature 17 giant character balloons, 27 floats, 12 marching band and 1,100 cheerleaders/ dancers. The new balloons include an updated Ronald McDonald, Red from Angry Birds and Scrat from Ice Age chasing his acorn.
3. Professional Performing Artists & School Bands Perform Throughout the Parade
Another exciting part of the parade is the music and all the performers, both celebrity and from organizations and schools.
Each year some high schools and colleges are selected to join in the parade and the Macy’s team surprises the bands in person. Kule told Yahoo Parenting:
“We go and surprise them! 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.”
4. Live Animals Were Featured Before Balloons Were Added
The live animals in the first parade, including monkeys, elephants and bears, were borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.
Realizing the large television viewership, the Macy’s team wanted to bring the parade to life for people at home across the country who couldn’t travel to the parade itself. The balloons soon became the main attraction in the parade, With most balloons about two to three stories high and roughly the width of three lanes of traffic, people can see them coming from far away among the large crowds.
There have been 171 characters featured as balloons to date and the Snoopy and Woodstock balloon will make its 38th parade appearance this year, the longest of any other character.
5. The Thanksgiving Eve Balloon Inflation Draws a Big Crowd
On the day before the parade, the balloons are transported through the Lincoln Tunnel from the studio in Moonachie, New Jersey. Most of the balloons are huge when fully blown up but they need to fit into boxes of no more than 12. 5 feet tall and 8 feet wide in order to fit through the toll booth and the tunnel.
The day before the parade the balloons are blown up in front of the American Museum of Natural History between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. While this event is not televised, many people gather to watch the balloons come to life.
“This formerly sleepy tradition has become a big deal. 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,” explains Kule to Yahoo Parenting.
6. Balloon & Float Construction Takes Months to Complete
There is a lot of research and work that goes into creating the balloons and floats to ensure they are accurate. Most of the floats are made out of styrofoam that is cut and painted while the balloons are a much longer process.
Any balloon takes six to nine months to construct and a float will take three to six months to build, needless to say, the parade team never stops preparing for the upcoming event.
“One challenge that’s greater than all the rest is the fact that you can’t move Thanksgiving. It’s got to be there at that time, so once we start the design process we see it through,” said to John Piper, vice president of the Macy’s Parade Studio.
Each balloon begins as a sketch before molds of the character are made. One mold displays what the actual balloon will look like and the other serves as a blueprint, outlining where different compartments will go.
7. Each Balloon Has a Team of People Steering it During the Parade
The balloons are tested a few days before in the parade studio. They have to pass the test of retaining air for six hours, which usually indicates they will be able to hold helium during the parade without leaking.
An engineering analysis is also conducted to test the balloon’s ability to withstand different wind speeds at different heights.
Each balloon has a flight management team including one pilot, two co-pilots, one captain, two assistant captains, and a team that controls the vehicle the balloon is anchored to, according to Buzzfeed.
8. The Balloons Used to be Released After the Parade But Now There is a Deflation Team
There is a deflation team at the end of the parade that quickly, in about 15 to 20 minutes, deflates each balloon and packages it away until next year. The deflation process has to happen quickly because the parade is still moving and there cannot be a back up. Each balloon has several compartments to make deflation quicker.
Before there was a deflation squad, the balloons used to be let go at the end of the parade. People were given a $50 gift certificate to Macy’s if they caught the balloon and returned it. This contest got a little out of hand between one balloon getting caught in the propeller of a plane that was trying to catch it to two tug boats tearing a balloon to pieces when trying to get it after it landed in the East River.
When the parade is over, all the costumes the workers wore are taken back to the warehouse in New Jersey in about 10 truckloads and it takes about a month to wash all of them.
9. The Parade Takes Place Regardless of the Weather
Hope for good weather and mild winds on Thanksgiving because, although the parade takes place in all kinds of weather conditions, strong winds will force the parade workers to lower or deflate balloons. But this only usually happens if there are wind gusts of 34 mph or higher, or steady winds at 23 mph on the day of the parade.
There are rarely balloon accidents at the parade because there are many precautions in place but one incident did occur in 1997 involving the Cat in the Hat balloon hitting a lamppost and falling onto a woman, putting her in a coma.
10. Macy’s Has Never Revealed The Cost of The Parade
Macy’s does not want to reveal any costs of the parade because they consider the event to be a gift. Parade spokesman Orlando Veras has explained in the past, “Like any good gift, you cut off the price tag when you give it, so we keep to that tradition as well.”
It is estimated, by Tony Michaels CEO of the Parade Company, a nonprofit that operates Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day parade, that one float can cost about $30,000 to $100,000, according to a 2013 Time interview.