Thanksgiving morning in the 1970s: the aromas of the feast to come began filling the house early in the day. Rolling over to check the time we fear we might have missed it. My sister Dona and I would spring out of bed, bathrobes in hand, slippers halfway on, run down the stairs to the living room and turn on the television. “Mom, it’s parade time — the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!”
My family lived north of Boston when we were young, and the idea of being in New York City to see the parade was just a dream. When I first watched “Miracle on 34th Street” at a young age, I imagined myself working for Macy’s, being Mrs. Walker, and thinking what a great job that would be.
Fast-forward, June 2008. I found myself chosen as a New York City juror for a case that would run for two weeks. As we began to get to know each other, I found one person particularly fun to talk with. His name was Alex; he wore a Big Bird watch on his wrist. When I commented on it, he told me he worked for Sesame Workshop. “Alex,” I said, “Have you ever been in the Macy’s Parade?” Not only did he say “Yes,” but when I told him that was a childhood dream of mine, his next question to me was, “Would you like to be in it?”
To say I was overjoyed was an understatement. That was 10 years and 10 balloons ago. Since it began in 1924, participants in the parade have been Macy’s employees, their families, and friends, so I considered myself extremely fortunate to have broken into the inner circle and of course I invited my sister Dona.
There are many roles in the parade that are filled by volunteers, including clowns, floats, and marching bands. And then there are the giant balloon teams, consisting of three pilots, three captains, two vehicles, and over 90 balloon handlers.
Each role of the Flight Management Team has very specific responsibilities. The pilot is in charge overall, and walks backward the full two and a half miles to ensure the balloon stays in the center of the street, or in “the envelope” as it heads downtown. Pilot A, who walks a block ahead of the balloon with an NYPD escort, monitors the wind conditions. This information is continually relayed back to the pilot to adjust height and position of the balloon for safe passage. Pilot B (my role) is responsible for the back of the balloon; if we don’t position the lines properly, the balloon will not fly correctly. It is vital to have the balloon look great as it approaches the cameras along the route. The pilots are in charge of the balloon and its flight; the captains are in charge of the handlers, making sure they are safe, having fun, and listening to the pilot for the next direction. Each handler holds onto a line attached to the balloon (also referred to as a bone). Each giant parade balloon is tethered to two Toro vehicles which support the balloon to help the handlers; the vehicle team will adjust the height of balloon as directed.
As Flight Management, we are required to attend field training once a year, and classroom training every three years. Balloon handlers are encouraged to attend field training, to get a sense of what will happen on parade day.
The morning of parade day in 2013, we had a scare that balloons would not fly because of the high winds. But as parade time neared, the winds diminished, and things went on as planned. This was the only year during my parade experience where flight was in question. The parade officials, NYPD, and weather forecasters work together to monitor the winds to ensure everyone is safe. Wind speeds and gusts determine how high the balloons will fly.
The parade is a wonderful, fun time, but it is serious business. And everyone involved works to find that balance for an extraordinary day.
This year is the 91st annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Dona and I will be part of the team that will carry Olaf, a brand-new giant parade balloon sponsored by Disney. This is a very special honor, to be part of the Flight Team of a new balloon. We had this same honor last year when we flew the new Charlie Brown Balloon for his first time down to Herald Square.
And with this honor, Parade Day starts very early, as we have a position in the beginning of the lineup and have to be uptown early, ready to go. The press likes to get photographs; TV stations like to have interviews. There is all sorts of excitement!
We arrive at 5 am at the New Yorker Hotel, where we change into our costumes. Once dressed, buses transport us to 81st Street, where the balloons rest under their netting.
Balloons are staged on 77th and 81st Streets, depending on their position in the parade. Floats and bands are staged on Central Park West (CPW) from 77th Street north. Each waits in its queue until called to join the parade. Inflation teams have spent all night filling the balloons with helium. These full balloons stay under nets until it gets close to “step-off.” At that point handlers go under the net, grab a bone, and wait for the net to be removed. Once the balloon is de-netted, the Flight Management Team assesses the lineup, and positions the handlers as the balloon is raised to flying height. When it’s our turn, the balloon makes the turn from 77th Street on to CPW, where the announcer will say (this year) to us, “Olaf, welcome to the parade!”
The first time I heard those words, I had such incredible emotions of joy and excitement rush through me. This was it. Showtime. This is what it’s all about.
As we walk down the parade route, children sit on parents’ shoulders to get a better view. People that live in high-rises stand on their balconies or rooftops cheering everyone on, and wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to all. Clowns skate by and toss confetti into the crowds. People on the sidelines wear turkey hats, huddling together to stay warm. Small children seated on the curb are mesmerized by the colors and characters that pass them by.
As we approach the main grandstands and television cameras on 34th Street at Herald Square, we know this is the final moment to shine and bring joy to everyone who is watching around the world.
At the corner of 34th Street and 7th Avenue, we make our final turn heading back uptown. The Giant Balloon Team is not done with the parade until the balloon is landed and deflated. After two and a half miles, we walk four or five more blocks north to locate our tarp for landing. The balloon is lowered efficiently and systematically. As each sleeve is opened to allow helium to exit, the Deflation Team steps in to help bring the giant balloon back to rest.
To force the remaining helium from the balloon, the handlers are instructed to “gently” lie down on the balloon. Some may say this is the best part. After a morning of rising early, hours waiting in the cold, all the cheering and excitement along the route, most everyone is ready for a moment to lie down.
After a few minutes, it’s time to roll up the balloon and place it in the bin, where it will remain dormant until next time. At this point, everyone is released back to the the New Yorker Hotel. Costumes are returned. We enjoy hot chocolate while watching the parade that is happening only a block away, awaiting Santa’s arrival. Spent and happy. Rosy cheeks from the cold. Ready for a hot shower.
My sister and I have made this our Thanksgiving tradition now for 10 years, inspired originally by those mornings long ago.
“Martha’s Vineyard, welcome to the parade!”
The first parade
The Macy’s Christmas Parade debuted in 1924 as a way to celebrate the expansion of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store, and became the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Store,” according to The New York Times. The parade began at 145th Street and Convent Avenue and continued down to Macy’s huge store on 34th Street. It would become the Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927.
The parade was halted during World War II: There were rubber and helium shortages, so Macy’s canceled the parade from 1942 to 1944. The company deflated its rubber balloons — which weighed 650 pounds total — and donated them to the government. (These days, the balloons are made of polyurethane fabric.) The parade returned in 1945, and in 1946 got a new route, which started at 77th Street and Central Park West and ended at 34th Street — half the length of the previous route. bit.ly/thefirstparade.
Teresa Kruszewski is owner of 51art Gallery in Vineyard Haven. Dona Kruszewski is co-owner of Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium in Oak Bluffs.