The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, one of the world’s largest parades, is presented by the U.S.-based department store chain Macy’s. The parade started in 1924, tying it for the second-oldest Thanksgiving parade in the United States with America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit (with both parades being four years younger than Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade). The three-hour parade is held in Manhattan from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thanksgiving Day, and has been televised nationally on NBC since 1952. Employees at Macy’s department stores have the option of marching in the parade.
In 1924, the annual Thanksgiving parade started in Newark, NJ, by Louis Bamberger at the Bamberger’s store was transferred to New York City by Macy’s. In New York, the employees marched to Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street dressed in vibrant costumes. There were floats, professional bands and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. At the end of that first parade, as has been the case with every parade since, Santa Claus was welcomed into Herald Square. At this first parade, Santa was enthroned on the Macy’s balcony at the 34th Street store entrance, where he was then crowned “King of the Kiddies.” With an audience of over 250,000 people, the parade was such a success that Macy’s declared it would become an annual event.
The Macy’s parade was enough of a success to push Ragamuffin Day, the typical children’s Thanksgiving Day activity from 1870 into the 1920s, into obscurity. Ragamuffin Day featured children going around and performing a primitive version of trick-or-treating, a practice that by the 1920s had come to annoy most adults. The public backlash against such begging in the 1930s (at a time when most Americans were themselves struggling in the midst of the Great Depression) led to promotion of alternatives, including Macy’s parade. While ragamuffin parades that competed with Macy’s would continue into the 1930s, the competition from Macy’s would overwhelm the practice, and the last ragamuffin parade in New York City would take place in 1956.
Anthony “Tony” Frederick Sarg loved to work with marionettes from an early age. After moving to London to start his own marionette business, Sarg moved to New York City to perform with his puppets on the street. Macy’s heard about Sarg’s talents and asked him to design a window display of a parade for the store. Sarg’s large animal-shaped balloons, produced by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, OH, replaced the live animals in 1927. A popular belief was that a balloon version Felix the Cat balloon was the first character balloon in the parade back in 1927. Macy’s also claimed that, but Felix actually made his first appearance in 1931.
At the finale of the 1928 parade, the balloons were released into the sky, where they unexpectedly burst. The following year, they were redesigned with safety valves to allow them to float for a few days. Address labels were sewn into them, so that whoever found and mailed back the discarded balloon received a gift from Macy’s.
Through the 1930s, the parade continued to grow, with crowds of over one million people lining the parade route in 1933. The first Mickey Mouse balloon entered the parade in 1934. The annual festivities were broadcast on local radio stations in New York City from 1932 to 1941, and resumed in 1945, running through 1951.
The parade was suspended from 1942 to 1944 as a result of World War II, owing to the need for rubber and helium in the war effort. The parade resumed in 1945 using the route that it followed until 2008. The parade became known nationwide after being prominently featured in the 1947 film, Miracle on 34th Street, which included footage of the 1946 festivities. The event was first broadcast on network television in 1948. Since 1984, the balloons have been made by Raven Industries of Sioux Falls, SD, through its Raven Aerostar division.
Other American cities also have parades held on Thanksgiving, none of which are run by Macy’s. The nation’s oldest Thanksgiving parade (the Gimbels parade, which has had many sponsors over the years, and is now known as the 6abc Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade) was first held in Philadelphia in 1920. Other cities with parades on the holiday include the McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade in Chicago, and parades in Plymouth, MA; Seattle, WA; Houston, TX; Detroit, MI; and Fountain Hills, AZ.
There is also a second Thanksgiving balloon parade within the New York metropolitan area, the UBS balloon parade in Stamford, CT, located 30 miles away. That parade is held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, so as not to compete with the parade in New York City. It usually does not duplicate any balloon characters.
The Celebrate the Season Parade, held the last Saturday in November in Pittsburgh, was sponsored by Macy’s from 2006 to 2013 after Macy’s bought the Kaufmann’s store chain that had sponsored that parade prior to 2006.
New safety measures were incorporated in 2006 to prevent accidents and balloon-related injuries. One measure taken was the installation of wind measurement devices to alert parade organizers to any unsafe conditions that could cause the balloons to behave erratically. In addition, parade officials implemented a measure to keep the balloons closer to the ground during windy conditions. New York City law prohibits Macy’s from flying the balloons if sustained winds exceed 20 knots (23 mph) or wind gusts exceed 30 knots (35 mph). New York’s tall buildings and regular grid plan can amplify wind velocity on city streets.
The 2018 parade was the coldest to date with the temperature at 19 degrees Fahrenheit. The warmest was in 1933 at 69 degrees Fahrenheit. The 2006 parade was the wettest with 1.72 inches of rain.
More than 44 million people watch the parade on television on an annual basis. It was first televised locally in New York City in 1939 as an experimental broadcast on NBC’s W2XBS (forerunner of today’s WNBC). No television stations broadcast the parade in 1940 or 1941, but when the parade returned in 1945 after the wartime suspension, local broadcasts also resumed. The parade began its network television appearances on CBS in 1948, the year that major, regular television network programming began. NBC has been the official broadcaster of the event since 1952, though CBS (which has a studio in Times Square) also carries unauthorized coverage under the title The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS. Since the parade takes place in public, the parade committee can endorse an official broadcaster, but they cannot award exclusive rights as other events (such as sporting events, which take place inside restrictedaccess stadiums) have the authority to do.
At first, the telecasts were only an hour long. In 1961, the telecast expanded to two hours, and was then reduced to 90 minutes in 1962, before reverting to a two-hour telecast in 1965; all three hours of the parade were televised by 1969. The event began to be broadcast in color in 1960.
From 1962 to 1972, NBC’s coverage was hosted by Lorne Greene (who was then appearing on NBC’s Bonanza) and Betty White. Ed McMahon hosted the parade in 1974, then hosted until 1981. Since 1982, NBC has appointed at least one of the hosts of Today to emcee the television broadcast, starting with Bryant Gumbel, who hosted the parade until 1984.
Radio coverage is provided by Entercom’s WINS (1010 AM) in New York City. It is one of the few times throughout the year in which that station breaks away from its all-news radio format.
Since 2016, Verizon has produced a 360-degree virtual reality live telecast of the parade, with minimal commentary, made available through YouTube.
Character balloons for 2019 include: Astronaut Snoopy (eighth version)—to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo space programs; Smokey Bear (second version)— to celebrate his 75th birthday; Sponge- Bob SquarePants (third version) with Gary the Snail; and Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.