The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is an annual event held in New York City by the American department store chain Macy's. It is the world's largest parade, and its second-oldest, having started in 1924. The event is held in Manhattan from 9:00 a.m. to noon on Thanksgiving Day and has been televised nationally on NBC since 1953. The Parade is known for its helium balloons of famous cartoon and pop culture characters, which on average reach six stories tall. The participants in the Parade are all Macy's employees, or are sponsored by Macy's employees.
In 1924, store employees marched to Macy's Herald Square, the flagship store on 34th Street, dressed in vibrant costumes. There were floats, professional bands and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. At the end of that first parade, Santa Claus was welcomed into Herald Square. At this first parade, Santa was enthroned on the Macy's balcony at the 34th Street store entrance, where he was then crowned "King of the Kiddies". With an audience of over 250,000 people, the parade was such a success that Macy's declared it would become an annual event, despite media reports only barely covering the first parade. By 1928, inflatable balloons were introduced, replacing the live zoo animals
The Macy's parade was enough of a success to push Ragamuffin Day, the typical children's Thanksgiving Day activity from 1870 into the 1920s, into obscurity. Ragamuffin Day featured children going around and performing a primitive version of trick-or-treating, a practice that by the 1920s had come to annoy most adults. The public backlash against such begging in the 1930s (at a time when most Americans were themselves struggling in the midst of the Great Depression) led to promotion of alternatives, including Macy's parade. While ragamuffin parades that competed with Macy's would continue into the 1930s, the competition from Macy's would overwhelm the practice, and the last ragamuffin parade in New York City would take place in 1956.
Anthony "Tony" Frederick Sarg loved to work with marionettes from an early age. After moving to London to start his own marionette business, Sarg moved to New York City to perform with his puppets on the street. Macy's heard about Sarg's talents and asked him to design a window display of a parade for the store.
Through the 1930s, the Parade continued to grow, with crowds of over one million people lining the parade route in 1933. The first Mickey Mouse balloon entered the parade in 1934. The annual festivities were broadcast on local radio stations in New York City from 1932 to 1941, and resumed in 1945, running through 1951.
The parade was suspended from 1942 to 1944 as a result of World War II, because rubber and helium were needed for the war effort. The parade resumed in 1945, and became known nationwide shortly afterward, having been prominently featured in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, which included footage of the 1946 festivities. The event was first broadcast on network television in 1948 (see § Television coverage). From 1984 to 2019, the balloons have been made by Raven Industries of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, through its Raven Aerostar division.
The classic "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" logo was, with one exception, last used in 2005. For 2006, a special variant of the logo was used. Every year since then (commensurate with Macy's rebranding of the former May stores nationwide to Macy's), a new logo has been used for each parade. However, the logos are only seen on television before and after commercial breaks, and in the bottom corner of the screen during the broadcast.
Following an incident in 1997 where a balloon knocked over a street light and injured spectators, new safety measures were incorporated in 2006 to prevent accidents and balloon-related injuries. One measure taken was the installation of wind measurement devices to alert parade organizers to any unsafe conditions that could cause the balloons to behave erratically. In addition, parade officials implemented a measure to keep the balloons closer to the ground during windy conditions. New York City law prohibits Macy's from flying the full-size balloons if sustained winds exceed 20 knots (23 mph) or wind gusts exceed 30 knots (35 mph); New York's tall buildings and mostly uniform grid plan can amplify wind velocity on city streets. This law, imposed in 1997, has never been activated, despite several close calls; the only time the parade balloons have ever been grounded was 1971. Each balloon has its own risk profile to determine handling in windy conditions; taller, upright balloons are rotated so that they appear horizontal and facing downward in such situations (as was the case in 2019, when a grounding was narrowly averted). In the event the balloons are grounded, the remaining floats and performances would continue as scheduled.
The 2018 Parade was the coldest to date with the temperature at 19 °F (-7.2 °C). The warmest was in 1933 at 69 °F (20.5 °C). The 2006 parade was the wettest with 1.72" (49 mm) of rain.
In 2020, Macy's stated it will still hold the parade regardless of the status of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, cleared Macy's to hold the parade with alterations to allow social distancing, including a shortened parade route (constituting a single city block), balloons anchored by motor vehicles instead of carried by hand, virtual segments, and a limit on the number of marchers. In accordance with state COVID-19 restrictions, no spectators would be allowed. The reformatted parade is based on similar measures Macy's had taken with its Fourth of July fireworks display. The 2020 parade was the first in the event's history to be held without spectators.
- Main article: Balloons
One of the most iconic features of the Macy's Parade is its balloons, which are usually full-sized and modeled after licensed pop culture characters. The first set of licensed character balloons, modeled after The Katzenjammer Kids, appeared in 1929. Felix the Cat later entered the parade in 1931 as the first solo character balloon, and two years later, he was joined by Mickey Mouse, who has appeared in three additional versions since then.
