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17 Mind-Blowing Facts About the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

It's all fun and games until a balloon hits an airplane.

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It all started with Santa…

On Thanksgiving day 1924, hundreds of Macy’s department store employees came together to celebrate one of America’s most treasured holidays: Christmas. Yes, the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade officially began as the Macy’s Christmas Parade—and that’s not even close to being the most unusual change in the beloved procession’s 92-year history. Read on for the bizarre story of power-walking elephants, balloon bounty hunters, the poor souls who have to wash all 4,000 costumes every year, and more fascinating facts about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. This year, try making the best Thanksgiving dish for your zodiac sign.

Daily Life In New York City Amid Coronavirus OutbreakNoam Galai/Getty Images

Prepare for a pandemic parade

We know that Thanksgiving as a whole will be different in 2020, and the Macy’s Parade will be no exception—especially since this is usually an event marked by enormous crowds. For the first time ever, the parade will be a “television-only” event, so there’ll be no live audience and the event will be filmed over two days to better distance participants. And that number of participants in the parade will also be drastically reduced—it will have only 25 percent of the people it usually does, according to a Macy’s press release. Plus, rather than using its usual 2.5-mile parade route, the event will be mostly restricted to Herald Square (where Macy’s is) and its immediate surroundings.

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The original Macy’s day parade was six miles long

Beginning at 145th street in upper Manhattan and ending at the Macy’s flagship store on 34th street, the 111-block parade took several hours to complete. At the time, this was only possible by hitching horses to the parade floats and relying on them to drag the festivities halfway down the island. (The cleanup must’ve been a nightmare.) After the parade, visit one of these chain restaurants that are open on Thanksgiving.

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For three years, tigers roamed the streets

The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade was way furrier from 1924 to 1926. Borrowed from the Central Park Zoo, a procession of elephants, camels, tigers, goats, and other live beasts strutted down the streets of New York for the crowd’s amusement, some draped in Macy’s pennants to advertise the show. After 1926, the zoo animals were replaced with the huge helium balloons we know today; supposedly, live beasts freaked out the kids too much. Don’t miss this Thanksgiving timeline to planning the ultimate meal.

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Macy’s put a bounty on runaway balloons

For the first few years, parade officials had no plan for deflating their massive balloon companions. Their solution: just let them fly away and explode in the atmosphere. In 1928, Macy’s even made a game of it. Handlers released five balloons—an elephant, two birds, a ghost, and a 60-foot tiger—into the sky and challenged bystanders to capture them for a $100 reward. The tiger landed first, on top of a Long Island home, inciting a vicious tug of war. “Neighbors and motorists rushed up from all directions,” the New York Times reported. “The rubberized silk skin burst into dozens of fragments.” Here are some more answers to your biggest questions about Thanksgiving.

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One balloon almost caused an airplane disaster

A 60-foot tom cat balloon was released after the 1932 Macy’s day parade and nearly sparked disaster when an aviation student spotted it floating at 5,000 feet. Much to her instructor’s dismay, the 22-year-old student spontaneously decided to ram her plane into the cat’s neck (whether this was to collect the prize money or just make headlines, nobody knows). The balloon disabled her wing. The plane plummeted toward earth. The instructor seized control at the last minute, saving them both. Needless to say, that was the last year Macy’s released their balloons. To keep kids entertained, try out these fun Thanksgiving crafts.

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Popeye tipped his hat—and drenched the crowd

In other amusing balloon malfunction history, the 1957 Macy’s day parade was beset by a sudden rainstorm. Popeye the sailor man took the water in stride, collecting rain in the dip of his hat until it became too heavy for his rubbery neck to support. Popeye dropped his head, flooding the crowd below in a gush of rainwater, then bounced back upright and began the process again. For some more Thanksgiving humor, check out these funny Thanksgiving quotes.

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Rubber balloons helped the war effort

From 1942 to 1944, Macy’s president Jack Straus decided to cancel the parade for the first time ever due to America’s involvement in WWII. Luckily, all the parade planning wasn’t for naught: Instead of marching and throwing confetti, Macy’s donated 650 pounds of balloon rubber to the military. When the parade returned in 1945, 2 million spectators turned out, including, for the first time ever, NBC camera crews. You’ll love these best-ever Macy’s floats.

