Behind the Scenes of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

86th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
GettyPapa Smurf in the staging area on a sunnier Parade day.

You can sing and dance your way into the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Or you can do like I did, and tap a connection.

Anyone not in a performance troupe or band must work at a Macy's or know someone who does to get the chance to join with about 8,000 others in the nationally broadcast 2.5-mile trek from 77th and Central Park West downtown to Macy's Herald Square.

A neighborhood mom who works in operations is my connection. She started her career in the military before putting her logistics training to good use in retail. The Macy's Studio crew works year-round from a warehouse in Moonachie, N.J., to make the magic happen. Thanksgiving Day is their Super Bowl.
Laurie Petersen/AOL The Kermit balloon-handling team of the 2011 parade.

Ominous Forecast

It seemed like a fine idea to march when skies were sunny and the temperature was in the 60s. That's how conditions were in 2011 the last time I saw the parade in person.

But I'm a balloon handler, and the forecast of wind gusts upwards of 35 mph and temperatures with a real feel in the single-digits make it a little less compelling to rise before dawn to get ready.

Macy's must have ESP. As these thoughts were crossing my mind at 2:46 p.m. on Wednesday, I received an email from Amy Kule, Group VP of Macy's Parade Entertainment Group, advising all balloon handlers to ignore news reports, and assuring there will be a way for everyone to participate even if weather grounds the "gentle giants" for the first time since 1971.

"We appreciate your patience as we continue to navigate the conditions leading up to Parade Day and thank you as always for your dedication to this almighty balloon program. Despite the forecast, we will have a spectacular Parade," Kule wrote.

I've not met Amy Kule, but she definitely knows how to write a motivational email! (If balloons are grounded, you can see the new ones during their preview test in this Parade video playlist.)

Getting Trained

Like all the volunteer roles at the parade, the job of balloon handler requires training. As part of my application, I had to first watch a 15-minute instructional video and then went to an official in-person training in October. Early-birds and repeat handlers were trained in June, but since I didn't apply until late summer, I was in the second round on a foggy morning at Lot P of the Meadowlands, where the Jets and Giants play.

Training was like a high school reunion and a terrific hot buffet breakfast was served.

Some were regular parade volunteers moving up into new positions on the flight management team. There are vehicle teams, assistant captains, captains, assistant pilots and pilots. The highest level you can achieve is pilot. This person marches backwards in front of the balloon and issues directions to the handlers via hand signal.

There are three keys to balloon handling: wearing the proper gloves, mastering the bone and watching the pilot. One must keep the bone at waist level and in the video this appeared to be an easy task.

In practice, however, it is more challenging. It's impossible to understand the force of a balloon without experiencing it. I was on the team that got to take the new Happy Hippo balloon on its first official walk. During this flight-test, it became clear more handler lines would be required to steer it safely. So we doubled up on the bone instead.
Laurie Petersen/AOLHappy Hippo

The most difficult part is standing still because the helium-filled balloon wants to pull skyward. Once moving, your focus is on the pilot (or in some instances a captain) and making sure you're going in the right direction.

The largest of the Macy's balloons require 50 people to navigate through the city streets. (These are the ones that may be grounded – Snoopy and Woodstock, Julius, Buzz Lightyear, The Wizard of Oz, etc.)

Behavior Guidelines

Macy's has standards and no smoking, eating, drinking or gum chewing are permitted once in costume. Given that I'm at the end of the parade, I'll be marching for at least three hours. So I plan to keep my fluid intake to the absolute minimum. Those who march in the front of the parade can finish in 45 minutes. Some have been known to get back home in time to see Santa on TV.

On-camera behavior guidelines are also issued at balloon training and in followup instructions.

"The Parade will be televised on NBC and receives media coverage from various points along the route. Please act normally in front of the cameras. Have fun but do not ham it up!"

I must be at the New Yorker Hotel no later than 6:30 a.m. and am lucky because as a balloon handler, my costume is merely overalls, possibly a vest, and a cap. Others must arrive even earlier for full makeup and costume. One woman is chaperoning the children –- including one of hers -- on the Royal Caribbean Cruise float this year. It's her fourth parade.

The Red Elf squad is positioned behind the Papa Smurf balloon her husband is scheduled to pilot. The elf is a smaller balloon, requiring a team of just 16 or so.
Macy'sElf balloons

This is the 20th parade for Kenneth Nilsen, who is dean of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. He directs a team of 150 volunteer engineering students through the day-and-night-before balloon inflation on the Upper West Side. His daughter is a clown in the parade this year.

Friends who have marched before tell me I've secured a prime spot and the energy of the children and other spectators will carry me through.

If a camera pans the Red Elf balloon handlers, look for me. I'm short and wear large glasses. I may even be smiling. I'm just grateful someone else is handling the cooking.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Apply for a job at Macy's and you could be marching in next year's parade.

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