Other characters that have been licensed into Macy's Parade balloons over the years have included Snoopy (with eight versions), Ronald McDonald (with five versions), Popeye, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Smokey Bear, Smile, Kermit the Frog, Woody Woodpecker, Garfield, Raggedy Ann, Betty Boop, Spider-Man, Snuggle Bear, Big Bird, Quik Bunny, The Pink Panther, Bugs Bunny, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Sonic the Hedgehog, Barney the Dinosaur, The Cat in the Hat, Peter Rabbit, Curious George, Pikachu, SpongeBob SquarePants, Scooby-Doo, Dora the Explorer, Mr. Potato Head, Hello Kitty, and Buzz Lightyear.
Macy's has also featured its own "novelty balloons," which are smaller in size and are handled by up to 30 people, whereas the larger character balloons are handled by up to 90.
Over the years, many Macy's Parade balloons have gotten into accidents and caused injuries. In 1998 and 2006, new safety measures were incorporated to prevent these incidents from occurring often, if not eliminate the possibility of them altogether. New wind measurement devices were installed to alert parade organizers to any unsafe conditions that could cause the balloons to behave erratically. Parade officials also implemented a measure where balloons are kept closer to the ground during windy conditions, and are forbidden to fly in winds higher than 34 miles per hour.
- Main article: Floats
Another key component of the parade is its magnificent floats, decorated platforms built on vehicles which often feature famous celebrities and musicians. The oldest and most recurring, Tom Turkey, was introduced in 1973. The parade has featured floats based on Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, the Care Bears, Barney & Friends, Delta Airlines, Animal Planet, Fisher-Price, Barbie, and M&M's, among other brands. Macy's, likewise, has created its own floats, including Santaland Express, the Marion Carole Showboat, and a "Gift of Freedom" float featuring the Statue of Liberty.
Performers and acts
College and high school marching bands from across the country participate in the parade, and the television broadcasts also feature performances by established and up-and-coming singers and bands, as well as performances by the casts of Broadway shows. The Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall are a classic performance as well, having performed annually since 1958 as the last of the pre-parade music acts to perform. Also featured are cheerleaders and dancers chosen by the National Cheerleaders Association from various high schools across the country. The last person to appear in the parade is Santa Claus, who concludes the event by arriving into Herald Square to ring in the Christmas and holiday season.
The annual telecast of the parade is watched by more than 44 million people. It was first televised locally in 1939 as an experimental broadcast, then began to broadcast regularly in 1945. The parade began its network television appearances on CBS in 1948, the year that major, regular television network programming began.
NBC has been the official broadcaster of the event since 1953. The telecast was originally an hour long, but expanded to two hours in 1961 (reduced to 90 minutes from 1962 to 1965), before adopting its present three-hour length in 1969. NBC airs the Macy's Parade live in the Eastern Time Zone, but tape-delays the broadcast elsewhere in the United States from the Central Time Zone westward to allow it to air in the same timeslot across all its affiliates. The Macy's Parade telecast has been honored with nine Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Special Event Coverage, the earliest awarded in 1979.
For its first decade, NBC's coverage was originally hosted by Merrill Mueller. He was replaced in 1954 by Hugh Downs and Arlene Francis. Chris Schenkel and Bud Palmer hosted the 1962 Telecast, They were replaced in 1963 by Lorne Greene and Betty White, who hosted the telecast through 1972. Ed McMahon, who became a host in 1974. Starting in 1982, NBC has appointed at least one of the hosts from The Today Show to emcee its coverage; since approximately 1989, parade telecasts have been hosted only by personalities from the morning news program. Today personalities who have hosted NBC's coverage of the parade include: Bryant Gumbel (who hosted from 1977-1979 and 1982 to 1984), the show's longtime weatherman Willard Scott (who hosted from 1987 to 1997), Deborah Norville (1989-1990), Katie Couric (who hosted through the entirety of her tenure with the show, from 1991 to 2005), Matt Lauer (1998-2017), Meredith Vieira (from 2006 to 2010), Ann Curry (for the 2011 telecast only), and Savannah Guthrie (since 2012). In the 1980s, Gumbel and Scott were accompanied by several co-hosts from shows other than Today, including Mary Hart, Sandy Duncan, and Pat Sajak. Today weatherman Al Roker joined the parade in 1995, and has since served as the "uptown" host, whose main roles include cutting a ribbon with the Macy's executive producer to start the parade prope, and interviewing celebrities who are watching the parade from its start at 77th Street.
In addition to hosting the Macy's Parade telecast itself, Scott appeared in two later parades as a participant: in 2001 (where he was the "Pilgrim" riding the Tom Turkey float) and 2007 (where he rode a 1925 Pierce-Arrow Town Car with the Macy's "Parade Queen" for that year). In a special behind-the-scenes show aired during the parade's 85th anniversary in 2011, Scott was called "unpredictable" and the most fortunate of all the hosts of the parade telecast; in that same special, he also said "I feel that I've got it all," and that upon his eventual death, he would be able to "go into peace and glory" believing that his hosting duties would somehow merit him a restful afterlife in Heaven.
