We recently covered 10 fun facts about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, such as the manufacturing process behind the scenes and some of the strange design choices. Now, read about the secrets of the parade itself, including facts about the parade’s history and what really goes on behind this spectacular event!
1. Macy’s is the world’s second largest consumer of helium
Macy’s uses an average of 12,000 cubic feet of helium per balloon (enough to fill about 2,500 bathtubs), making it the largest helium consumer after the U.S. government. To test the balloons before the parade, however, they use air rather than helium to inflate each balloon chamber. If the balloon can float for six hours, it passes the test.
2. Because of the helium consumption, Macy’s didn’t hold a parade from 1942-1944
When the U.S. entered World War II, Macy’s gave up its helium to the war effort due to rubber and helium shortages. They also donated the balloons, which consisted of about 650 pounds of scrap rubber, to the government. Another helium shortage in 1958 forced Macy’s to fill the balloons with air and hoist them with trucks and cranes along the parade route that year.
3. It takes 10,000 people per year to put the parade together
Though the parade itself only takes place once a year, it takes about 10,000 people to make the parade happen. The people in charge of the parade’s production are actually full-time employees. There are several kinds of tasks that must be fulfilled for the parade: a flight management team consisting of a pilot, two co-pilots, a captain, two assistant captains, and people to control the balloon’s vehicle are needed for each balloon. There are also inflation teams who blow up the balloons the night before the parade.
Aside from the physical maintenance of the balloons, much effort is put into researching each balloon and planning each one’s creation. The parade also requires the talents of several engineers who analyze each balloon and test the effects of different wind speeds and heights on its ability to stay on its path. This doesn’t mean that accidents don’t happen, but many safety measures have arisen from the mistakes. Finally, for the actual parade, the balloon handlers dress in costumes that match their balloon. And it takes about a month to launder these clothes, and another to package them.
4. The first human-based balloon was of entertainer Eddie Cantor
The Eddie Cantor balloon floating down the parade route in 1940. Photograph Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
Eddie Cantor was also the only full-sized novelty balloon to be made in the likeness of a real person. The Marx Brothers had a novelty balloon float, but it was nowhere near as large as the Eddie Cantor balloon featured in the 1934 parade. As the AV Club puts it, the Cantor balloon had “a banjo-eyed” and “ghoulish visage” which was sure to scare kids, not delight them.
5. Since his first appearance in 1968, Snoopy has been the most featured balloon in the Parade’s history
Snoopy in 1968. Photograph Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
Since his debut, Snoopy has had seven different kinds of balloons made of him: Flying Ace Snoopy in 1968, Astronaut Snoopy in 1969, Ice Skating Snoopy in 1986, Ice Skating Snoopy with Woodstock in 1988, Millennium Snoopy in 1999, a new version of Flying Ace Snoopy in 2006, and Classic Snoopy with Woodstock on his head in 2013. Looks like he’s here to stay. Here are Snoopy and Woodstock being inflated before the 2014 parade.
6. Yayoi Kusama once designed a Macy’s Parade balloon
At the 2019 ballooon inflation, we ran into Macy’s Balloon Technician Alan Gallagher, a.k.a. Moose, who was holding a 3D-printed model of the Yayoi Kusama balloon, which was about to be inflated right in front of us. The 3D models are used to make the pattern for the full size balloon. Each balloon is made up of several different pieces and chambers. Kusama is one of the long list of famous designers who have created balloons for the parade.
In 2011, the famous director Tim Burton designed a balloon featured in the parade that truly reflected the macabre creativity evident in his films. The balloon, called “B. Boy,” had a rather gruesome backstory. B.Boy was put together from rejected birthday party balloons left over from children’s parties at a hospital. Since he wasn’t allowed to play with other children, he went to his basement home and delved into the the world of his favorite film called The Red Balloon. Like the character in the film, he hoped that he’d be able to fly high and bring joy to a small child. B. Boy received a lot of attention on social media.
7. Macy’s initially used real animals instead of balloons
The parade initially featured live animals instead of the balloons we see today. Photograph Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
Prior to 1927, the parades were filled with real animals from the Central Park Zoo rather than balloons of ones. These animals included bears, camels, goats, elephants and even tigers and lions. However, some animals were less than cooperative while walking along the route, so by 1927 Macy’s replaced them with balloons.
8. The balloons used to be released into the air after the Parade
Photograph Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
Before 1933, since the city did not have set procedures for deflating parade balloons after the parade finished, parade workers simply released the balloons into the sky afterwards. They would then float up there for about a week, and anyone who was able to return them would often get a $100 reward.
However, this fun practice halted in 1933, when a balloon in the air wrapped around the wing of a plane and caused it to go into a tailspin.
9. The Macy’s floats are stored in small boxes while being transported
The floats need to be transported from the Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey to Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel. All floats must be designed to dismantle, fold and fit through a toll booth. Thus, although the average float size is 2.5 to 3 stories tall, it must fit in an approximately 12.5 ft by 8.5 ft box.
10. The Macy’s Parade was originally a Christmas Parade
1st Santa Float 1924. Photograph Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.
In 1924, the first “Macy’s Christmas Parade” was held on Thanksgiving. It was organized by a handful of Macy’s employees dressed in costumes with entertainers, floats and Santa Claus. Their goal was to celebrate the expanding of the Macy’s flagship Manhattan store, which called itself “The World’s Largest Store.”
This parade was so successful that Macy’s decided to hold one every year, and it became the “Thanksgiving Parade” in 1932.