13 Things You Didn’t Know About the
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade
1. The first Thanksgiving Day Parade (then called the Macy’s Christmas Parade) took place on November 27, 1924, and stretched for five and a half miles. Today, marchers can complete their modest two-and-a-half mile route in about an hour.
2. The parade used to be far furrier. From 1924 to 1926, a procession of tigers, donkeys, elephants, camels, and other live beasts—borrowed from the Central Park Zoo—strutted down the streets. They were replaced by air-filled balloons propped up on sticks in 1927 because the creatures scared the children on the sidelines. (Helium balloons emerged a year later.)
3. For the first few years, rather than deflate the balloons after the parade, organizers let them fly away and explode in the atmosphere. In 1928, Macy’s even made a game of it. Handlers released all five balloons (an elephant, two birds, a ghost and a tiger) and challenged the public to capture them, offering a $100 reward for each one. The tiger landed first, on top of a Long Island home—and was quickly ripped to shreds by eager bystanders.
4. One balloon nearly caused an airplane disaster in 1932. After the parade that year, a 22-year-old aviation student spotted Macy’s 60-foot-long Tom-Cat balloon floating around 5,000 feet up. To her instructor’s dismay, she spontaneously decided to ram into it. The balloon wrapped around one of the wings, and the plane plummeted earthward. The instructor seized control at the last minute, saving them both.
5. From 1942 to 1944, Macy’s president Jack Straus canceled the parade out of respect for the soldiers in World War II. All the planning still paid off: Macy’s donated 650 pounds of balloon rubber to the military.
6. The parade in Miracle on 34th Street was no fabrication. The producers at 20th Century Fox set up dozens of cameras along the 1946 parade route to capture the authentic festivities. Unbeknownst to many in the crowd, the Kris Kringle riding the float was actually one of the film’s stars, Edmund Gwenn, given one chance to perform his parade scenes live. Santa delivered— and won an Oscar for the role in 1948.
7. In 1958, a national helium shortage, almost forced the parade’s cancellation. Organizers came up with a creative backup plan: filling the balloons with regular air and then hanging them from giant mobile contruction cranes like big, puffy marionettes. It actually worked.
8. More than 8,000 volunteers staff the parade every year. Who has the toughest job in the procession? Possibly the balloon pilots, individuals who walk the entire parade backward while directing a team of handlers to adjust the balloons’ bearings for weather conditions.
9. Wind is the enemy. During the especially windy 1997 parade, a Barney balloon nearly broke free of its cables before being punctured and subdued by NYPD officers. That same year, a woman was seriously injured by falling debris when a runaway Cat in the Hat balloon crashed into a light pole. Following a 24-day coma, she sued Macy’s New York City, and the lamppost manufacturer for $395 million.
10. See those big, fancy floats? They’re all built to collapse to no more than 12.5 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Since 1968, all the parade’s props and stages have been hand painted, assembled, and glittered at Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey. Because it would be impractical to float the floats over the river, they’re designed to pass through the Lincoln Tunnel on trucks.
11. Float makers use so much glitter, they can practically swim in it. The parade studio orders the stuff in 25-pound packages and can go through 100 to 200 pounds for a single float.
12. It take a small army to clean up the mess. In 2016, New York City’s sanitation department deployed about 160 workers with brooms, trucks, and backpack blowers to clear the streets post-celebration. In 2015, the department was tasked to removing 32 tons of trash from the parade route—the metrics quivilant of the entire copper exterior of the Statue of Liberty lying on Sixth Avenue.
13. How much does it all cost? The shopping site ebates.com calculates anywhere from $1.5 million to $3.4 million each year, just for the floats, helium, taxes, and logistical coordination. While many parade performers are volunteers, they require more than 300 dressers and makeup artists to get TV-ready. It may air only once a year, but the Macy’s parade is a full-time business. With more than 50 million annual TV viewers, business is booming.