On Thursday, November 23, Macy’s will send its Thanksgiving Day Parade down the streets of Manhattan—a spectacle that millions of people tune in to watch from the comfort of their homes. Here are a few things you might not have known about the iconic holiday event.
The Macy’s Christmas Parade debuted in 1924 as a way to celebrate the expansion of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store, which covered an entire city block and became the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Store.” According to The New York Times, “the majority of participants were employees of the stores. There were, however, many professional entertainers who kept the spectators amused as they passed by. Beautiful floats showed the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet, and Red Riding Hood. There were also bears, elephants, donkeys and bands, making the procession resemble a circus parade.” (The animals came from the Central Park Zoo.)
The parade began at 145th Street and Convent Avenue and continued down to Macy’s huge store on 34th Street. All along the route, according to the Times, the parade “was welcomed by such crowds that a large force of policemen had its hands full maintaining the police lines.” Some 10,000 people watched Santa—who rode on a float designed to look like a sled being pulled by reindeer—be crowned “King of the Kiddies,” then enjoyed the unveiling of the store’s Christmas windows. The parade was such a success that Macy’s decided to make it an annual event; in 1927, it officially became the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Two years after the first parade, the Allied Patriotic Societies protested the event, telling Macy’s that it shouldn’t hold the event on Thanksgiving because “it would interfere with Thanksgiving Day worship,” according to The New York Times, and because it wasn’t appropriate for a commercial company to hold a parade on the holiday. If the company didn’t acknowledge its protest, the association declared that it would go to the police commissioner and ask him to revoke the parade permit.
Percy Straus, who worked for Macy’s, attended the association’s meeting. He pointed out that there was no blatant advertising in the parade and that the word Macy’s was used just once. “He also said that Thanksgiving morning was the only time when children would be free to watch and traffic would be light enough to permit the parade’s passing,” the Times wrote. “It would be over, he thought, in ample time to permit churchgoing.” Straus’s justifications didn’t make a difference; the association voted to protest the parade, but its efforts to get the event canceled were unsuccessful.
Before the Macy’s parade, there was the Thanksgiving Ragamuffin Parade, an event where local children dressed up as beggars and asked adults on the street for pennies, candy, and apples. The Macy’s parade was such a success that it quickly drove the now-obscure Ragamuffin Parade out of business.
The Balloonatics float—which, as the name would suggest, was festooned with balloons—inspired the creation of the character balloons. These days, the people who design the balloons are known as “Balloonatics.”
Three years after the first annual parade, balloons made their debut. According to The New York Times, the parade included “a ‘human behemoth’ 21 feet tall … [that] had to crawl under the elevated structure at 66th and Broadway,” “a ‘dinosaur’ 60 feet long attended by a bodyguard of prehistoric cavemen,” and “a 25-foot dachshund [that] swayed along in the company of gigantic turkeys and chickens and ducks of heroic size.” Also in the parade that year, but not mentioned in the Times, was the first character balloon, Felix the Cat.
That year, Macy’s released five huge figures—an elephant, a 60-foot tiger, a plumed bird, an “early bird” trailing worms, and a 25-foot-high ghost—into the sky. While the majority of the balloons in the parade used regular air to stay afloat, these figures were built around helium balloon bodies, which were designed to slowly leak the gas. As The New York Times explained, “The figures are expected to rise to 2000 to 3000 feet and are timed by a slow leak to stay aloft for a week to 10 days. By then it is expected they will have alighted in various parts of the country.” Whoever returned the balloons would receive a $100 reward.
The first balloon to land was the tiger, which the Times reported landed on the roof of a Long Island home: “A tug of war ensued for its possession … neighbors and motorists rushed up from all directions. The rubberized silk skin burst into dozens of fragments.”
By December 1, four of the balloons had landed (one in the East River, where it broke in two and was pursued by tugboats). The ghost, however, was “reported as having been sighted moving out to sea over the Rockaways with a flock of gulls in pursuit,” according to the Times.
The parade held its last balloon race in 1932 after two incidents involving airplanes. In 1931, aviator Clarence Duncan Chamberlin snagged a balloon in mid-air and towed it back to his home and received $25 as a reward. In 1932, according to some sources, a 22-year-old woman taking flying lessons purposefully flew the plane she was piloting into one of the released balloons. It was only the quick action of her instructor that kept the plane from crashing.
These broadcasts were radio-only, so listeners had to use their imaginations. The first televised parade took place in 1946 and was limited to the New York area.
