I have always been a big fan of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. When I was a little boy, I would sometimes go to the parade with my family, either watching it from the comforts of a family friend’s office in Midtown Manhattan or out in the elements along Central Park West. Even when I didn’t get to see the parade in person, I would wake up at 9AM on Thanksgiving Day and watch the entire broadcast on NBC from start to finish.
So when I got the opportunity to be a balloon handler in the parade two years ago, I jumped right on it. Getting the gig is no easy task – you need to know a Macy’s employee in order to be considered. My Aunt Patti was my way in – not only is she a member of the Macy’s staff, but she actually works for the parade itself in their costume shop.
Preparation to be a balloon handler in the parade begins long before Thanksgiving day. The registration process begins in the middle of summer and involves watching a 10 minute (slightly cheesy) instructional video on the different hand signals and whistle blows you’ll need to memorize in order to operate whatever balloon you’re assigned to. There’s also optional training sessions that you can go to in order practice maneuvering before the big day arrives.
Several weeks before the parade, you get your balloon assignment. When I first did the parade in 2014, I was hoping to get a famous big-timer balloon like Spongebob or Snoopy. I ended up being assigned the Elf on Shelf Balloon (as a Jew, I had no idea who Elf on the Shelf was) but my gentile friends convinced me that he was indeed pretty popular.
My dad and I were the only ones in our family that did the 2014 parade. We had such a terrific time that we convinced my mother and two brothers to join us at the 2015 parade, where we were assigned to the Ronald McDonald balloon. This assignment was quite sentimental to my family and I because of the incredible hospitality that the Ronald McDonald House in Long Island, NY provided us after I had two major surgeries in 2012. This heartwarming story provided a perfect Thanksgiving puff piece opportunity for my local paper, and I got a pretty awesome photo out of it:
This year, my mom shifted to clown duty at the parade and my two brothers wanted to sleep in (lame, right?) so it was just me and my dad handling a balloon, and we were in for treat. This year was the parade’s 90th anniversary, and my father and I got assigned the Felix the Cat balloon, the first ever balloon to appear in this age-old Macy’s event. Since Felix was modeled after the original balloon that first appeared in the parade in 1927, he was a lot smaller than his counterparts and required less handlers as a result (The average balloon requires about 90 handlers while there were only about 25 of us handling Felix).
Thanksgiving is quite a long day for volunteers working the parade. For balloon handlers, it requires a 5:30 AM check-in at the Hammerstein Ballroom near the end of the parade route. There, you report to parade officials so they can mark your presence, receive your parade outfit, and get suited up before taking a chartered bus to the parade starting line on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Arrival uptown takes place at around 7 AM. The first glimpse of the balloons lined up along 77th Street is something truly special.
Your position in the parade line dictates how long you must wait before your balloon gets unfurled from its tarp. This year, the Felix the Cat balloon was at about the halfway point of the parade. The tarp wasn’t scheduled to come off until 845 AM, so there was plenty of time to get breakfast and a hot beverage to warm your body up.
Eventually, official photographers come over to take a team pictures,and after that, everyone gets down to business.
There are multiple roles involved in the handling of a balloon in order for it to operate successfully. See the two people wearing the green hats? They are the pilots – one is placed in front of the balloon and the other in the back. They are in charge of making sure the balloon is moving at an appropriate pace, spaced accordingly amongst other marchers in the parade, and taking wind readings so that the balloon lines can be adjusted accordingly. The people wearing the red hats are the captains, whose responsibilities include making sure the balloon handlers are aligned correctly, and that they are holding their lines (and in Felix’s case – sticks) correctly. And lastly, everyone wearing the Felix the Cat outfits (you can see my dad and I in the back row towards the center) are the balloon handlers themselves. Bigger balloons also come equipped with a golf cart and tether to make sure nothing goes awry.
After a team huddle to review hand and whistle signals and warm ups consisting of stretches, lunges, and jumping jacks, it is time to get into position.
Want to know a parade insider’s tip? There are almost always more balloon handlers than lines which means you’ll either need to partner up with someone and share a line or walk beside the balloon to energize the crowd. This means you need to scope out a position and get there before the other balloon handlers do.
This year, I was lucky enough to snag a position handling Felix’s right hand, a job that I luckily held onto throughout the entire parade. Here’s a picture a friend of my father’s took just past the start of parade route at Central Park West. I’m circled in red and my dad (carrying one of the poles) is circled in blue.
