In 1920, Gimbel’s Department Store in Philadelphia sponsored a Thanksgiving parade that wound around downtown and ended at the door to their store. It was all a gimmick designed to promote their new “Toyland” display. This was the nation’s first Thanksgiving parade, and it’s still held annually in Philadelphia even though the last Gimbel’s store closed in 1987. The Gimbel’s parade served as the inspiration for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Keep reading for more details! 


• Named after early partner Rowland Macy, Macy’s Department Store prospered during the Civil War and eventually became a nationwide chain of outlets. In 1924, Macy’s flagship location on Herald Square in New York City became the largest single store in the world, taking up an entire city block. The director never forgot the hullabaloo of Gimbel’s parade and felt that a Thanksgiving Day Parade would be the perfect way to show off the rapidly expanding store, bringing shoppers in by the droves.

•  The first Macy’s Day Parade was a humble affair, featuring a two-block procession consisting of three horse-drawn floats, four marching bands, a number of costumed employees, and several zoo animals.

• The marchers in that first parade followed a route that was over six miles long, ending at Macy’s 34th Street entrance. A crowd estimated at 250,000 lined the streets. Santa was crowned “King of the Kiddies” and enthroned on an ornate seat upon the balcony overlooking the entrance to the store. Fans and followers flocked inside.

• The event was so successful that the director soon announced that a bigger, better parade would be held the following year. In the years since, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become the biggest and most expensive annual parade in the world.

• In 1927 a puppeteer was hired to design the store-front window displays for Macy’s. With the help of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, he also created animal-shaped rubber balloons for the parade. They were filled with air and store employees held them aloft using stilt-like sticks. These balloon animals soon became the parade’s main attraction, increasing in size and scope each year. The following year, the balloons were filled with helium and held down with tethers.

• Between 1929 and 1931, the massive balloons were released at the end of the parade route and allowed to fly away. The helium-filled contraptions often stayed aloft for up to ten days, returning to earth miles away. A tag attached to the remains entitled the bearer to redeem a reward at Macy’s, usually in the form of a gift certificate. This tradition was scrapped when a balloon interfered with the propellers on a plane, nearly causing a crash. Also, many people made up counterfeit tags and insisted on collecting the reward. Now the deflated balloons are carefully stored in a warehouse in nearby New Jersey, along with all the other accouterments of the parade. 

• The only years when the parade was canceled were the war years 1942-1944 when rubber and helium were in short supply.

• The parade’s popularity got a big boost when the 1947 blockbuster hit film “Miracle on 34th Street” featured footage of the parade, with Santa waving from the balcony over Macy’s front door on 34th Street. The following year the parade was televised for the first time. It has attracted ever-increasing viewership since.

• Just how big are the modern balloons? Kermit the Frog holds 5,220 cubic feet of helium, enough to fill 10,440 average-size 18-inch Mylar balloons. The arm on the Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger was the size of a school bus. If the Kool-Aid Man was full of Kool-Aid, there would be 10,000 gallons of it. Four million crescent rolls could be made from the 54-foot-tall Pillsbury Doughboy if it were made of dough.

• The most popular balloon has been the Peanuts character Snoopy, who first appeared in 1968. Since then, Snoopy has enjoyed eight different re-designs and has participated in 42 parades, more than any other character. When a poll for “favorite balloon” was held after the 2022 parade, Snoopy got 93% of the vote. Charlie Brown, Papa Smurf, and the Ghostbusters’ Pillsbury Doughboy trailed far behind.

• The helium used in the balloons comes from the world’s second-largest helium plant which is located in Otis, Kansas. The gas is purified and then compressed into giant high-pressure tubes which are shipped to New York City on semi-trucks. Specialized lines the size of fire hoses are fitted with nozzles that fill each balloon. Although it takes several hours to inflate each balloon, it only takes about 15 minutes to deflate them. The escaping helium is not recaptured during deflation, but escapes into the atmosphere.

• In 1989, New York City had its first white Thanksgiving in 51 years. Central Park received 4.4 inches of snow, a record amount. Still, nearly 2 million undaunted people turned out for the parade.

