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Old 11-25-2018, 07:19 PM
beowulff's Avatar
beowulff is offline
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Scottsdale, more-or-less
Posts: 17,093

I was in the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade - thanks to an awesome Doper!

Last spring, there was an IMHO thread “What silly thing is on your bucket list?” I posted that I always wanted to be a balloon handler in the Macy’s Parade. I was very surprised when I received a PM from a ‘doper (who wishes to remain anonymous) that he might be able to help me out. But first, he wanted to make sure that I really wanted to do this - the weather could be cold or rainy, the parade starts very early, and there is all that walking to do. I assured him that I was still interested. He asked me to remind him in June, so I put a reminder on my calendar. When mid-June rolled around, I sent him a PM. He asked for my contact information, and my suit size (for the costume). After some tense PMs, where he said that he was exploring several options, he finally sent me a PM which said to watch my email for a message from Macy’s in September.

I was a bit surprised when I got the confirmation from Macy’s in September, which said that I was going to be on the Pikachu float! I was really psyched, and started to make travel arrangements. My sister lives in South Amboy, around 30 miles from NYC, so I figured I would stay with her, and take the train into the city. Of course, the trains were on their Holiday schedule, so there were none leaving early enough. My instructions said that I needed to be at the Manhattan Center (which is close to the big Macy’s store on 34th st.) at 6:30 AM. I was a little leery of trusting Uber or Lyft to pick me up that early (even with a reservation), so I scheduled a car service to take me in.

The week before I left, my wife started to look at the weather forecasts. Even a week out, all the predictions were that it was going to be cold that day, so I went out and bought some thermal underwear and decent gloves. I figured I have a few layers, and should be warm enough. When I got to NJ on Tuesday, the weather reports started to predict not just cold, but really cold. So, I went out to local Dick’s and bought another $80 worth of cold weather gear, including even warmer gloves and a ski mask. I set three alarms to wake me up at 4:15, and tried to get some sleep.

I slept fitfully, and was up as soon as the alarms went off. I got ready to go, and checked to weather report one more time. They were predicting record cold, and possibly strong winds. I put on all my layers, and went downstairs, and when I looked out the window, the car was already waiting. We set off for the city at 4:50AM. The route to Manhattan passes through Mordor (Linden, NJ), which looked even more ominous than usual, with huge clouds of steam billowing in the frigid air. There was little traffic, so I got to the Manhattan Center at around 5:30AM. There was already a big line of people, but I figured that there were different reporting times for different groups, so I went around the corner to the Tick Tock Diner, and had some breakfast. I finished breakfast and went back down the block to the center, and walked right in, the line having dissipated. Security asked to see my confirmation letter, and a photo ID, and then let me in.
Once inside, I followed everyone to the costume area. There were many racks of costumes, for each ballon. I went to the Pikachu rack, and gave my name to the team leader, who picked my costume off the rack and gave it to me. I changed, and then handed her back the gear I wasn’t taking. The costume came with black gloves, but I had my own, which were probably warmer, so I asked if I could wear my own, and she said “If you have better gloves, wear them!” I left out the back to go join the bus. There were some other Pikachu team members, and someone said to me “where is your bib?”

Bib? What bib?

The costume consists of a yellow jumpsuit, and then a bib with Pikachu on the front, and a logo on the back. It was supposed to be with my suit, but wasn’t. I ran back to the costume area, convinced security to let me in, and told one of the team leaders that I was missing a bib. “Oh, yeah,” she said, “Some of the costumes were short.” While I was waiting, a woman came up to me and asked “are you Rosanne’s brother?” I looked at her in amazement, and said, yes…How did you know that? She said she was Facebook friends with my sister, and she had posted that I was going to be on Pikachu, and must have had a photo of me somewhere, and this friend of hers recognized me. She snapped a photo, and that was the first thing my sister saw when she woke up. After a few more minutes of rummaging around, the team leader found a bib for me, and I put it on and went back to catch the bus. There are different groups that start at different locations - Pikachu was in the 81st street balloons, on the west side of Central Park, and the busses take the crews to their balloons.

Here is a photo of Pikachu waiting to be released.
Almost ready to go.

We were scheduled to start marching around 8:30, so we had quite a while to kill in the freezing air. But, the time went fast, and soon it was time to get into position. I figured that I’d better use the porta-potty before we left, and all I can say is - too many zippers!
We didn’t have assigned positions, so once we started to get into position, I picked a spot fairly close to the front, on the right side. The team captain gave us some instructions, and reviewed the hand signals that he uses to control the height and position of the float. We balloon handlers need to watch him as he tells us to raise or lower the ballon, and to speed up or slow down. After he finished the review, he looked at me and came over and said “Are you Beowulff?” Just like before, I said “Yes…Do I know you?” He said “I’m the guy who sponsored you.” I shook his hand and told him what an awesome experience it was, and thanked him for giving me the opportunity to participate.

I got back into position, and the support crew started to remove the net holding the float down. The team captain guided us in raising the float, and soon it was far overhead, and we were ready to go. There is a small electric car that has a thick rope tethering the balloon, but it is mostly there for security - the handlers are keeping it at the correct height and left-right position. Once Pikachu was ready, the support crew went to free Trolls. This was another large float, and it was a complex balloon. The net got stuck on one of the “antennas” of the front-most figure, and they had to bring out a large A-frame extension ladder and climb up to free it. But, it’s clear that everyone involved had plenty of experience, and the balloon was freed in a few minutes.

We moved out from 81st street and onto Central Park West, and joined the parade.

With the team captain giving us directions, we moved down the street. Holding the balloon varied from easy to somewhat strenuous. If the other handlers aren’t paying attention, or are walking too fast or too slow, the tension on the “bone” which holds the rope can be pretty strong. Some times I was really leaning into it, especially when the wind blew the balloon to one side.

Here I am (to the left of the woman with her arms up).

Oh yeah - the wind. The balloons won’t fly if the wind is greater than 23 mph, or gusting to 34 mph. Fortunately, the wind wasn’t that strong, although the early weather reports were worrisome. We couldn’t really see the balloon while handling it, but the crowd would go “Oooh” whenever the wind would blow the balloon close to the buildings. We marched down the route, waving at the people lining the road, or viewing the parade from all the windows. It must have been quite a sight to see the 4-story ballon pass at eye-level.

About a mile into the parade, the woman next to me said “19 degrees.” The thermometer on one of the buildings we passed said that this was the coldest Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in history, and the second-coldest Thanksgiving in NYC since records have been kept. Except for my fingers, I was warm enough, now that we were walking. I was amazed at the number of people who had braved the frigid weather to watch the procession.

The full parade route takes around 2 hours, but the time seemed to fly. Pretty soon, we passed the TV cameras in front of Macy’s, and then turned the corner and prepared to deflate the balloon. We moved into position, and lowered the balloon so that zippers in it could be opened. The helium was released, and the balloon deflated. We folded it up, laid down on it to flatten it , and then rolled it into huge tube, and tipped it into a dolly to be taken back and stored for another year.

I made my way back to the Manhattan Center, turned in my suit, picked up the items I had left, and went to warm up and get some snacks, which Macy’s had provided. After resting for awhile, i made my way to Penn Station, and fought the absurd crowd to buy my tickets back to South Amboy. I made the next train, which was so crowded that I had to stand between cars until a lot of people got off at Newark.

I had a great time, and I want to thank my anonymous benefactor again - it was a amazing experience!