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The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons come to life

When my kids were growing up, a favorite holiday tradition on Thanksgiving Eve was a nighttime stroll along Central Park West around the American Museum of Natural History to watch the Thanksgiving Day parade balloons come to life.

Laid out flat along the closed streets on either side of the museum in the afternoon, the deflated balloons would slowly grow as crews worked into the night, pumping them with helium and covering them with sandbagged nets to keep them from floating away.

A view of the balloon staging area. Photo credit: Joan Cirillo

It was a magical, up-close preview to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade the following day. And it ushered in our annual round of Big Apple holiday rituals: watching the Christmas Tree Lighting (December 3) and ice skating at Rockefeller Center; visiting Radio City Music Hall for the annual Christmas show with the glamorous, high-kicking Rockettes; attending a performance of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center; seeing Santa and the elves at the Macy’s Herald Square SantaLand; and walking down Fifth Avenue at night to take in the lights, decorations and festive department store windows.

But these days, our Thanksgiving Eve tradition has mushroomed into a major tourist attraction. “We expect about a million people to come and see the inflation,” explained Macy’s spokesman Orlando Veras. “It has grown over the last decade from about 250,000 to a million spectators.”

The balloon inflation is still free but the event is mobbed and structured with plenty of police, barricades, and a strict pedestrian traffic flow. The neighborhood braces for the street closings and waves of excited families and spectators.

Papa Smurf starts to wake up. Photo credit: Joan Cirillo

Despite the crowds, it’s a spectacle and makes for a great outing. Just don’t plan on eating anywhere near the viewing area, and take public transportation as parking and cab access is nearly impossible.

This year’s 88th annual Macy’s parade will feature 16 giant character balloons including six new ones, the most additions in any given year. The new balloons are Paddington, Pikachu, Pillsbury Doughboy, Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Skylanders Eruptor and Thomas the Tank Engine.

Here are some tips and details about this year’s balloon inflation.

  • For descriptions of the balloons and all you need to know about the parade, go to www.macys.com/parade. On site, look for the signs beside each balloon with its name and year of origin.
  • The balloon inflation is open from 3-10 p.m. on Wednesday, November 26. Spectators should head north on Columbus Avenue towards 79th Street for the entry point.
  • Pedestrians are directed to 77th street, up to and along Central Park West, then west on 81st street alongside the museum, ending on Columbus Avenue.
  • If you’re meeting someone, convene several blocks away and head to the entry point together.
  • Dress warmly and bring drinks and snacks. Leave strollers at home since they’re difficult to navigate in the crowds. And hold on to your kids. They’re easy to lose track of, especially at nightfall.
  • If you go early, it’s less crowded. But the balloons don’t begin to take shape until around 5 p.m. Latecomers should plan on getting there by 9:15 p.m. to get through the route before closing.

Now that our kids are adults, we take advantage of the late night ambiance and (hopefully) thinning crowds. Illuminated by giant spotlights, the balloon characters take on a life of their own in the dark. And seeing them up close is still our favorite way of ushering in the Big Apple holiday season.

2014 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Inflation Map, courtesy of macys.com.

Chicago Architecture Tours: So Much to See!

By boat, bus, bicycle, foot, or even Segway, there is no shortage of ways to experience the country’s most celebrated architectural metro – Chicago, Illinois. Admired for creativity rather than longevity—the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed a majority of notable buildings—each tour, no matter the means, showcases the character, ingenuity, and groundbreaking methods that make up Chicago’s towering skyline.

Photo credit: David Thompson

The number of companies offering these sought-after tours are ample, but the Windy City’s architectural history is so spectacularly rich, it’s no wonder tourists have many options to choose from. Chicago is known as the birthplace of the Ferris Wheel; boasts the tallest building in North America; features works from modern and classic architects like Mies van der Rohe, Bertrand Goldberg, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and also has bragging rights as home to the world’s first skyscraper.

One company, however, has made it their mission to inspire people to discover “why design matters,” according to their mission statement, but also help promote and preserve the buildings that make Chicago so notable. The Chicago Architecture Foundation [CAF], a nonprofit founded in 1966 by a group of residents determined to preserve the H.H. Richardson Glessner House from being demolished, hosts 85 different types of tours to more than 319,000 guests annually while giving back to preserve and promote the city’s architecture.

They led their first award winning walking tour in 1970 and kicked off the Architecture River Cruise—the number one architecture cruise in Chicago—aboard Chicago’s First Lady in 1993. With their many offerings, visitors to Chicago are sure to find the perfect tour to suite their architectural interests.

