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CityPASS Home  »  City Traveler Blog  »  The History of NYC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

The History of NYC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Mickey Mouse in old paradeMickey Mouse, 1934 by William J. Crawford

Whether you’re traveling near or far for your holiday dinner, there is certainly something to be said for spending a day amidst the madness at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—or watching it from your couch at home as your turkey dinner is roasting in the oven. For over 80 years, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has started the holiday season off with glorious floats, balloons, music and fun. You may watch the parade every year with friends and loved ones, but do you know the immense history behind one of the most exciting traditions in our country? For those young and old, take a journey with CityPASS as we recollect the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The Beginning

The tradition started in 1924, and remains the second oldest Thanksgiving Parade in the US behind the 6 ABC Dunkin Donuts Thanksgiving Parade in Philadelphia. Originally known as Macy’s Christmas Parade, the event was started by an unconventional group of people. This group consisted of department store employees who were also first generation immigrants. These immigrants were proud of their new American heritage and wanted to celebrate the United States of America with a proper Thanksgiving festivity. The parade originally featured animals from the Central Park Zoo, professional entertainers, vibrant costumes and more. The route led parade-goers from 145th Street in Harlem to Macy’s flagship store on 34th street. This eclectic mix of animals and entertaining individuals garnered the parade instant popularity. The excitement behind the launch of the first parade allowed the celebration to turn into an annual event that grew year by year.

Bye-Bye, Animals... Hello, Balloons!

By the year 1927, the event received so much popularity that it had to do away with live animals for safety purposes. Zoo animals were replaced with large animal-shaped balloons produced by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, including more than 100 of the world’s most famous cartoon characters. The first-ever character balloon was Felix the Cat. The balloons added an extra element of excitement to the parade, even more-so when they were released during the 1928 event and unexpectedly burst amidst the city skyline. In the following years, Macy’s corrected that mishap and began filling the balloons with helium. After the parade, all the balloons would slowly float away across Manhattan, to eventually land on a lucky person’s doorstep.

To The Tube and Beyond

The year 1946 marked a very progressive year for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As television became popular, the event staff knew there was something exciting that needed to happen. The parade starting line was moved to 77th Street and Central Park West, a far more accommodating spot for spectators to plant their seats. The parade drew a record-breaking 2 million live spectators and was aired on local television for the first time ever. As more people signed up to spend Thanksgiving in the big city, the balloons and celebrations became a bit more elaborate.

Along with the growth of the parade came the occasional predicament. In 1957, the ever-so-popular Popeye went a bit off kilter because of the rainwater that had collected in his cap and tipped forward, dumping hundreds of gallons of freezing cold water over some very surprised spectators. (His cap was re-tooled to feature a convex hat from then on.) Quirky events like this, as well as the addition of intricate and unique parade floats, turned Thanksgiving Day in NYC into a full out Turkey Day extravaganza.

Current Day Happenings

Macys Snoopy BalloonPhoto by Angela Zhao

Through the years, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has turned into America’s Parade, with more than 3.5 million live spectators who line the streets of New York City. Watching the parade on television has become a Thanksgiving tradition for another 50 million people all over the country.

The parade is a unique slice of Americana. Beloved cartoon characters float above the city street, beaming down at adoring children. Talented high school marching bands are recruited to stomp down 42nd Street and entertain the nation as the parade marches on. Popular entertainers put in appearances on beautiful floats and some of Broadway’s finest performers sing and dance in the streets—giving television viewers and parade attendees alike a little taste of classic New York theatre.

While some of the effaces of the entertainers—and a few of the balloons—change each year, the one constant of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the appearance of a very familiar face. The arrival of Santa Claus (sometimes accompanied by Mrs. Claus) on his sled kicks off the start of the holiday season and brings the parade to a joyful close.

Between the massive balloons, amazing musical performances, vibrantly costumed entertainers and pure Thanksgiving tradition, there is simply no better way to spend your holidays than on the Manhattan streets that call this parade home.

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