Around 3.5 million people are expected to line the streets of Manhattan for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and millions more will watch the magic on television.
The floats with musical performances, marching bands and fun characters dazzle audiences, but the giant balloons towering over crowd are annual fan-favorites.
But these oversized helium characters have had both their milestones and mishaps, and they’re wilder than you can imagine.
When the Macy’s parade began in 1924, it featured animals from the Central Park Zoo and didn’t include these magical balloons. They made their debut in the late 1920s, with a unique twist.
After the parade ended, Macy’s released its balloons into the sky and hosted a “Balloon Race” afterward, offering a monetary reward for those who returned them.
Throughout the years, the New York Times reported on the bizarre places balloons ended up.
In 1928, a Sky Tiger balloon feel in a neighborhood in Long Island, then residents settled who would return the inflatable animal with a tug-of-war. Another was found broken in half and floating in the East River, the Times reports, with two tugboats pursuing the remains.
In 1931, Macy’s released about 16,000 balloons after the parade, including a 287-foot-long dragon that was carried by 29 men. When they released the mass number of balloons, some of them were filled with a postcard that could be redeemed for a prize.
Of those balloons was a blue hippopotamus, who was said to have left New York to go “soaring somewhere over the ocean.” After hearing of its trek, the Times reported that Macy’s increased its reward by four times.
1931 was also a tragic year for Felix the Cat, Macy’s first character balloon. The float ran into a high-tension wife and caught fire, making it impossible to recycle.
In 1932, a 60-foot Tom Cat ran into a plane that was flying over Queens, sending the aircraft on a 5,000-foot plunge. The pilot nearly fell out of the plane, but she was able to take control and remove pieces of the balloon from the wings.
After the incident, Macy’s nixed the tradition of releasing balloons.
In 1934, Mickey Mouse made his parade debut, as well as the Big Bad Wolf. Instead of letting the balloons go, Macy’s planned to send them to the highest bidders.
In 1942, Macy’s president Jack Straus announced that the parade would be canceled because of World War II. As a symbol of support, he deflated a giant dragon float and donated the rubber to the military. When the war ended in 1945, the beloved parade returned.
A helium shortage in 1958 sparked rumors that balloons would not be featured in the annual parade, but the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company worked with Macy’s to find a way to fill three of its balloons with plain air and use cranes to support them. Popeye, who made his balloon debut one year earlier, was one of the three balloons used.
In 1971, wind gusts of 40 mph and heavy rains grounded the balloons for the first time in parade history. On the television broadcast, NBC aired footage of the balloons during the 1970 parade instead.
In recent years, strategic planning and technological advancements have helped to prevent balloon mishaps, but it hasn’t been completely accident-free.
In 1997, a Cat in the Hat balloon struck a light pole and injured a woman, leaving her in a coma for 24 days following Thanksgiving Day. She reached a settlement with Macy’s, New York City and a city contractor in 2001.0comments
In 2005, an M&M balloon hit a light pole and injured two people.