• Companies sponsoring balloons have to pay for their construction, done at a warehouse in New Jersey. There’s also the parade entry fee of  $190,000 for newcomers, but only $90,000 for repeat customers. The company must pay for their own helium and ground crew. In return, each balloon is guaranteed a full two minutes of national coverage as the parade passes by the “Today Show” studios, where the MCs extoll the virtues of the corporate sponsor. Consider that an average 30-second ad on a national network runs $100,000 and the deal isn’t so bad.

• Generally, around 700 people riding on floats need costumes, so 200 costume fitters are on hand. When the parade ends, costumes are packed into ten trucks and sent back to the New Jersey warehouse for storage.

•  Between 8,000 and 10,000 people are participants in the parade, usually consisting of around 800 clowns, 12 marching bands, 28 floats with cast and crew, nine performance groups, various celebrities, the Rockettes, and the entire cast of various Broadway shows.

• About 3.5 million people see the parade in person, packing the streets over the 2.5-mile route. That works out to 132 spectators per foot along the route, packed in like sardines and stacked up on grandstands. Attendance at the parade is approximately equal to the entire population of Connecticut.

•  Around 50 million viewers tune into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from home each year, working out to about one in every seven Americans. This makes it one of the biggest annual televised events in America. Still, the Super Bowl attracts over 100 million viewers every January.

• If you want to volunteer to work at the parade, you’re out of luck, as only city employees, Macy’s employees and their families, and employees of the corporate sponsors are allowed.


• Though usually a happy occasion, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has seen its share of heartbreak and disaster. One notable event was the tragic death of Barney, the beloved purple dinosaur, in 1997.

• It was the 71st annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  The winds were high that day, and the surrounding buildings funneled the gusts into Times Square, with wind speeds topping out at 43 mph. When they arrived at 51st Street, Barney’s handlers hit an area of gusty winds so strong they had trouble hanging onto the ropes without being lifted off the ground. Some of the handlers lay on the ground in an effort to gain control. As they fought to steady the balloon, the 58-foot-tall Barney began swinging wildly back and forth, lurching forward and careening backwards, until a collision with a streetlight punctured his side. The helium gushed out of the gash, which quickly grew larger. Balloon Barney sagged to the ground, rolling on the pavement in his death throes, in full view of crying children, horrified adults, and astonished news crews.

• Yet, only Barney’s mid-section was injured; his extremities retained their full complement of helium and continued to thrash in the gusty wind. Barney’s faithful handlers hastened his end by jumping on the collapsing balloon as it exhausted its entire supply of helium, while city cops, in their mercy, stabbed the balloon to death by opening gashes in his stubby little arms, his cloddy feet, and his ever-smiling face. Barney’s tail exploded under pressure. Unverified reports stated that two handlers were nearly suffocated underneath the mound of collapsing fabric, while a third handler was knocked unconscious. Once Barney was completely deflated, crews hastily rolled up the empty skin, making way for the rest of the parade to proceed. After all, the show must go on!

• Barney’s handlers rushed to assist with other balloons in distress. The Pink Panther succumbed to injuries incurred by a similar collision with a streetlight at 42nd Street, and both the Nestles Quik Bunny and the Cat in the Hat limped away after suffering similar injuries at 36th Street. The Cat in the Hat collided with a lamppost at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, snapping the metal post in half, which seriously injured several spectators when it fell.

• Fortunately, Barney was resurrected in time for the 1998 parade, and was even eventually joined by his little sister, Baby Bop. Barney continued his big purple parade career until being permanently retired after his final performance in 2005. Since then, Barney has appeared in smaller form, as an inflatable costume worn by a single human riding on a float.

• In 2013, a bystander who had filmed the entire incident posted the clip on YouTube and it became a viral video in short order.

• Following the "Great Balloon Massacre" of 1997, new safety measures were put in place in order to prevent balloon incidents in the future. Now balloons must be attached to a tractor or a truck both fore and aft. No balloons taller than 70 feet high, 78 feet long, or 40 feet wide are allowed. Many of the balloons that couldn’t meet these restrictions were retired. The largest balloons, including Bugs Bunny, The Pink Panther, Betty Boop, Woody Woodpecker, and Bart Simpson, were barred from appearing.

• In spite of these new regulations, another wind-driven incident, this time involving the M&M balloon in 2005, prompted prohibitions against all balloons if sustained wind speeds on parade day top 23 mph or gusts are greater than 34 mph. There have been no balloon tragedies since.

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