Ronald McDonald is a clown character used as the mascot for the popular chain of fast-foot restaurants, McDonald's. The original Ronald McDonald character was played and created by radio and television personality Willard Scott, who portrayed Ronald as a fun-loving clown who was always cheerful and "Hamburger-Happy". Scott portrayed the character until 1965, when the clown was given a revamp by McDonald's themselves.
The newly-branded Ronald McDonald character would first appear in television commercials throughout 1965. The character would later launch into global fame with the introduction of the McDonaldland franchise and line of commercials, which featured Ronald McDonald going on adventures with Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, The Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese and The Fry Kids. Though the brand was discontinued by 2003, Ronald McDonald continues to promote the restaurant chain at live events and on social media.
Ronald McDonald also serves as the face of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which is an independent nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to create, find, and support programs that directly improve the health and well-being of children. The organization is said to give millions of children everywhere, "a home away from home".
History with the Macy's Parade
Ronald McDonald made his Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade debut in the 1966 Parade, appearing alongside a McDonald's-themed float depicting a Fantasyland, where he traveled the route carrying a Big Drum. Starting in 1986, Ronald McDonald would appear on foot and lead a nationwide marching band down the streets of New York City, known as the McDonald's All-American Marching Band.
Ronald McDonald first appeared as a signature giant helium balloon in the 1987 Parade, debuting alongside Spider-Man, Snuggle and Snoopy on Skates. The balloon depicts the hamburger-happy clown, sporting size 264 shoes, floating gingerly down the Parade route while doing a handspring with the help of a bouquet of balloons, each of which measure 10 feet in diameter. The Ronald balloon measures 68 feet tall (or the height of 544 hamburgers), 32 feet wide and requires over 12,200 cubic feet of helium to lift the iconic clown's 470-pound body through the streets of Manhattan.
The original Ronald McDonald balloon made its first public appearance at the Macy's store located in the Dallas Galleria, appearing alongside the Baby Shamu balloon flying high above the mall's iconic ice-skating rink. The balloons appeared at the mall for the annual Anniversary Day Sale on October 28th, with the real Ronald McDonald entertaining shoppers and patrons.
The Ronald McDonald balloon would continue to fly in the Parade alongside the McDonald's All-American Marching Band, which played its final Parade performance in 1989. The balloon would also retired from the line of march shortly after the 1990 Parade.
Just over a week after the 1990 Parade, the Ronald McDonald balloon was flown in downtown Atlanta as a part of the Macy’s-Egleston Christmas Parade alongside other balloon brethren Baby Shamu and Spider-Man.
The balloon returned to the annual fall procession in the 1993 and 1994 parades, now with only the red and blue balloons in hand. The original Ronald McDonald balloon was retired after the latter procession, and hasn't made a public appearance since.
Six years after the retirement of the original Ronald McDonald balloon, a brand-new balloon would mirroring the famous clown would debut in the 2000 Parade. Joining the festivities once again was the real Ronald McDonald, now riding in a snappy and sporty Big Red Shoe Car, which carried with it many of Ronald's McDonaldland friends such as Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird and The Hamburglar.
The second balloon was a sight to behold, and was the largest balloon (in terms of helium volume) to debut in that year's Parade. The redesigned balloon featured a larger-than-life Ronald McDonald that measured 44 feet tall, 63 feet long and 23 feet wide. Ronald sported his signature red hair, clown shoes and yellow jumpsuit as he flew through the Thanksgiving morning air, with each one of his shoes measuring 22 feet long and 8 feet wide.
The second Ronald McDonald balloon experienced an accident during the 2001 Parade, in which a tree alongside Central Park West snagged the balloon's left arm, leaving a massive gash in its place. The balloon continued on route as normal, with no other discernible damage done to the balloon.
Starting in 2006, Ronald McDonald would be joined by a group of children known as the McKids in the Big Red Shoe Car, as the McDonaldland characters were retired from promotional material throughout the 2000s with the introduction of the “Forever Young” aesthetic, which redesigned McDonald’s restaurants into more modern and sleek establishments.