Macy’s designers collaborated with Walt Disney to create the 40-foot-high, 23-foot-wide balloon, which was “held down to Earth by 25 husky attendants,” according to The New York Times. The parade that year also featured the first balloon based on a real person: comedian and vaudeville star Eddie Cantor.
The Thanksgiving Day parade floats were pulled by horses until 1939. You can see footage of the first horse-free event above.
There were rubber and helium shortages, so Macy’s canceled the parade from 1942 to 1944. The company deflated its rubber balloons—which weighed 650 pounds total—and donated them to the government. (These days, the balloons are made of polyurethane fabric.) The parade returned in 1945, and in 1946 it got a new route, which started at 77th Street and Central Park West and ended at 34th Street—half the length of the previous route.
Initially, it looked like a helium shortage would keep Macy’s parade balloons from flying in 1958. But the company collaborated with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and the rigging specialists Traynor & Hansen Corporation to come up with a creative solution: According to The New York Times, the balloons were filled with air and dangled from “large, mobile construction derricks.” The paper also described a test of the method:
“A motorized derrick with a 70-foot boom had a specially built wood-and-steel hanger attached to the end of the wire hoisting cable. The Toy Soldier, weighing more than 200 pounds deflated, was stretched full-length on a canvas carpet. Limp and sickly looking, it was not the robust figure children and adults are used to seeing. Lines from the body of the balloon were attached to the hanger while two vacuum cleaners, working in reverse, blew in air. An hour of blowing filled the figure out nicely and the boom hoisted it into the air.”
A 1976, a green balloon modeled on an Apatosaurus dinosaur that had appeared in the parade a whopping 13 times was displayed inside the AMNH’s Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda for five days before being retired. Instead of helium, it was filled with air, and visitors got a chance to see it up close. But that wasn’t the last we saw of it. The historic balloon also appeared in the parades in 2015 and 2017.
Thanks to the parade, Macy’s is reportedly the second-largest consumer of helium in the world. Only the U.S. government consumes more, with NASA and the Department of Defense leading the charge.
Since 1968, the floats have been designed by artists at Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey. The floats can be up to 40 feet tall and 28 feet wide—but they fold down into a 12-foot-by-8-foot box to make the journey through the Lincoln Tunnel.
The parade uses float-based balloons called falloons—a combination of float and balloon—which were introduced sometime around 1990. There are also balloon vehicles called balloonicles (a portmanteau of balloon and vehicle), which made their debut in 2004. Trycaloons—balloons on tricycles—hit the parade in 2011.
Macy’s balloon designers—dubbed balloonatics—begin their work up to a year before the parade with pencil sketches of each character, analyzing not just aesthetics but also aerodynamics and engineering. The sketches are followed by scaled-down clay models that are used to create casts of the balloons. Two miniature replicas are created: One that’s marked with technical details, and one that’s painted in the balloon’s colors. The models are immersed in water to figure out how much helium they’ll need to float. Finally, the schematics are scanned by computer, and the fabric pieces are cut and heat-sealed to create the various air chambers of the balloon.
Once the balloon is created, it’s painted while inflated (otherwise, the paint will crack), then undergoes leak testing and indoor and outdoor flight tests. No wonder it costs at least $190,000 for a first-time balloon (after a first appearance, it costs $90,000 a year after that). The balloons are completed by Halloween and stored along a wall in the design studio’s balloon warehouse.
They’re the people walking backwards in front of the balloon, directing a crew of volunteers holding guide ropes (called “bones”) and two Toro utility vehicles. Macy’s offers training three times a year for pilots. “We offer the pilots and captains the chance to go around the field a couple times with the balloon a couple of times and practice the instruction and guidance,” Kathy Kramer, a longtime Macy’s employee and balloon pilot, told Vanity Fair in 2014. “We also have classroom training.”
It’s also important for balloon pilots to train physically; if not, “The next morning you wake up and you almost cannot get out of bed because your calves seize up,” according to Kramer. “I walked backwards in my neighborhood at night.”
It takes 90 minutes to inflate the big balloons, which, on average, contain 12,000 cubic feet of helium, which is capable of lifting nearly 750 pounds (or filling 2500 bathtubs). Each balloon requires up to 90 handlers, who have to weigh at least 120 pounds each and be in good health.
The balloons are inflated the day before the parade outside the American Museum of Natural History, then topped off the day of the event. Because helium expands in the sun, the balloons are typically left slightly under-inflated. From noon until 6 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving, spectators can walk among the many balloons while they’re being inflated.
