Inflating the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a massive undertaking. You could probably figure that out for yourself from watching it on TV, and I could probably quote a ton of figures at you, but even for a seasoned parade watcher myself, going “back-stage” – as I just did on Wednesday night – was a jarring, enlightening, and ultimately exuberant experience.
For those of you who don’t live in New York, you probably already know what goes on in the televised portion of the Macy’s Parade, from the bands, to the balloons, to the floats. What you may not know – as it’s a relatively recent event, starting in the past five years or so – is that the Balloon Inflation is an event in and of itself, drawing over one million New Yorkers are tourists to trek up and down the streets of the Upper West Side, the day before the parade, to watch the balloons get big.
I joined the crowd at about 3:45 on Wednesday afternoon with a group of other writers for a sneak at the backstage of the balloon inflation, meaning we could skip large portions of the crowd, and go right in. The other New Yorkers? Not so lucky, as the NYPD had to cordon off several blocks radius around the event, some of the most heavily traveled areas in New York even without a balloon ceremony. This led to screams from angry New Yorkers who weren’t allowed to just walk down the street, and even one woman sobbing because all she wanted to do was go home, and different policemen kept telling her different places to go.
Once inside though? Balloons! Sweet, gigantic balloons! They look big on TV, but in person, the inflatable characters are both far more intimate – and far larger – than you can imagine. In addition, as I got to see later, the amount of work it takes to make sure that a balloon, once inflated, stays put is intense. Thousands of sandbags, ropes, and workers move from balloon to balloon, making sure they get secured to the ground, before covering most with a thin net to make sure they don’t fly away.
As we traveled around the various balloons, snapping pictures and asking questions, we found out a few new twists this year. First, there’s the return of Ballonicles, which are smaller balloons loaded onto trucks. New this year, though? Two Tricicloons, which are tandem bikes with a rider in the front, and a fifteen foot tall balloon in the back. Also interesting? Because of the constraints of TV, and holding a parade in New York City, Macy’s is given only three hours, which limits them to a maximum of 15 larger balloons for timing. That’s right: only 15 balloons, though it seems to be way more when you’re watching on TV, or, you know, standing next to them.
The crowds got thicker as night fell, crowding together in forty degree weather and snapping tons of pictures, as we moved on to the second staging area, containing the more famous balloons. These included Hello Kitty, Kermit the Frog, Spider-Man, and of course, Tim Burton’s new balloon, B. Boy. When we passed by, they were just starting to put B.Boy together, so we traveled down the line some more, glancing at the Smurf balloon (when asked which Smurf it was, the guide stopped, saying, “You know, in the five years I’ve worked here, no one has asked that before. It’s just some Smurf”), and even veteran bloggers getting giddy taking pictures near the Kermit balloon.
Then it was time to say goodbye… Though I decided to hang out for another hour to watch the B.Boy balloon get blown up. And let me tell you: you would think watching a balloon be slowly blown up to a non-stop loop of “Born in The U.S.A.” would be boring… But you would be wrong. Mostly. The B.Boy balloon itself is a neat little thing, and distinctly Burton with big round eyes and stitching all over its surface.
For me, though, the real prize lay back the way we had already been… Alone now, and with a press pass at my disposal so no one would stop me, I walked back towards the exit, only stopping once. That was next to the Spider-Man balloon which, when I was a child attending the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York every year until I got too old and “cool” for it, had been my favorite balloon. Glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I slowly reached out my hand, and touched the hand of the Spider-Man balloon. I held it there for a moment, smiled, and walked out. And I’ll say this: that was probably the closest I will ever have to a true religious experience.
With that, I was gone, but you can still see all the action on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Live on NBC from 9am to Noon. On Thanksgiving, natch.
Watch the inflation of Tim Burton's B.Boy: