What It's Like to Be Part of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is getting closer to its Centennial anniversary.
This beloved holiday extravaganza dates back to 1924, when employees of Macy’s dressed in festive gear and paraded along 34th Street in an effort to lure holiday shoppers. The gambit worked so well that the parade grew into a tradition that today is watched by more than 50 million people on television and another 3.5 million spectators in New York City.
This Thanksgiving-into-Christmas season spectacle has become synonymous with Thanksgiving Day. (How many of you watch it as the turkey and all the fixings get cooked?)
But just what does it take to pull off the most cherished parade in the world? We spoke with reps from the event — as well as a performer, balloon handler and float participant — to get the inside scoop.
It's All About the Numbers
Just what do you see when you watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
- 5,000 costumed volunteers to guide the 25 larger-than-life balloon characters through the streets of New York
- 31 giant and festive floats
- 1,200 cheerleaders and dancers from across America
- 1,000 clowns
- 12 marching bands
- 17 music icons and newcomers
- 36 high-kicking Radio City Rockettes
Behind the Scenes Magic
Behind the scenes, it takes a village to make the event happen. A team of 50 people work for Macy's Parade Studio, located in Moonachie, New Jersey.
- Hours of labor from the Parade Studio team: 50,000+
- Square footage of the Parade Studio’s headquarters: 72,000
- Gallons of paint: 240
- Pounds of glitter: 300
- Paintbrushes: 375
- Costumes: 4,200
- Make-up artists for clowns: 90
What Does It Take to Become a Part of the Parade?
Not just anyone can participate in the parade; float walkers have to be either Macy's employees or family members, or members of the companies sponsoring floats. But those who do participate say it's the experience of a lifetime.
In 2014, Jordi Lippe-McGraw — whose husband works for Viacom/Nickelodeon, which has a couple balloons and floats in the parade each year — jumped at the chance to be a part of the event. She and her husband opted to walk with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles float, since her husband broke his collarbone not too long before the parade and couldn't hold a balloon.
Best Decision Ever
Lippe-McGraw told "Far & Wide" that the decision to participate was easy: "It's one of those quintessential holiday traditions that you've grown up watching on TV. The parade always seemed so festive and magical and I've always wanted to know what that experience was like first hand."
Four hundred people like Lippe-McGraw escort the parade's floats each year. During the 2023 parade, a total of 31 floats comprised of hundreds of different set pieces and other structural elements will be featured.
What Does It Take to Carry a Balloon?
Lippe-McGraw knew her mom also would love being in the parade, so she got her in as a balloon handler as well. "Being in the parade was on my bucket list since I was a child," Suzanne Lippe says. "I grew up watching it on TV (even when it was in black and white) as the house filled with the aroma of the turkey cooking."
To be a balloon handler, Lippe had to train for a full day at Citi Field. "We had the opportunity to 'handle' different-sized balloons because each had its own techniques and challenges. We learned all the whistle signals that indicated when to walk, turn and pull the balloon down in case the wind caused challenges. It was amazing teamwork," she says.
Her favorite part? Helping to deflate the giant balloons after the event was over.
During the 2023 parade, 25 giant character balloons and six "balloonicles" make up what is often the most beloved part of the event.
It takes an average of 90 handlers like Lippe to manage each ballon. Some of the new characters appearing this year include a Beagle Scout Snoopy and the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Watch Out for That Wind
Balloon handlers receive training on how to control the balloons if winds attempt to lift them or send them into lampposts or street lights.
"I handled the Ronald McDonald balloon, which is 67 feet high and one of the largest balloons," Suzanne Lippe says of her experience as a handler. "There were dozens of handlers and each of us had specific jobs depending on our location under the balloon. I chose to be on the outer part of the balloon because I wanted to see the crowd. It was one of the more challenging positions because we had to run frequently as the balloon made turns. My rope was attached to Ronald’s arm so we could make it wave.
"We actually passed several McDonalds restaurants along the way and employees and diners came out to wave at us!"
Watch Them Grow
The day before the parade, visitors in New York get a sneak peek at the giant balloons during the inflation process that takes place along Central Park West and the American Museum of Natural History.
Inflation begins at 1 p.m. and ends at 8 p.m. If you're in town, line up on 73rd Street and Columbus Avenue to get a glimpse.
What Does It Take to Perform at the Parade?
The 610 Stompers, "Ordinary Men with Extraordinary Moves," was part of the parade for years. This comedic dance troupe from New Orleans performs at Mardi Gras and New Orleans Saints games. And they always delight their audience.
610 founder Brett "Slab" Patron told "Far & Wide" that the group first got involved in 2017, after a parade entertainment director received a video of them performing from his cousin. "He said it was love at first sight for their whole staff," Patron says.