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A helium shortage led to some creative balloons

Macy’s is the world’s #2 consumer of helium (the first is the U.S. government). But amidst a national helium shortage in 1958, it looked as though there would be no parade balloons. Fortunately, parade organizers came up with a creative back-up: Fill the balloons with regular air, then hang them from giant construction cranes like big, puffy marionettes. It actually worked!

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Today, the U.S. Senate could barely hold one balloon

Today it takes about takes 90 minutes to inflate a large parade balloon with the roughly 12,000 cubic feet of helium needed to float. That much gas lifts about 750 pounds, and requires up to 90 handlers to keep it anchored. Love watching the parade on Thanksgiving morning? You’ll love these other fun Thanksgiving traditions.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day ParadeEuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images

Yes, parade balloons have pilots—and their job is crazy

About 4,000 volunteers work the Macy’s day parade every year, and face varying work requirements. A typical balloon handler, for example, must weigh at least 120 pounds and be in good health. Balloon pilots, who lead the handlers by walking in front of the balloon, must be capable of walking the whole parade route backward without falling or getting lost. Macy’s offers pilot training three times a year, but practice is up to the pilot herself. “I walked backward in my neighborhood at night,” says Kelly Kramer, a Macy’s employee and balloon pilot. If pilots don’t practice, “The next morning you wake up and you almost cannot get out of bed because your calves seize up.”

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The parade is one of America’s biggest creepy clown employers

While the nation frets over news reports of creepy clowns, Macy’s runs a school or them. The parade’s so-called Clown U is led by the Big Apple Circus and trains about 900 volunteer clowns for every year’s parade. Be sure not to make any of these common Thanksgiving mistakes this year.

Jersey City, New Jersey, Man's hands packing deliveryTetra Images/Getty Images

Gargantuan floats and balloons literally have to squeeze into a box

Since 1968, the parade’s floats and balloons have been designed at the New Jersey–based Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Studio (which inhabits an old Tootsie Roll factory). Because it would be impractical (but awesome) to float the floats over the Hudson River, each massive stage must be folded down into 12-foot-by-8-foot boxes to be transported through the Lincoln Tunnel. The floats are built in detachable sections for just this purpose. These Macy’s float failures are absolutely hilarious.

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Float makers could actually drown in glitter

Macy’s day parade floats are proudly hand-painted, assembled, and glittered in Hoboken, New Jersey. To achieve a sparkle visible from helicopter footage, the Parade Studio orders glitter in 25-pound packages, and can go through 100 to 200 pounds of glitter for a single float. Here are some far less intense Thanksgiving crafts you can make at home.

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Laundering all those costumes takes months

Macy’s provides costumes for most of their parade participants, which amounted to about 4,000 individual uniforms last year. It takes an entire month to get all those costumes laundered, and another month to reassemble them into their packages afterward.

The 92th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Paradewebpay/Getty Images

This year’s balloons could feed a country… sort of

Keep a lookout for the Pillsbury Doughboy balloon this year. According to Macy’s, if he was actually made of dough, he’d make the equivalent of about 4 million crescent rolls. Meanwhile, the Ronald McDonald balloon will appear in the Macy’s day parade for his 17th time, wearing a six-foot-long bow tie and a pair of size 200 XXXXXXXL-wide shoes. If you’re overseas and can’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, find out how to celebrate Thanksgiving in a meaningful way while abroad.

Macy's Thanksgiving ParadeGary Hershorn/Getty Images

How much does all this cost?

It’s hard to say. But consider this: To construct a single new balloon, it costs at least $190,000. Once a balloon is built, it costs about $90,000 a year to maintain after that. And while many parade performers are volunteers, they require more than 300 dressers and makeup artists to get TV-ready. The Macy’s thanksgiving parade is a full-time business—and with about 50 million annual TV viewers, business is booming. It remains to be seen how the altered parade will perform in 2020, but it’s a relief that it’ll take more than a pandemic to completely stifle this annual display of holiday cheer! Here’s why you should consider seeing the Macy’s parade in person once it’s back up and running.

Sources:

  • Macy’s, Inc.: “Macy’s And The City Of New York Announce Plan For Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade® Celebration”
  • Mental Floss: “47 Fun Facts About the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”
  • Untapped New York: “Top 10 Balloon Mishaps at Macy’s NYC Thanksgiving Day Parade”
  • Popular Science: “The Science And Engineering Of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Balloons”
  • Vanity Fair: “A Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Expert Tells All”
  • Business Insider: “Here’s what happens to the giant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons during the other 364 days a year”
Originally Published in Reader's Digest