By Boat

One of the most scenic routes to explore the metro’s skyline is aboard Chicago’s First Lady on the Chicago River, which flows through the heart of the downtown skyline, passing more than 50 notable buildings dating back to the rebirth of the downtown after the Great Chicago Fire. Don’t miss the Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower and home to Skydeck Chicago and The Ledge. At 1451 feet tall, it’s the city’s tallest building.

Photo credit: Robert Blacke

Volunteer docents will share stories about the John Hancock Center (home to 360 Chicago), Chase Tower, and more. For an extra spectacular view, book a Twilight River Cruise. See the buildings’ exteriors come to life with the sunset’s reflection lighting up the sky while you sip a cocktail. Or, for the photographer enthusiast, check out the Capture Chicago Photography Cruise every Saturday and Sunday at 9:00am. In the fall, boat tours are offered seven days a week with six different times Friday through Sunday, and three during the week.

By Foot

The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers 70—yes, 70—different walking tours throughout Chicago! Although the ample selections may seem hard to choose from, don’t hesitate to ask a staff member to help select your ideal journey.

The popular Downtown Deco tour peruses the “lavish materials and geometric ornaments that epitomize the prosperity and optimism of the Roaring 20s,” according to the CAF. This two-hour walk tour will take you up close and personal to the beautiful details that mark Chicago’s historic buildings, like the Chicago Board of Trade Building, One LaSalle Street Building, and many more.

Interested in Skyscrapers and how they have changed throughout history? The Skyscraper Walk Through Time explores Chicago’s tallest towering structures and shares how the innovative techniques have helped change architecture from past to present. Or, sightsee the full spectrum of the city’s architectural pulse with Chicago Old and New: Intersections, a look at architecture from 1870 to present, and how it represents Chicago’s unique culture. For a look at each walking tour available and to see times, visit www.Architecture.org.

Photo credit: David Thompson

By Bus

Take to the streets and soak up the skyline with a docent-led bus or trolley ride through Chicago’s downtown and historic neighborhoods. Drive through Frank Lloyd Wright neighborhoods or explore the compelling true story told by Erik Larson in the bestselling book “The Devil in the White City.”

With the holidays right around the corner, take the Holiday Lights, City Lights tour down the illuminated Michigan Avenue aboard a heated trolley and get in the holiday spirit! Tour times vary by season and tour.

By Train

A fast-paced platform, explore Chicago via the L Train, the second longest rapid transit system in the country, and the ideal vessel to soak up the entire city’s history and architecture from the comfort of a train. Choose from Must-See Chicago—a 90 minute tour of Chicago’s most famous buildings—or Elevated Architecture: Chicago’s Loop by “L”, a two-hour tour of the city that also delves into the history of the public transit system.

Photo credit: Brian Lauer

By Bike or Segway

In the sunnier months, CAF’s bike and Segway tours are a warm-weather must. As part of the Segway Experience of Chicago, you’ll take in Chicago’s lakefront architecture and park system on a guided two-wheeled adventure. Limited to only eight guests, this intimate option is an ideal venue to explore Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Buckingham Fountain, The Field Museum of Natural History, and much more. Check times and schedules beginning this spring!

Extra, Extra!

Still want more of the Windy City? Don’t miss the Chicago Film Tour that takes guests through the cinematic landmarks where films like The Dark Knight, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Fugitive were filmed (chicagofilmtour.com). Or, take a tour on the wild side and explore Chicago during the Prohibition Era when legendary gangsters ran the streets of the city. You’ll hear stories about Johnny Torrio, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, and more on this gangster-themed excursion (gangstertour.com).

Photo credit: David Thompson

Must-See Exhibits for Kids at Boston’s Museum of Science

Kids love science like peanut butter loves jelly. So if you’re visiting Boston with kids, be sure to stop by the Museum of Science: “kid-friendly” doesn’t begin to describe it. The MoS’s exhibits – including over 700 interactive ones – are so hands-on, so beautifully geared toward the enjoyment and excitement of science, it’s a perfect fit for the curious kid in your life. Here are six of the must-see exhibits for you and the kiddos to enjoy.

Archimedean Excogitation (entrance hall, lower level)

Upon entering the museum, you’ll encounter Archimedean Excogitation, the audiokinetic sculpture by George Rhoads. You can’t miss it – it’s a 27-foot tall sculpture that demonstrates the relationship between potential and kinetic energy through a complex system of chutes, balls, gears, paddles, and pulleys: picture a huge Rube Goldberg machine, forever in motion.

