NEW YORK—On the night before the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 16 giant balloons begin the day as flat plastic piles on West 77th Street and West 81st Street, before being transformed into the recognizable characters such as Kermit the Frog and Charlie Brown as an adoring public looks on.
It’s not magic, but helium that brings each of the characters to life, with half the lightweight gas coming from Linde Company in Otis, Kan. New York is a long haul from Kansas and quite a different pace. The population of Otis is 282, according to the 2010 census. Over 1 million people were expected to filter through the inflation preview Wednesday according to parade officials.
“It’s a break from what we normally do,” Don Conway, an employee with Linde, said with a laugh. A traffic jam in Otis means more than one car at a light, he said.
This year marks Conway’s fifth year of driving the helium cross country and monitoring the fill up, a tradition he enjoys, despite the quicker pace and traffic of New York City.
“I really like seeing the kids’ expressions. That is the highlight,” Conway said.
He enjoyed seeing the addition of Papa Smurf to the lineup of balloons he is tasked with inflating. “My grandkids know all about Papa Smurf. That’s what they call me!” Conway said with a smile. “I’ll be taking pictures of that one. They will be looking forward to that.”
Conway said he has become friendly with many of the locals who see him sitting in his chair next to the helium truck each year, especially the residents of the surrounding buildings. “I look forward to seeing some of the same people each year,” Conway said.
Conway and his partner, Joe Strobel, who has been working the parade for three years, stay in the truck overnight, not to protect the balloons, but to watch their truck and ensure they are there early enough for the morning helium top off for each of the balloons.
They did not know how early they would be getting up but the duo didn’t seem to mind. “We have a cooler and some sleeping bags. It’s kind of like camping,” Conway said.
They will not watch their handiwork from the streets, but from the television before heading back to Kansas.
Conway and Strobel may not be watching the parade from the streets, but an estimated 3.5 million will line the parade route from the Natural History Museum on the Upper West Side to Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street.
Finding a spot can be tricky. Harrison Okun, 11, has watched the parade for the past five years and never had a problem finding a spot. His secret is the Natural History Museum, no one is at the beginning, said Okun, and he gets a prime spot every time.
“We get there around 8:30 and no one is really there,” Okun said.
Remembering Sandy Victims
Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined in the inflation festivities on Wednesday along with Amy Kule, executive producer of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The mayor commended the parade organizers for providing 5,000 free tickets to victims of Superstorm Sandy.
“We wanted to make sure they got a chance to look on the bright side,” the mayor said.
The mayor and Santa Clause will be bringing up the caboose of the parade along with New York City sanitation workers who have been a valuable part of the cleanup efforts following the devastating storm nearly three weeks ago.
Following the parade, the mayor said he would attend an annual reception for widows and orphans of firefighters and police officers and help serve Thanksgiving to those less fortunate. “Then I am going to have Thanksgiving dinner with my family where I will over eat,” Bloomberg said, to laughs from the press corps.
Like many Americans, the mayor will share what he is most thankful for, some of which he shared. “It is the way everyone came together after Sandy,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “You don’t realize how lucky you are until you see how people respond in emergencies. We are very lucky in America and unfortunately too many in America have forgotten that.”
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