The 97th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will march its two-and-a-half-mile route from Central Park West to Macy’s Herald Square on Nov. 23, spreading holiday cheer in New York. This year’s special guests include a star-studded lineup featuring performances from Cher, Jon Batiste, En Vogue, Brandy, Enhypen and more. Miss America 2023 Grace Stanke, U.S. Olympic silver medal gymnast Jordan Chiles and others will also join the festivities.
The 2023 parade will include 16 character balloons, 32 heritage and novelty balloons and 12 marching bands. Ahead of the annual holiday celebration, WWD takes a look back at the parade over the years — how it’s changed, grown and maintained traditions.
The Macy’s “Christmas” Parade
The first event was started by Macy’s employees on Thanksgiving Day 1924, on Nov. 27, to promote holiday sales and the retailer’s newly expanded Herald Square store — then the largest in the world. Macy’s was established in 1858 and is considered one of the country’s oldest and biggest department store chains. It opened at Herald Square in 1902.
The first parade was such a success that it was declared an annual tradition from there on out. The big event was originally called the Macy’s Christmas Parade (the name was changed in 1927), and featured real elephants and other animals from the Central Park Zoo. Macy’s employees, professional entertainers and the animals walked six miles from 145th Street in Harlem to Macy’s, as over 250,000 onlookers watched.
The Big Balloons made their debut in 1927
The large balloons associated with the parade debuted in 1927, replacing the zoo animals. Felix the Cat had the honor of being the first-ever parade balloon. The original balloons had a short life span as they didn’t have release valves, so they were released into the sky to pop in the air. They were also filled with regular air, not helium, back then, meaning they didn’t float quite so high.
In 1928, valves were added to the balloons that allowed the helium to slowly escape once they were freed into the sky at the end of the parade. They included a return address and a reward to encourage the return of balloons, but not all of them made it back. One landed in the East River and another in the sea. By 1934, Macy’s stopped the process of releasing balloons into the air.
Mickey Mouse joined the fun in 1934
In 1934, Mickey Mouse made his Thanksgiving Day Parade debut with a balloon that Walt Disney himself helped design. His balloon handlers were also dressed like the famous mouse. Mickey was first introduced to the world in 1928 in the animated short “Steamboat Willie.” Thus, this balloon looked like the original renderings of the Disney star. New versions of Balloon Mickey were introduced over the years— 1977, 2000 and 2009 — to keep up with his evolution.
The three years with no parade: 1940s
The parade was canceled from 1942 to 1944 due to rubber and helium shortages during World War II. The event resumed in 1945, fittingly featuring an Uncle Sam balloon, and hasn’t missed a year since. The classic Christmas film “Miracle on 34th Street,” released in 1947, featured footage from the 1946 Macy’s parade, making it a household name outside New York City.
In 1948, the parade was broadcast on national TV for the first time. There was another helium shortage in 1958, so the balloons were filled with normal air and hung from construction cranes.
Floats elevate the parade in 1968
In 1968, Macy’s creative teams designed intricate floats to include in the parade for the first time. There have been smaller floats in the parade since its launch. The floats are still entirely designed by Macy’s employees. While the floats themselves are up to 40 feet tall and 28 feet wide, they can each, rather miraculously, fold into a 12.5-foot by 8-foot box for more accessible transportation to the parade route. They’re made and staged in New Jersey, so they must travel through the Lincoln Tunnel to make it to Manhattan.
Each parade is a pop culture time capsule
Just as the different versions of Mickey Mouse have been on display at the Thanksgiving Day Parade over the years, the balloons and special guests provide a glimpse into youth pop culture at the time.
In 1961, Miss Teenage America Diane Lynn Cox posed in princess attire on a float with “Prince Charming” actor Troy Donahue. In 1977, Kermit the Frog made his first appearance at the parade (returning in 2002), with his balloon handlers dressed to match him.
In 1980, Big Bird sat high atop a Sesame Street float surrounded by a marching band. Eighties balloons included Woody Woodpecker, Raggedy Ann and Betty Boop atop a smiling crescent moon.
Nineties balloons include Bart Simpson on a skateboard, Spiderman, “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Rugrats,” Clifford and Beethoven. In 1999, there was an Ask Jeeves — a precursor to Google search — float featuring Miss America Heather French. In 2003, Canadian pop-punk band Simple Plan performed on the M&M float. Shrek made his debut in 2007 when his third film dropped.
1997: Dangerously windy city
In 1997, gusts of strong winds of up to 43 miles an hour wreaked havoc on the parade, causing many of the 17 massive balloons to rip, deflate and crash to the ground. Unfortunately, one of the balloons hit a lamppost, the top part of which fell and injured four people in the crowd. Barney the Dinosaur was severely damaged and removed at 51st Street, and the Pink Panther crashed down at 42nd Street, where a cop stabbed his tail to keep the cat from flying away.
The parade marches on during the COVID-19 pandemic
The Macy’s Day Parade was one of the few large public events that went on during 2020. Yet participants followed strict COVID-19 protocols, resulting in a scaled-down production that made for a very different-looking parade on the ground. Much of the parade was pre-taped and the route was reduced to one block. Only a few curious spectators showed up, all participants wore masks and the usual 2,000 balloon handlers were reduced to 130. Yet the televised special safely offered the parade’s joy and spectacle to viewers at home.
In 2021, the parade went mostly back to normal, although all participants had to be vaccinated. Since the CDC had only just approved the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, kids under 12 were not allowed to participate in the parade, although they could watch from the crowd with a vaccinated adult. The participants, floats and balloons returned to their regular numbers from the reduced version the year prior, with 15 balloons and 28 floats. Grogu / Baby Yoda made his first appearance at the 2021 parade and returned in 2022.
Festive Traditions: The Rockettes, Santa Claus and More
The Radio City Rockettes have been delivering their perfectly synchronized high kicks yearly at the parade since 1957. The all-female dance troupe was founded in 1925.
Santa Claus has been an annual staple of the parade since day one. He typically closes out the parade, but, in 1932, he kicked things off by leading the march.
Snoopy holds the record for most years flown by a character balloon, totaling 40 appearances up to 2019. He debuted in 1968 in an aviator plane and will return this year in a brand-new balloon form as “Beagle Scout Snoopy.”
The 97th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will air on NBC at 8:30 a.m. EST and stream on Peacock on Nov. 23.