NEW YORK—Airy snowflakes fluttered from the sky, as a four-story-building high Papa Smurf made his way down Sixth Avenue. The crowd, about 2 and a half million strong, was both cold and on fire.
Every few minutes, high-pitched shouts pierced the frozen air, as children recognized a TV character or a celebrity riding a parade float or being impersonated by a giant balloon. Clowns were giving out high-fives to children and throwing glitter to the crowds. Moms were squeezing heating packs.
That’s the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade—with a lineup of 16 giant balloons (six of them new this year), 25 floats, and over 80 groups, crews, and celebrities. But make no mistake, the audience is just as important as the show they watch.
“It’s the highlight of my year,” said Macy’s employee Fran Nesturrick, 46, from Long Island. The thunderous cheers of the crowd created an “exciting, chill moment” for her. “Especially when you hear Santa coming, you hear the roar of the crowd all the way down the street,” she said, referring to a parade float carrying the jolly bearded man.
Nesturrick’s daughter Sophie, 8, rode the Gibson Guitar float together with her cousin Brigid Mahoney, 8. “It was fun to be on TV,” Sophie said.
To hold a balloon line or ride on a float as a “non-performing participant” one has to be a Macy’s employee. Employees can also sponsor a family member or a friend to participate.
Billy Wilders from upstate New York came to see the parade for the first time together with his wife Vicki, daughter Samantha, his sister, and a couple of friends. “Everyone was in a good mood man. It was a good time,” he said.
“They got a big bunch of balloons,” said Samantha, 8, eager to share her experience. “I loved the Sponge Bob.”
A balloon of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants has floated in the parade since 2004, but it got replaced last year with a new version wearing a Santa Claus hat.
“It’s a great parade to show the festivities of Thanksgiving,” said Sernger Shen, a physicist from Los Angeles. He came to the city for work, but it also gave him a chance to see the parade for the second time in his life. “You see stuff that you’ve seen on TV when you were a kid,” he said, picking the Snoopy balloon as his favorite.
Snoopy is the oldest character in the balloon lineup. He’s been part of the parade since 1968 and over the years got replaced six times. The seventh version was introduced last year, presenting sidekick Woodstock sitting on Snoopy’s head.
The parade brought back memories for Brad Poster, but for a different reason. He used to come to the parade with his mother, who passed away in the last two years. Coming again felt like it brought him closer to her. “I feel like she was with me,” he said.
Zachary White had been staking out a good viewing spot for the parade since 5:30 a.m. The freezing cold made him think about the spirit of Thanksgiving. “I was thinking about taking a nap at home and how I don’t usually appreciate being warm and having a blanket,” he said. “That the purpose of Thanksgiving, right?”
For his wife the parade didn’t tie into the meaning of Thanksgiving directly. “It’s mostly just for fun,” she said. “Just a lot of noise and colors, clowns that the kids enjoy.”
But the family itself makes it an important day in the end. “It becomes a family tradition and memories so it’s meaningful in that sense,” she said.
“It’s really something we do for our kids,” Zachary White said. They have five of them.
White has been living in the city with his family for 10 years, coming to the parade almost every time, but after he finishes his degree at Columbia University, he plans to move. This time was their last time, he said.