2009 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

by Parade Guy on December 1, 2009

Hi there.  It has been awhile since I attended a parade as a spectator.  But, as my efforts to get involved didn’t pan out, I wanted to see the spectacle for myself.  I had company, a wonderful friend from High School who knows all about my involvement with parades.

The plan was to talk our way into a viewing area, get great seats, and enjoy the parade.  Well, as the song says, two out of three ain’t bad.  Using secret methods, we were admitted into the ticket only area about nine o’clock.  The parade was to step off at ten, so the wait wasn’t too bad.  We ended up on the bleachers across from Trump Tower near Sixty-First Street on Central Park West.  In fact, we were able to get seats on the top row.  We did forget to bring drinks with us, which in, hind sight, may not have been so bad.  Like New Years Eve in Times Square, one you are in, you are in.

The excitement in the stands was palpable.  We had stumbled into both old and new family traditions.  One family in front of us shared how this was there thirty-fourth parade.  We got to hear about the well scripted timing of when people leave, who stays to tend the bird and the ham, and when nap time was.  On the other end of the spectrum, another family was there with two young children that was experiencing their first Parade.  Both families squealed with equal delight.

OK, by now, I am sure you are wondering why I was not working the Parade.  Well, to be honest, I am still kind of wondering that myself.  Perhaps some sort of karma, guiding me to be there for some other reason that will present itself in the future.  If it happens, I will let you know.

In order to be one of the five thousand Parade volunteers, you have to meet one of three criteria:  be an employee of Macy’s, be related to an employee, or be sponsored by an employee that is volunteering in the Parade.  No exceptions.  If you have any questions about this, please reach out to the Macy’s Parade Studio, the corporate organization responsible for the making and execution of the Parade.  http://www1.macys.com/store/marketing.jsp

 My effort about trying to get involved is a whole other story.

 The Parade took a different route for the first time in eighty-two years.  Instead of heading South on Broadway at Columbus Circle, the Southern route was down 7th Avenue.  Seventh Avenue does not intersect with Columbus Circle, so the route left the Circle on Central Park South which should have been no big deal.  However, the  ninety degree right hand turn on to Seventh Avenue is huge.  Especially for the amazingly giant balloons.

Fun Facts:

  • The first parade was in 1924 and featured floats, clowns, bands and a few zoo animals.
  • The parade was originally called “Macy’s Christmas Parade”
  • In 1927 live animals were replaced with large balloons. The very first balloon was Felix The Cat.   The balloons were filled inside with large bladders (picture six foot tall Hoppity-Hops) to support the shapes.
  • The parade route has only changed once, in 1945, from 145th Street and Convent Avenue to the modern day kick off at 77th Street and Central Park West.
  • The parade has been held continuously from 1924, except for 1942-1944 when it was halted due to WWII.

The Parade:

It may not be obvious, but there are two very distinct viewing points for most major parades.  From the streets and from your living room or wherever you have a television.  This is sledge hammer apparent with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.  For the television audience, the Parade broadcast is filled with the insertion of current Broadway show excerpts.  Unless you are some of the few thousands watching the Parade from the television zone, you don’t see any of this from the streets.  At the Parade, there are over one million spectators lining the streets, nowhere near the television zone.

Before I get into describing our experience as street spectators, I think it is important to briefly describe some of the logistics for this parade.  First, the Parade starts at the intersection of Central Park West and Seventy-Seventh Street.  It is a straight shot down Central Park West until Fifty-Ninth Street, where the Parade enters Columbus Circle.  It moves gently around ninety degrees of the Circle to Central Park South.  After a couple of blocks, there is a sharp right turn down Seventh Avenue.  For Marching Bands, this is easy.  For Floats and Balloons, not so much.  The reason this is important is that from our vantage point, the Parade should have been perfect.

As I mentioned, we watched the Parade from the bleachers on Central Park West near the intersection of Sixty-First Street.  The Parade started off with a NYPD motorcade.  The precision of the unit was spectacular.

I want to state that the following are my professional opinions as a Parade Guy.  I work on up to ten major parades a year, across the Country.  I have been involved with parades in some fashion since 1967.

After the motorcade had passed, the first problem was observed.  Spacing.  It was huge.

What you are seeing is a full block gap between the Banner Carriers and the end of the motorcade.  For the street spectator, the goal is that there is a Parade element in front of you all the time.  To accomplish this, in the staging area, units are integrated into the proper order.  Here is where the proper spacing and pacing instructions are given.  Depending on the complexity of the route, a parade can move anywhere between three and a half to four miles per hour.  This is the pace.

The spacing of the parade is determined by the Integrator.  The role of this person is to ensure that there are appropriate gaps, based on the element.  For example, in a parade that uses Banner Carriers, there needs to be enough physical space so that the spectators on both sides of the street can read and process all of the information of the banner.  Each banner is unique.  Some include a lot of information in small letters while others may just have the element’s sponsor’s name.  This leads to the Integrator adjusting the start of each element behind the element on the route to ensure the gap is correct.

The Integrator’s instructions are pretty clear to the leader of any element.  “Keep this gap.  You go when they go.  You stop when they stop.”

Once the element passes the starting line, it is up to the Parade Marshals to maintain the pace and spacing of the parade.  This is done in many different ways.  Some parades use large signs, others use radio communications, and others rely on simple hand signals.

Look how close the Banner Carriers are to the characters from the preceding element.  Also look at the size of the lettering and the amount of information being communicated.  Consistency is key in making the parade enjoyable from the spectator’s perspective.

In the same vein, the elements of the parade should be in line with the announced theme of the parade.  Some of my favorite Elements that made us say Huh? Included:

  • Grannies on Tricycles
  • Fried Eggs
  • Clown Car Hops

Any guesses as to the theme of the 2009 Macy’s Thankgiving Parade?

It was “Believe.”

There was a little dissention among us as to the meaning of the theme.  One of us thought that it was commercially related to the Natalie Wood’s famous line in the original “Miracle of 34th Street”, “I Believe.”  Others felt that it pertained to one’s personal faith.  In either case, it was hard to tie the elements to the theme.

Please don’t get me wrong.  The experience was wonderful.  This is something that everyone should take advantage of at least once.  Here are some of my favorite pictures.

First, the balloons were GIGANTIC.  I have been involved with parade balloons in several other parades and nothing prepared me for the size and complexity of the inflatable elements in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.  All of these giant balloons were sponsored and many of them have been around for many years.

There were also many lesser balloons that were used as filler

And then there were the bands.  Great bands from around the country.  We did find it interesting that there were no New York City or New York State bands.  My favorite part of the band is the drum line.  The band uniforms always tied in to the name of the school or their mascot.  It was a nice touch that all of the drum skins had been adorned with the Macy’s Parade logo.  Again, the consistency made this element visually pleasing.

One final comment.  There are almost five thousand volunteers needed to make the parade.  They fill many different roles including:

  • Balloon Handlers
  • Float Fillers
  • Ummmm… Entertainers?
  • Clowns

And my favorite…


Some of the volunteers have made this event just as much as a family tradition as the spectators.  I spoke to one couple who were grandparents with twenty-six years of parades to their credit.  In this years parade, there were three generations of their family participating.  I think they were clowns responsible for getting the spectators engaged.  As with every volunteer event, there are no small roles.

I hope that you got an opportunity to enjoy the 2009 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as much as we did.

See ya on the route!

Parade Guy

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