That honor goes to Snoopy, who debuted in the 1968 parade and has had a grand total of eight balloons. The beloved character has made 42 appearances through 2022.
In 1933, Santa led the parade instead of closing it. It was the only year where the jolly red guy wasn’t the grand finale.
Many of the parade balloons are made by Raven Industries, a rubber firm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Since 1984, Raven has made nearly 100 balloons. Beginning in April, it takes 25 employees to work on the year’s balloons.
Among them were the Nantucket Sea Monster (1937), the wrestler The Terrible Turk (which memorably hit a traffic pole and split in half in 1931), a Pinocchio with a 44-foot-long nose (1937), a couple of two-headed balloons (1936), an ice cream cone and a jack ‘o lantern (1945), a space man (1952), Smokey Bear (1969), cereal spokes-animal Linus the Lion (1973), and more.
There are many things that pose threats to the parade balloons: electric wires (which caused the Felix the Cat balloon to burst into flames when it hit them in 1931), rain (which filled the Popeye balloon’s hat with water, which got dumped on spectators along the parade route in 1957), tree branches (which once tore off Superman’s hand). But a balloon’s greatest enemy is wind: In 1993, wind caused the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon to hit a lamppost; the light fell and injured one. In 1997, police stabbed a Pink Panther balloon when wind sent it careening; that same year, the wind made an oversized Cat in the Hat balloon hit a streetlight, sending two people to the hospital with head injuries (after the incident, the parade instituted new size rules). In 2005, an M&M balloon got tangled on a streetlamp, causing the lamp to fall and injuring two.
Each balloon flies at a height determined by its size and weather conditions, and the wind poses such a threat that if sustained wind speeds or gusts are too strong, the balloons won’t fly.
After the parade is over, the balloons are deflated behind Macy’s on Seventh Avenue. First, the volunteers open up zippers on the sides of the balloons; when most of the helium has escaped, they lie on the balloon to get all the helium out, then roll the character up from front to back. The balloon is then put in storage until the next parade.
Jean McFaddin served as the senior vice president for Macy’s special productions from 1977 to 2001, which meant she was responsible not only for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, but also Macy’s famous Santaland, among other things.
For four decades, the parade’s studio was located in a former Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 2011, the studio moved to a 71,000-square-foot warehouse in Moonachie.
In addition to the Today show anchors that host the parade now, past parade commentators have included Betty White, Ed McMahon, Shari Lewis, Helen Reddy, Della Reese, and Phylicia Rashad.
In 1997, Beavis and Butt-head commentated on the parade along with host Kurt Loder. They called the special Beavis and Butt-head Do Thanksgiving, and they even got their own balloon featuring their likenesses sitting on a couch. The balloon wasn’t on the parade route, but rather tethered to a building on the route.
Broadway musicals have been featured in the parade since at least 1980, when The Pirates of Penzance cast performed atop a pirate ship.
The bleacher seats that line key sections of the parade may seem like the perfect seats, but unless you know someone, you probably won’t find yourself sitting there: They’re reserved for Macy’s guests only, and no tickets are sold for those seats.
The question is raised enough that it’s addressed in the FAQ section of the Macy’s Parade website: “Though it would be an honor to share in this special moment, this is not something that we can take part in or approve.”
Additions included a Statue of Liberty float with the flags of all 50 states, floats for the fire and police departments, and a Big Apple float that featured the city’s emergency services workers and other officials.
The “Blue Sky Gallery” is a special part of the parade that invites contemporary artists to transform their work into balloons. Beginning in 2005, the program has included pieces by Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Tim Burton, Takashi Murakami, KAWS, and Yayoi Kusama.
That’s true even if they’re amazing live performers. Why? Because the floats aren’t equipped to deliver the proper sound quality, as John Legend pointed out in 2018.
For several years, select balloons from the parade were sent down to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, to make special appearances in the park during the holiday season. The event has since been rebranded “Universal’s Holiday Parade Featuring Macy’s,” with Macy’s designing 13 balloons exclusively for Universal.
Bands across the U.S. have to apply well in advance to be considered for a spot in the parade. After submitting an application and a video of the band’s field marching performance, approved bands are notified roughly 18 months in advance.
In 2012, sensitive information that included clearly visible Social Security numbers, license plate numbers, and banking data ended up being used as confetti in the parade. Macy’s only uses multi-colored confetti, a spokesperson said, and authorities were investigating how the private documents ended up in the parade.
A Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade movie was once in the works, with a premise that included the oversized balloons coming to life. Presumably it’s still floating around in development.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.
Erin McCarthy & Stacy Conradt