A Turkey Day Tradition for the Entire Country

Learn fascinating facts about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

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- Posted on Oct 17, 2012

The giant Ronald McDonald balloon soars over the streets of Manhattan

What started in 1924 as a small collection of floats and live animals organized by Macy’s workers—most of whom were recent immigrants trying to replicate similar processions back home—has evolved into a nationwide annual tradition known as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Twelve full-time staffers work year round to coordinate the logistics involved with producing the event along with the TV program seen by 50 million people.

On parade day, approximately 10,000 employees and volunteers are involved including characters and children who ride 25 floats; student musicians who belong to more than a dozen marching bands; 800 clowns; 2,000 performers and balloon handlers for 50 balloons—15 of which are the signature behemoth characters, such as Ronald McDonald and SpongeBob SquarePants, that are beloved by young and old alike. 

When my 15-year-old son Billy and I participate as clowns in this year’s parade on November 22nd, it will be the pageant’s 86th procession down Broadway. The parade always takes place rain or shine; it was suspended only once, from 1942-1944, due to World War II.

Shortly after the war ended, the hit movie, Miracle on 34th Street introduced the parade to a national audience and in 1948, NBC started televising it nationally.

A cool cat named Felix kicked off the tradition of large character balloons in 1927, but Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s beloved beagle, has appeared most frequently. Though he won’t join this year’s cast of characters, he’s been in 36 parades. Mickey Mouse, another frequent participant, has appeared in more than a dozen parades.

In the early days, Macy’s released the balloons into the air at the parade’s conclusion. The lucky folks who caught and returned them received a cash reward, but this practice ended in 1932 when a novice airplane pilot crashed into a giant cat over New York’s Jamaica Bay.

The balloons, which take nine months to design and build, are assembled in Macy’s brand new studio located in Moonachie, New Jersey.

The day before the parade, the balloons travel—deflated and rolled up on trucks—through the Lincoln Tunnel to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where they are inflated on the streets surrounding the Museum of Natural History (77th and 81st Streets). Balloon inflation night is another show stopper and is almost as big of a tourist attraction as the parade itself!

About 300,000 cubic feet of helium is required to get all the zeppelins up and floating. By comparison, an 18-inch mylar balloon—which can be purchased in many party stores—requires .45 cubic feet of helium.

Veteran balloon handlers love to share their experiences and compare lengths of service. Entire families volunteer together. Year after year husbands and wives; parents and children; brothers, sisters and happy groups of cousins lead by a fun-loving aunt or uncle willingly rise out of warm beds before dawn so they can turkey trot through town in the parade. 

I met one balloon handler who met his wife volunteering. At the following year’s parade he popped the question, somehow leading her to a ring hidden near their favorite balloon. At 92, Rose Syracuse, the parade’s most senior volunteer, has 56 parades under her belt!

Unfortunately, the store’s founder, Rowland Hussey (R. H.) Macy, never lived to see a parade; he died in 1877—long before the parade’s debut almost 50 years later. Still the parade lives on!

Read Ann's inspiring story of fulfilling her dream of marching in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade!

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Ann Matturro Gault is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Verona, New Jersey, with her husband, four kids, dog and cat. She covers health issues every month for QualityHealth.com and writes regularly for many other publications. This year will be her fourth parade, but her first time marching with a family member!

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