Quite the crowd (officials estimate this number is near 3.5 million) comes to watch the parade. Hoards of spectators line the entire 3 mile parade route, making it one one of the biggest security operations for the New York Police Department. This year, there were extra security procedures in place, as authorities feared someone would want to copy an attack carried out in France this summer where a terrorist rammed a truck through a crowded pedestrian area. These precautions included the placement of city sanitation vehicles at intersections throughout the parade route and the prohibition of stopping balloons at intersections. For each intersection we approached, we had to slow down to make sure it was clear, and speed up while going through it.
The parade starts at 77th Street, heading down Central Park West before hanging a left at Columbus Circle and marching onward down 6th Avenue until 34th Street where it ends at Macy’s Herald Square. The goal is to be at Macy’s in time for your TV spot, so at times, you are literally jogging down the parade route to prevent tardiness.
The enthusiastic crowd really fires everyone up, giving balloon handlers the stamina to complete the march. Every so often, the pilot instructs us to chant the balloons name, which also gets everyone excited. This year, it seemed as if there was extra energy and attention being given to Felix the Cat (he got a decent amount of press coverage in the days leading up to the parade). Looking up, it is amazing to see all the people positioned in buildings above the parade route. Looking behind me, I’m in awe by the image of balloon after balloon in line galloping down the parade route. Being in the parade gives you these unique perspectives that one cannot quite see from the sidelines – it really is quite breathtaking.
One of the most exhilarating parts of the parade takes place at its finish – TV time at Macy’s Herald Square. After hauling down 6th Avenue to make it in time for your slot, the parade line slows down several blocks out. At this point, the parade enters what has been dubbed as a “quiet zone” – all music/sound associated with the floats and balloons are turned off, and parade participants are instructed not to talk. Speakers are set up all around so that you can hear what is being broadcast on TV. Meanwhile, it’s noticeable that all the parade participants waiting put on their their best smiles, straighten their backs, and grasp their balloon lines in the most professionally looking way possible. After all, you want to look good in front of a TV audience of millions.
Turning the corner onto 34th Street, the excitement really builds. This year, a 100+ member dance troupe was ahead of us and did their thing in front of the risers parked in front of Macy’s. Following a pop music mix topped off with lots of confetti, it was time for Felix to approach the specially marked green asphalt in front of the store.
Looking to my left, I was able to see parade hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie excitedly announce Felix’s entrance with scripted perfection. To my right, spectators lined the bleachers in front of Macy’s which were adorned with holiday themed decor. More than ever, I was careful not to trip or lose my grip. I din’t want my one second of potential camera time to turn into fifteen minutes of national embarrassment.
With taller balloons, the cameras are usually focused upwards so they can get its entire frame, leaving handlers with little, if any time for the camera. Since the Felix the Cat balloon is so short, I knew I had a much better chance of becoming a TV star, even if it was only for a split second.
Here’s one photo a work colleague of mine took of Felix from her TV:
If you look at Felix’s right hand (which is actually his hand on the left on this photo) and follow the string all the way down, you can see that I’m…completely blocked by all of the other balloon handlers. Being on the other side of Felix would have given me way more air time.
Luckily though, I actually did make it on TV for a second! Another work colleague of mine was astutely able to identify me and snapped this picture:
If you can’t tell, I’m the blurry figure holding the the balloon line immediately to the right of the balloon captain wearing the red hat! I had truly made it.
The climatic excitement at the finish of the parade dwindles quickly. The balloons are lead along the quiet and spectator empty 7th Avenue where they are deflated.
Balloon deflation is team effort. After lowering the balloon, it is torn open to let all the helium out. Eventually, handlers lie on the balloons to make sure all the air has escaped and so that it can be neatly folded and packed up.
Through all the deflation and folding, Felix shrunk to the size of a large package.
Once the balloon is packed away, a quick walk through the streets of Midtown led us back to the Hammerstein Ballroom. People dressed up in parade garb is quite the sight to see on the streets of New York, and many people were on hand to take pictures of us. It felt like I was being followed by paparazzi!
By the time everything was set and done for me this year, it was only noon – there was still turkey to be eaten, football to be watched, and politics to argue about. But the parade, combined with the iced coffee I got to caffeinate me afterwards, made the early wake up call entirely worth it. It is truly something special to take part in, and I hope I can carry out this tradition for years to come.