As with Jordi Lippe-McGraw, Patron says participating was a no-brainer. "The parade is an American tradition and we thought it was a perfect fit to get our message out to the masses that ordinary men should still be dancing for their communities."
Practice, Practice, Practice
The all-male dance team "wears uniforms, not costumes, and have practices, not rehearsals — after all, dancers are the athletes of God," jokes Patron about what it takes to perform.
For their 2019 performance, the 610 Stompers begin practicing 4 months before Thanksgiving, at least once a week. But Patron adds, "When you see us dance, you may think we only practiced once or twice and that we may need to get a better dance coach. That’s part of our appeal though, you can’t practice the ordinary out of some of these guys."
To better prepare, the troupe dances through the streets of New Orleans. However, parades in New Orleans move at a much slower pace, so the 610 Stompers have to be ready for the rigor of a northern parade’s fast pace and strict schedule. The group also appears on the NBC broadcast and must prepare a 1-minute performance that is broadcast at the end of the parade march in the parade.
Says Patron, "The guys in our group share the duties of coming up with the choreography, so it’s usually pretty simple, but always entertaining. I would compare our dancing to a train wreck; you can’t keep your eyes off of it, but you also have no idea why you keep looking."
Put on a Happy Face
There are also more than 1,000 Macy's employees, friends and family members who receive training from the Big Apple Circus and take to the streets to bring happiness.
Joining them are 24 stilt walkers dressed as candy canes, Christmas trees, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, elves, toy soldiers, sea anemones and the Statue of Liberty.
If you're up early enough, you may just spot a subway car filled with costumed characters making their way to the parade.
"Most of us rode the subway at 6 a.m. to get there," says Patron of the 610 Stompers. "We loved the questions from the other commuters, like: 'Who are you guys, a dodgeball team?' To which we always answered 'yes!'"
Busses carrying float volunteers are filled with anticipation. Says Lippe-McGraw, "The atmosphere is everything you'd expect. Participants are in great moods singing on the bus ride up to the start of the parade, everyone is in whimsical costumes, and performers are eager for their moment in the spotlight."
Just as the balloons get inflated in front of the American Natural History Museum, you'll find the staging area for the event here, as well. Participants try to stay warm until they get the signal to begin walking.
The balloon handlers are the first to arrive on the scene, often at 4:30 a.m. Final touches and air are added to the balloons and the nets that keep the balloons safe are lifted.
For float participants and entertainers, a 6 a.m. call time means early to bed the night before. (Unless you are like the performer from 610 Stompers who often parties into the night.)
Thankfully for Lippe-McGraw, the weather wasn't too bad when she and her husband participated. "We were lucky that we got a relatively warm year. So, we didn't have to worry about surviving the cold and could just totally enjoy every moment."
What It Feels Like to Be a Part of It All
"Walking along the entire parade route was better than I could have imagined," exclaims Lippe-McGraw. "Looking out at the faces of little kids who were asking me — clad in a crossing guard costume — to wave at them was so sweet. It reminded me of how I felt when my parents would take me to the parade as a kid. Plus, how often do you get to walk in the middle of a New York City street and just take in the surroundings?
"Best of all, our float included a band who stopped to perform and I was front and center on TV showing off my stellar dance moves. I got several text messages after my 30 seconds of fame!"
What It Feels Like to Carry The Balloons
Despite the bitter cold, early morning call time and hard work, Lippe loved being a balloon handler so much, she signed up for round two, although the second time, she decided to walk with a float instead. "I was able to touch and wave at the kids in the crowd. Their faces lit up and it made me remember my childhood," she says.
"My family have been New Yorkers since 1898 and, as a child, my grandmother brought me to the store with its wooden escalators. There are few things as 'New York' as this parade," she adds. "It was one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had!"
What It Feels Like to Perform
For the 610 Stompers, the Macy's parade is different from Mardi Gras. Says Patron, "Mardi Gras is an interactive sport. People are screaming at the floats and the riders are throwing things at the people screaming. We also have music, BBQ pits, ladders, etc., on the sidewalks. In New York, the crowds are much more quiet and polite. We almost had to give them permission to dance with us.
"[People have] a look on their face trying to figure out if we were serious or tongue and cheek. When the parade ends, we get to set up for our performance on NBC, in front of 50 million viewers! They set us up on the Macy's star, our hearts are beating fast because we are not professional performers and this is the biggest stage we have ever even thought of performing on. They start the music, our 'training' sees us through the dance and we run off high-fiving each other, very thankful that we didn’t mess it all up."
"The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is an exhilarating experience."
If you're heading to New York for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, arrive early to grab a sidewalk spot along the famous parade route.
Watching at home? It'll be on from 9 am to noon in all time zones on NBC.