The 2009 Parade brought many changes to old traditions - a new Santa’s Sleigh float, a new Parade route and a brand-new Ronald McDonald balloon. The third Ronald balloon featured the world-famous spokes-clown gliding down the Parade route gracefully on the world’s biggest pair of ice skates for a fun-filled holiday activity. Measuring 76.4-feet long, 28.8-feet wide and 48.6-feet tall, the third balloon is the largest Ronald McDonald balloon yet with 13,650 cubic feet of helium needed to fill the balloon on Parade day. Former Parade Studio Director John Piper has stated that the ice skates presented the balloon team with “more than a few technical challenges”.
A blown-glass ornament of the third Ronald McDonald balloon was created the same year and sold at various McDonald’s restaurants around the world. The ornament continues to be sold at participating establishments around the world, with all proceeds from the ornament going directly to the Ronald McDonald House Charity.
During the 2011 Parade, the Ronald McDonald balloon’s right ice skate was punctured by a tree just before 77th Street and Central Park West. The impact caused the entire foot of the balloon to deflate, but the balloon itself remained largely intact and experienced no further traumas along the Parade route.
The balloon suffered another mishap in 2012, as a sandbag that held the balloon down overnight tore open the balloon’s signature red clown hair. The tear was patched up with duct tape in a stitch-like fashion, though the hair was noticeably deflated along the route.
The third Ronald McDonald balloon was retired after the 2014 Parade, and is currently stored in the float warehouse alongside several other retired balloons and floats.
The fourth and most recent balloon of McDonald’s “Chief Happiness Officer” made its debut in the 2015 Parade in conjunction with the 60th anniversary milestone of McDonald’s, and was now remarkably, “less barnyard, more boardroom”. The balloon features Ronald McDonald marching down the street and giving a big thumbs up in his redesigned form, wearing a red sports blazer over his yellow overalls, a six-foot long bowtie and size 1,400 shoes.
Because of the balloon’s humanoid appearance, it presented several technical challenges to the artists at Macy’s Parade Studio. John Piper explained the design challenges, saying “we had to sculpt concave areas around his eye sockets and the sides of his smile, and balloons don’t want to go concave! The ropes are tied in a way that keeps the fabric pulled into the right position.”
The 2019 Parade was affected by heavy winds, which caused balloons to be flown lower than usual. The Ronald McDonald balloon’s left foot was ripped open by a tree at the balloon’s staging area on 77th Street. The tear started as an only three-inch gash, but grew larger as winds whipped the balloon about along the Parade route.
Two Macy’s employees conducting last-minute float checks noticed the rip, “but they couldn’t find tape” to patch up the balloon. Richard Buran, a handler on the balloon, noted that the foot looked saggy from the start, but “the whole leg eventually deflated, and then it was just this big piece of fabric.” The balloon was eventually pulled from the line of march and was deflated on 42nd Street, just 10 blocks away from the Parade's finish line at Macy’s flagship department store in Herald Square.
The balloon was still safe and technically okay to fly — but was pulled for aesthetic reasons, a Macy’s spokesperson said. It was later shipped back to the Macy’s Parade Studio, and given extensive repairs in preparation for the following year.
The fourth Ronald McDonald balloon was initially planned to make a live appearance at the reimagined 2020 Parade with the help of a five-vehicle framework that would help the balloon fly. Though this measure was put in place following COVID-19 restrictions, rising cases of the virus throughout New York City in November 2020 caused the balloon to be pulled from its live appearance just days before filming for the event began. Instead, the balloon was shown on the television-only event through archival footage of past Parade telecasts from 2017 and 2018.
The fourth version of Ronald McDonald was retired following his virtual appearance in the 2020 procession, making a total of six appearances.
Ronald McDonald returned to the skies of NYC for the 2021 Macy's Parade with a new look, becoming the fifth version of the world's most famous clown to soar through Manhattan. In this version, Ronald is sharing his heart with us at a time when we all need some extra love and smiles, and inspiring spectators to "see a smile, share a smile."
The fifth Ronald McDonald balloon measures 40-feet tall, 68-feet long and 31-feet wide. It took the talented balloonatics at Macy's Parade Studio 2,629 hours and 50 gallons of paint to complete the Ronald McDonald balloon.
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