Colossal Fossil and Dinosaurs: Modeling the Mesozoic (Blue Wing, lower level)

No one – and I mean no one – gets more excited over dino poop than kids do. That, along with bones, footprints, and other dino artifacts, will turn any curious kid into a mini-paleontologist. The exhibits’ centerpieces, however, are a full-size model of a Tyrannosaurus rex and “Cliff,” a 65-million-year-old Triceratops fossil. Older kids will be impressed that it’s one of only four nearly complete Triceratops on public display anywhere in the world.

The 65-million-year-old Triceratops fossil at Museum of Science, one of only four on display in the world. Photo © Emily Roose.

Science in the Park (Blue Wing, level 2)

When my kids see this exhibit from a distance – essentially a playground inside the museum – they immediately bolt for it. Science in the Park takes everyday play objects like seesaws, slides, balls, swings, and bicycle wheels, and shows how they demonstrate scientific concepts like mechanical advantage, leverage, momentum, and force. Kids can participate in their own experiments, like racing a set of lights down a track to measure their speed, or twirling ice-skater style, seeing how different ways of positioning their legs contribute to or hinder their momentum. It’s the principles of mechanics, literally brought to life.

Lightning! (Theater of Electricity, Blue Wing, levels 1 and 2)

Upon entering the Theater of Electricity, you’ll immediately see what looks like two giant metal spheres on pedestals: the world's largest air-insulated Van de Graaff generator. What, you may well ask, does a Van de Graaf generator do? As you’ll see demonstrated in a live, loud, edge-of-your-seat 20-minute show, it creates lightning. (Note that this show may be better suited for ages seven and up; younger ones might be afraid of the loud noises and flashes.) The show runs at certain times throughout the day; check the schedule beforehand so you can grab a good seat.

Lightening created in the Van de Graaff generator. Photo © Nicolaus Czarnecki.

Hall of Human Life (Green Wing, level 3)

Kids love to learn about their bodies, and many aspects of human biology – from your DNA to what you eat to where you live – come to life through 70 interactive exhibits. Kids will love exploring questions like “How well can you keep your balance?”’ “How does your body grow?”, “Why does one person get cold faster than another?”, “Why are some faces easier to recall than others?”, “How efficient is your walk?”, “Does the sight of an animal change your pupil size?”, and “How easily are you distracted?” My kids usually gravitate to the Exploration Hub, where they’re mesmerized by a hive of honeybees and an incubator with chicks hatching. Among many hands-on activities, they can piece together a skeleton, learn about nutrients in different foods, examine a dissection of a sheep’s eye, and visit some cotton-top tamarin monkeys.

Kids learn about how their bodies work in the Hall of Human Life. Photo © Michael Malyszko.

The Discovery Center (Red Wing, level 1)

If you have little ones in tow, put the Discovery Center on your must-see list: It’s especially created for babies, toddlers, and young children, with an “Experiment Station” for trying different experiments and building projects. Kids (little and big) will also get a thrill out of Live Animal Story Time, presented at various times throughout the day (Shapiro Family Science Live! Stage, Green Wing, lower level).

An abacus for little ones in the Discovery Center. Photo © Michael Malyszko.

Finally, be sure to check the current offerings for the 4-D Theater, the Charles Hayden Planetarium and the Mugar Omni Theater’s IMAX screen. As of the time of this writing, the 4-D Theater is presenting The Polar Express 4-D Experience, the Planetarium is showing The Magic Tree House: Space Mission (required viewing for fans of Jack and Annie!), and the IMAX is showing Pandas: The Journey Home. While all of these require additional ticket purchases, they’ll make your MoS experience truly spectacular.

Enthusiastic Experts Lead Walks of New York

Everyone has their preconceived “musts” when they visit New York City. For some, it’s the landmarks: Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Times Square. Others prefer the riches found in some of the world’s greatest museums, such as the Met, MoMA and the American Museum of Natural History. And there are those who find pure joy in getting to know the different boroughs, sampling the ethnic flavors, visiting quirky haunts and eating incomparable cuisine. read more »

The Best Beer Gardens Around the U.S.

Beer GardensCities across the United States have caught on, continuing to combine the traditional biergarten with their unique, local characteristics. There are many fantastic beer gardens throughout the United States, but we’ve narrowed down the list to a few notables you must keep in mind when traveling to any of these cities. read more »

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