For many, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the kickoff of the holiday season. Now in its 90th year, the Manhattan spectacle is a tradition with a big audience. The live broadcast attracts 50 million TV viewers, and 3.5 million spectators watch it in person, pushing the total number of people in Manhattan to more than 5 million.
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While the job of putting on the parade may prompt images of Maureen O’Hara performing Doris Walker’s character in Miracle on 34th Street, executing such a parade actually takes the effort of 8,000 people, including more than 4,000 Macy’s employees who volunteer on Thanksgiving morning.
The Makings of a Parade
- 17 giant character balloons as well as other, smaller balloons
- 27 floats
- 10,000 parade marchers, including 1,000 clowns, 1,100 cheerleaders and dancers, and members of 12 marching bands from around the country
- Celebrity appearances and music groups
- Mini performances of 5 Broadway musicals
- The Radio City Rockettes
- And only 1 Santa Claus
Some say the balloons are the highlight of the parade. With the largest balloons measuring 5 or 6 stories tall, they sure do make a statement. Snoopy, a well-loved character, has been in 38 parades, more than any other character. Each balloon requires 50 to 90 volunteer handlers and uses 300,000 to 700,000 cubic feet of helium. The minimum helium cost is $510,000, and notably, Macy’s is the world’s second-largest consumer of helium, trailing only the U.S. government.
The height at which the balloons can be flown is determined by a calculation of balloon size, volume of helium, gross weight and wind. Wind is the biggest concern when handling the balloons. While the narrow streets of New York City protect the balloons with predictable airflow most of the time, when a balloon approaches a street intersection, handlers must navigate unpredictable crosswinds that usually come from the west.
Floats and balloons are constructed at the Macy’s Parade Studio in Moonachie, N.J., where 26 sculptors, carpenters, metal workers and painters work year round. One float can take between four and nine months to go from sketch to completion. And a single float can include 100 to 200 pounds of glitter.
To get from New Jersey to New York City for the parade, balloons can be deflated for shipment. But floats must be constructed to collapse down to a width of 8.5 feet so they can fit through Lincoln Tunnel. And the preparations are more than just balloons and floats; about 700 new costumes are designed each year.
It’s Time for the Parade!
Balloons are inflated between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Wednesday. Then, from midnight to 8 a.m., the floats are set up. Many spectators arrive before 6:30 a.m. to line up for a spot with the best view. In just two hours’ time, 200 costume fitters dress 2,000 balloon handlers, 400 kids, 300 float escorts and 900 clowns. The parade begins promptly at 9 a.m., following a 2.5-mile route that ends at the Macy’s storefront in Herald Square.
When It’s Over
After the parade ends, it takes just 15 to 20 minutes to deflate each balloon and pack it up for transport back to the warehouse. Costumes are packed into about 10 truckloads, and the laundering of these costumes will take about a month to complete.
But even before the parade is over, the work has begun on next year’s event. Marching bands are notified two years before their parade performance, with a representative taking a trip to the high schools and colleges to let them know in person.
Money and Costs
Macy’s, a company with annual revenues of more than $10 billion, is tight lipped about the total cost of the parade, but some of the expense is offset by having corporate sponsors for balloons and floats. Here’s what we know:
For new balloons, sponsoring companies pay $190,000, which includes construction and a parade fee. Repeat balloons cost sponsoring companies a $90,000 fee. Each float costs Macy’s approximately $30,000 to $100,000 to construct. The costumes that are in storage total $2 million in on-hand assets, including the custom-made outfits for Santa and Mrs. Claus. Broadway shows that performed in the parade saw a $300,000 jump in advance ticket sales after their parade performance.
- Helium: $510,000 minimum
- Floats: $810,000 to $2.7 million
- Property taxes: $138,573
- Salaries: $51,433 is the salary for one studio coordinator
(There are 26 full-time staffers working year-round on parade prep and construction)
- = $1.5 million to $3.4 million
- Studio in New Jersey: $6.9 million
- Costumes: $2 million
- = $8.9 million
- 4,000 Macy’s volunteers
- Marching bands
- Broadway performers
A Look Back at Parade History Highlights
- 1924: Although it took place on Thanksgiving Day, the first parade was called the “Macy’s Christmas Day Parade.” That first year included live animals like camels, goats, elephants and donkeys; horses pulled the floats. About 250,000 spectators attended.
- 1925-1926: The parade added live lions, tigers and bears.
- 1927: The name was changed to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The live animals were replaced by giant balloons because the animals frightened children. The first balloons included Felix the Cat, The Dragon, The Elephant and Toy Soldier.
- 1933: This was the only year in parade history when Santa Claus led the parade instead of ending it. Also, it was the first year the parade was recorded on newsreel and then later screened in theaters.
- 1942-44: The parade was cancelled because of World War II.
- 1947: The movie Miracle on 34th Street was released, including the parade as a significant part of the plot.
- 1948: The parade was telecasted for the first time by NBC.
- 1957: The Radio City Rockettes appeared in the parade for the first time.