From the early 1972 to 1993, the television broadcast was produced and directed by Dick Schneider, and written by Beryl Pfizer. In 1994, Schneider was replaced by executive producer Brad Lachman, producer Bill Bracken, and director Gary Halvorson. Halvorson was replaced as director in 2015 by Ron de Moraes. Recent parades have been written by Tony Garofalo (1994-2006) and Mark Waxman (since 2007). Parade personnel for Macy's have included executive producers Jean McFaddin (from 1977 to 2000), Robin Hall (2001-2010), and Amy Kule (2010-2016); and creative directors William Schermerhorn (1994-2015) and Wesley Whatley (since 2014).
Announcements during the parade telecast were originally provided by Don Pardo, who for some years during the Scott era was replaced by Lynda Lopez, the telecast's only female announcer. By the mid-1990s, Pardo was replaced by Late Night announcer Joel Godard, who helmed these duties until 2011, when Today announcer Les Marshak replaced him.
The musical director for the television coverage was veteran composer/arranger Milton DeLugg, who served for decades (beginning in 1967) as part of his official capacities as music director for NBC, and upon his 2014 retirement was replaced by Ray Chew. Since 1995, the opening theme tune for NBC's parade telecast (heard during the introductory cast and performer roll) has been an instrumental of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." Originally and for many years the song was heard in a special marching band arrangement, but after being briefly replaced by "On Broadway" in 2014, "New York, New York" returned the next year in a new arrangement faithful to Sinatra's original recording. For many years, the parade telecast's closing theme tune (heard during Santa's arrival and the sign-offs and credit roll) was a medley of various arranged Christmas song instrumentals (ending with a fanfare featuring the NBC chimes); but in 2014, the broadcast gained a new closing theme song, an original composition called "Here Comes Dear Santa Claus."
NBC's rival network CBS, which has a studio in Times Square, carries unauthorized coverage of the parade under the title The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS. Its telecast was originally known as The All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade and included footage from multiple parades across America, including parades at Detroit, Hawaii, Toronto, Philadelphia, Disneyland, Opryland USA, and Miami Beach. Beginning in 2004, CBS has focused exclusively on the Macy's Parade, but due to lack of an official license, is forbidden to use the Macy's name. As NBC holds rights to the parade, it has exclusivity over the broadcast of Broadway and music performances appearing in the parade; so as a result of that, CBS airs its own live performances separate from those seen in the parade. CBS still continues to cover the parade even after Macy's chose to reroute it in 2012 out of the view of their cameras. Additionally, CBS Radio provides radio coverage of the parade on its New York City station WINS (1010 AM), and Verizon has broadcast virtual-reality live coverage of the parade made available on YouTube.
Starting in the 1930s, the balloons were inflated in the area of 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue near St. John the Divine Cathedral. The parade proceeded south on Amsterdam Avenue to 106th Street and turned east. At Columbus Avenue, the balloons had to be lowered to go under the IRT Ninth Avenue Line. Past the tracks, the parade proceeded through 106th Street to Central Park West and turned south to terminate at the Macy's department store.
After the parade resumed following World War II, the route was shortened to less than half the original length. Now, it started at 77th Street and Central Park West. This route endured until 2009.
Starting in 2009, a new route was established. From 77th Street and Central Park West, the route went south along Central Park to Columbus Circle, then east along Central Park South. The Parade would then make a right turn at 7th Avenue and go south to Times Square. At 42nd Street, the parade turned left and went east, then at 6th Avenue turned right again at Bryant Park. Heading south on 6th Avenue, the parade turned right at 34th Street (at Herald Square) and proceeded west to the terminating point at 7th Avenue. The 2009 route change eliminated Broadway completely, where the parade has traveled down for decades. The route was changed to provide more space for the Parade, more viewing space for spectators, and to correspond with the city's plan to turn Broadway into a pedestrian-only zone at Times Square. In 2012 the Parade route was changed again, to eliminate Times Square altogether.
It is not advised to view the parade from Columbus Circle, as balloon teams race through it due to higher winds in this flat area. New York City officials preview the parade route and try to eliminate as many potential obstacles as possible, including rotating overhead traffic signals out of the way.
In 2020, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade did not follow its 2.5-mile long Parade route for the first time in history. This safety measure was put in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Parade's workforce was reduced by 88%, and was instead filmed over the course of three days focused solely in/around the Herald Square area of Midtown Manhattan.
In popular culture
- Main article: Macy's Parade in popular culture
Over the years, the Macy's Parade has been represented or parodied in a number of films and television shows, and franchises represented by balloons or floats have referenced the parade at various points.
- Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, by Robert Grippo (published 2004 by Arcadia Publishing)
- Holidays on Display, by William L. Bird Jr. (published 2007 by the Smithsonian Institution)