Before Thanksgiving Showtime, a Yearlong Journey for Parade Balloons

November 28, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

NEW YORK—The figure of a black dragon rose slowly into the air outside the Museum of Natural History Wednesday. For two hours technicians pumped thousands of gallons of helium to inflate Toothless, the dragon, the newest balloon to join Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

If weather permits, Toothless will float down Manhattan avenues and please millions of spectators Thursday. But the inflation Wednesday night was only the last step in a yearlong journey.

It all starts with a team of about 26 balloonatics at the Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey. They first sketch their high-flown ideas. Once the sketches are agreed upon, the team tests the balloons to see if the ideas are actually going to fly. Then they build clay models used for more simulations and, finally, for blueprints.

The studio works with several manufacturers, including ballooning expert Raven Aerostar. Balloons are built in separate parts called chambers that are sewn together to form the many popular characters, including SpongeBob SquarePants and Papa Smurf.

Then the test flights come. According to John Piper, vice president of the Parade Studio, minute adjustments are made at this stage, like moving, adding, or strapping the balloon lines and sometimes thinning down the helium with air, to get the right balance.

It will take about 200,000 square feet of helium to fill all of the 16 giant balloons for this year’s parade. That’s about the volume of all the water passing through the Niagara Falls in two seconds.

The balloons were inflated near the Museum of Natural History the night before the parade. The inflation team from the studio tucked them in with nets and sandbags for the night.

The individual balloons vary greatly, weighing 300 to 700 pounds before inflation. Once they are inflated it takes 300–400 pounds to keep them grounded. Piper said this “negative weight” proved to be the best fit over the years. During the parade, each giant balloon is strapped down to at least 50 people and two cars, with more people around as backups.

After the parade is over, the balloons will come back to the studio, where they are inflated with air again during the year to check for leaks.

Piper said the parade has grown more exciting for the spectators over the years, which sometimes translates to more challenging design work. But he doesn’t seem to mind at all. “The results have been just extraordinary,” he said.

New Balloons on the Block

Four new giant balloon characters will join the parade this year.

First of all, a new Snoopy balloon is coming, with his friend Woodstock sitting on top of his head “to give him flight instruction as he comes down the parade route,” as Piper put it. Snoopy is 67 feet long and 27 feet wide.

There is also a SpongeBob SquarePants wearing a holiday hat, and Toothless, a DreamWorks character from the “How to Train Your Dragon” movie.

Last, there is a paired balloon of Finn and Jake, characters from the Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time.”

As for how much the balloons cost, Macy’s considers them a gift to the city of New York and the entire nation.

“And you never put a price tag on a gift,” Piper said. “It’s priceless!”

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab