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The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons come to life

November 25, 2014 By Joan Cirillo

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 historic 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 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

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