It’s hard not to be awed by the enormous balloons making their way down the streets in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This year I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes to how they were designed and what one of them looked like up close, inflated.
Of course you can watch them get inflated yourself, the night before Thanksgiving (details at the bottom). If you plan to attend the parade, don’t miss my Guide to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And you can read our behind the scenes guide to the floats here.
This year they’re debuting six new balloons this year, which is a record number. That’s a bit of a misnomer for attendees, since two of the characters (Pikachu and the Pillsbury Doughboy) are regulars at the parade. But Pikachu just went through a third redesign, so it is a new balloon and Macy’s counts that as a new one. The Pillsbury Doughboy is also technically a new balloon, though the design is the same as the last one, since it flew so well and the client wanted the same thing.
Thomas the Train (new this year) is 47 feet tall (and 1,000 pounds) – and can’t be inflated in this building – it’s not tall enough. Diary of Wimpy Kid is 56 feet tall when full standing, though he’s inflated lying down. The Elf on the Shelf is the tallest balloon, at 64 feet tall. More fun balloon facts at the bottom.
Also new this year, the Skylander Eruptor. To create the color effect of him erupting, they used 40 gallons of fluorescent paint and 5 barrels of glitter, manufactured in scale.
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One of the other new balloons is the Power Ranger balloon. Power Rangers have been in the parade before, as participants, but not as a balloon.
One of Macy’s creations is the balloonicle, a combination of balloon and vehicle. New balloonicles this year are the Aflac duck and a Macy’s created holiday clown..
The balloons are debuted and tested at “Balloon Fest,” where they’re revealed and photographed (you can see the photos in my picture below). Usually it’s at Meadowlands, 5 minutes away. You can read about last year’s Balloon Fest, with pictures, here. This year it was at Citi Field (see photos here), which was an hour away.
After Balloon Fest, they’re refurbished, meaning the seams are checked and paint is touched up. When the balloons are tested, they’re inflated and they sit for six hours. Then they check the balloon for softness. If all is fine, they’re emptied of air with a vacuum, folded and packed up in a specific way, and put into carts for storage.
We saw the Paddington Bear balloon blown up, and lying on his face. You can see one of the air inflation tubes (the kid in me was giggling at what it looked like), which is tied off in the same way that Russian astronauts seal their space suits. Apparently they independently came up with the same way of folding to make them air tight. Paddington weighs about 600 pounds, and has a movie coming out this winter. Promotion opportunity!
How they’re made
Balloons are made elsewhere (one volunteer said they’re made at Aerostar in South Dakota). There, they build, paint, test and ship them. The balloons are made of fabric and hand-painted!
Some balloons have one chamber, some have multiple. Paddington, of course, has multiple.
It takes about two hours to inflate a balloon with three to four teams working on it.
While there, we saw them painting a Wiggle Worm, which is a multiple part balloon, with each part moving independently.
Balloon Inflation in Manhattan
The balloon inflation “is the largest nonevent event in New York,” said John Piper, the Macy’s VP and Creative Director behind the parade. Come early, he said. They moved the starting time to 3 p.m. at police request, due to large crowds. He suggests arriving between 1 and 3 for the smallest crowds. From 4-6 the crowds pick up, and between 6-10 it will be super crowded. Strollers aren’t recommended for the later times. Too many people.
Even if you can’t go for the parade, the giant balloon inflation is open to the public the Wednesday before the parade, on November 26th. Head over to the Museum of Natural History, entering the inflation area at 79th Street and Columbus Avenue. The inflation goes from 3-10 p.m.
Fun Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloon Facts:
-Diary of Wimpy Kid’s book is 15 feet tall
-Adventure Time has a snail cameo on the balloon. Look for it!
-Hello Kitty’s red bow is 6 feet long
-Paddington Bear’s suitcase is the size of a typical 2-door garage
-Papa Smurf’s cane is 23 feet long
-The Ronald McDonald balloon has been in the parade since 1966.
-the Snoopy character is the one with the most balloon versions of him (7 in all) – and he’s the character that’s appeared in the most parades.
-SpongeBob is the first square balloon in the parade. He’s pulled into his shape with more than 800 internal tie-lines
-Thomas the Tank Engine has the most helium volume of all the balloons, and used the most balloon fabric of any Macy’s parade balloons of one character, ever.
-Macy’s designed “balloonicles” which are balloons fitted on vehicles. One is the Kool-Aid Man, whose pitcher is large enough to carry 1.3 million cups of liquid.