The 88-Year Evolution Of The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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Photo: Scott Cornell /

Over the past 88 years, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become an irreplaceable staple of Thanksgiving festivities. Every year, millions of Americans flock to the streets of Manhattan to see the parade in-person or gather around their television sets to watch the parade from home. 

What began as a small Macy’s employee-run event has morphed into a huge production that requires almost an entire year’s worth of preparation.

Most years, the parade has gone on with little complications, but others, weather delays and balloon-related injuries have created a nightmare for parade officials.

The first Macy's Day Parade was on November 27 in 1924 and was referred to as the Macy's Christmas Parade. The parade originally featured Macy's employees and live animals from the Central Park Zoo. Floats, instead of balloons, were the main attraction.

The parade began in Harlem at 145th Street and ended in front of the Macy's flagship store on 34th Street. It was originally called the Macy's Christmas Parade, but was renamed the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in 1927.

An estimated 250,000 spectators attended the first parade. Today, about 3.5 million people attend.

In 1927, Marionette maker Tony Frederick Sarg's large animal-shaped balloons replaced the live animals in the parade.

Macy's first parade balloon, Felix the Cat, was filled with air, but balloons started to be inflated with helium the following year. The original balloons were made of rubber, but today's balloons are made of polyurethane.

Balloons were released into the sky at the end of the parade until 1932.

Initially, the balloons didn't have a safety valve to release the helium, so they were released into the air at the closing of each year's parade. Each balloon had a return address label attached to it.

Beginning in 1929, Macy's began offering a $50 reward to anyone who returned a balloon. This only lasted until 1932, when Macy's found it to be a safety hazard. Pilots were beginning to attempt to catch balloons mid-flight, which was obviously not a smart idea.

Floats were pulled by horses up until 1939.

Here's video footage of the 1939 parade, the first year horses stopped being used.

Over the parade's history, three main types of balloons have been used: Novelty, full-sized, and Blue Sky Gallery characters

Novelty balloons: Smaller balloons that can fit onto performer's heads. These are not widely used today.

Full-sized balloons: Normally about five to six stories high, 60 feet long, and 30 feet wide. Most depict licensed pop-culture characters.

Blue Sky Gallery characters: This more recently-developed balloon type depicts the work of contemporary artists in a full-sized balloon. Examples include 2005's Humpty Dumpty balloon.

(To the right, a full-sized Superman balloon passes through Times Square in 1940.)

The first Mickey Mouse balloon debuted in 1934, while fellow Disney character Donald Duck was introduced in 1962.

Today, about 2-3 thousand volunteers are needed to handle the balloons. Each volunteer must weigh at least 120 pounds and be in good health. Each balloon is handled by about 50 volunteers. A police officer also marches alongside each balloon.

This year's parade will feature the debut of Papa Smurf and Elf on the Shelf balloons.

Since 1984, a majority of the parade's balloons have been made by Raven Industries of Sioux Falls, SD.

The parade was suspended during WWII from 1942-1944 because rubber and helium were needed for the war.

To contribute to the war effort, parade balloons were melted into 650 pounds of rubber.

Since 1945, the parade has started at 77th Street and Central Park West and ended in Herald Square in front of Macy's. The parade's original route began at 145th Street and Covenant Avenue.

This year, the parade is following a slightly new route that includes 6th Avenue.


The parade became a more prominent part of American culture after footage from the 1946 parade was featured in the movie 'Miracle on 34th Street.'

In 1948, the parade was broadcast for the first time on network television.

According to Nielsen, an estimated 14.2 per cent of American households watched the CBS coverage of the parade in 1951. In recent years, approximately 30 million people tune into CBS's and NBC's coverage of the parade.

NBC has been the official television broadcaster of the parade since 1952.

CBS was the original network to air the event. Though both networks still broadcast the parade, CBS's coverage is considered 'unauthorised,' so they are not able to run the Macy's name due to lack of an official licence. Their broadcast is called 'The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS.'

CBS is also not able to air live Broadway and music performances from the parade, so they instead show pre-recorded performances.

Initially, the telecasts were only an hour long. In 1961, the telecast expanded to two hours, then 90 minutes between 1962 and 1964, back to two hours in 1965, and by 1969, three hours of it were being televised.

The Radio City Rockettes appeared in the parade for the first time in 1957.

For the past 55 years, the Rockettes have been a staple of the Macy's Day Parade.

In order to be a Rockette, a dancer must be between 5'6' and 5'10½' and demonstrate proficiency in tap, jazz, modern dance, and ballet. They must also be able to perform the signature eye-high kick.

Helium shortages in both 1958 and 2006 led to less balloons in the parade.

Many of the balloons that were used had to be hoisted by cranes onto trucks.

After the U.S. government, Macy's is currently the second-largest consumer of helium in the country.

In 1971, due to heavy wind and rain, balloons were not used in the parade.

This year's parade will feature a total of five Broadway performances, including 'Annie,' 'Bring It On,' and 'Nice Work If You Can Get It.'

Over the 88-year history of the parade, there have been numerous injuries caused by balloon issues. The most serious injury occurred in 1997 and resulted in the implementation of balloon size restrictions.

In 1997, the Cat in the Hat balloon was pushed into a lamp post by high winds. Falling debris fractured 33-year-old Kathleen Caronna's skull and put her in a month-long coma.

In 2006, wind measurement devices were installed to alert parade organisers to any unsafe balloon-flying conditions.

After 9/11, Macy's reintroduced an old Harold the Fireman balloon from 1948 to commemorate those who helped in the aftermath of the attacks.

Starting in 2005, the original parade logo was swapped out for a new logo every year.

The classic 'Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade' logo was last used in 2005. Since then, a new logo has been created every year. The only place the original logo can still be found is on the jackets of the parade staff.

Besides being used in publicity material and the ID badges worn by the parade staff, the official parade logo is rarely seen. NBC's coverage does not even show the official Macy's parade logo. They create their own.

Here's this year's logo.

This year's parade lineup includes...

16 giant character balloons; 40 novelty/ornament balloons, balloonicles, balloonheads and trycaloons; 28 floats; 1,600 cheerleaders and dancers; 900 clowns; 11 marching bands; a host of celebrity performers, including Carly Rae Jepsen and Neon Trees, and of course, Santa Clause.

You've seen the process behind the Thanksgiving Day Parade ...

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