The beloved Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade has been going strong since 1924. 2019 marked the 95th year of this annual holiday spectacular. While we all love to watch the parade in the background while preparing for our Thanksgiving feast, it’s a whole different experience braving the cold and crowds to see all the iconic balloons in person. While the parade is one of the largest in the world, it may surprise some to learn that it is not the country’s oldest. This title actually goes to the lesser-known Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade which started in 1920.
Attending the parade in person is a stressful, tiresome, & oftentimes irritating experience, yet also an exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime adventure. It’s one of those bucket list check offs which you have to do at least once, but most likely will never go through the hassle of doing again! Nevertheless, seeing all the festive floats, celebrities, marching bands, and being part of all the excitement in the biggest and most influential city in the U.S. sure is a fun & memorable experience.
If you have the means to get to NYC and do not mind getting up super early, dealing with monster crowds, and most likely missing out on a big Thanksgiving feast, then by all means consider doing something different for at least one year. Thankfully, attending this event is nowhere near as stressful as the Times Square NYE ball drop.
A bit of parade history
The parade’s original route ran 5.5 miles between 145th Street and Covenant and 34th Street and Herald Square. At this time, it wasn’t even called the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, but rather the Macy’s Christmas parade. Today, we know it as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and the route travels 2.5 miles from 77th Street and Central Park West to Macy’s Herald Square on 34th Street. Just like on opening day back in the early 20’s, the parade concludes with the arrival of Santa, although he now travels by sleigh instead of waiting by throne via the Macy’s balcony.
The first parade featured live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. By 1927, balloons fortunately replaced the animals. In case you were wondering, the first character balloon was Felix the Cat.
The original parade was considered a huge success with an attendance of 250,000 people. Today, this number has blossomed to over 3 million! As you can imagine, you need to get here super early to enjoy a prime view! Today, this event is easily one of the most iconic in the country. A lot has changed since the parade’s inception, although the energy & excitement levels remain consistently strong as crowds from near and far continue to come out and enjoy one of America’s most beloved holiday traditions.
Whether you have been watching it amongst family & friends in the comfort of your home before the big dinner, or have been braving the cold to absorb the energy in person, almost everyone today makes the Macy’s parade part of their annual Thanksgiving tradition!
The famous Macy’s balloons
Over the years we have seen just about anything and everything in terms of memorable media inspired balloons, from Peanuts characters, to Garfield, to Spongebob. Snoopy has made the most appearances, having been featured over 30 times! These balloons are so much bigger than they appear on TV (the tallest was an 80 foot Superman at the 1940 parade). Each balloon takes about 100 handlers to manage.
On windy days (Thanksgiving 2019, for instance), the balloons may only float a mere 10 feet off the ground, while on calm days they can be tall 5-6 story buildings! While accidents and deflations are rare, they occasionally happen. Check out the list of the most infamous balloon accidents.
The best place to watch the parade in person!
Line up by 6am between W. 62nd Street and 75th Street. Note: You cannot watch below 62nd Street due to blocked off special ticketing areas. The ticketing areas tend to create a lot of drama as you cannot cross the street or walk through these areas, so keep this in mind before leaving your spot (Be careful or you may end up losing your party on the opposite side of the street and watching the parade solo!). Also, the views are better on the Central Park side of the Street.
Helpful tips for attending the parade in person
If driving from outside of the NY region, you will want to leave super early to avoid insane traffic. Coming from Philadelphia (2 hours away), we left around 3am, got to NYC around 5, and were pleasantly surprised to find a complete absence of traffic, even in the heart of the city. On the other hand, public transport may be an even more convenient option (the Subway runs on a Sunday schedule).
Reserve parking online. This will take a bit of hassle out of your day. As the parade itself is going to be stressful, why not cut out any unnecessary stress? Parking Panda is a great company which guarantees reserved parking.
Line up for your viewing spot early (really early). To score a curbside view, you will need to arrive by 6-6:30am. Funny thing is that the entire area is almost completely dead around this time, but fills up dramatically starting around 7, so just a little bit of time management makes all the difference in between a good vs. horrible view! The parade does not start til 9, so be prepared to wait a while. Bring with an Ipad or watch a movie to eat up some time!
Do not leave your spot prior to the parade! I made the mistake of leaving to go to the bathroom around 7 and had an extremely hard time getting back. It took me over 2 hours to find a place to cross the street and I almost missed the parade (crossing the road is not allowed at most points, especially in the hour or so before the parade starts). Stay put and go to the bathroom prior to finding your spot. Unfortunately, porta potties are limited – good luck finding one!
Go easy on the coffee, or better yet hold off until the parade ends. It’s so tempting to grab a Starbucks prior to the parade. However, as there are limited bathrooms and it is extremely hard to push your way back into your spot, I recommend avoiding any diuretics! If you do need a bathroom, you will have to buy something in a coffee shop or use one in Central Park prior to reserving your spot.
Bring with a few light snacks. Not much will be open this early in the morning besides Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Grab a quick croissant or muffin or pack a few small snacks. Granola bars, trail mix, and mini bags of pretzels are easy to stuff into a pocket or small bag.
Avoid any large backpacks. Space is limited so be careful to avoid bringing with too much unnecessary crap. I also left my nice purse at home and opted for a more practical sports tote which I didn’t mind storing on the ground next to my feet. Essentials to pack include a few snacks, an iPad/phone while waiting, a water bottle, sunglasses, and extra scarves, hat, gloves, possibly a small blanket.
Skip the chairs. You really cannot see much sitting down unless you are right in the front. Plus, the extra hassle of lugging them around is just not worth it.
Consider hanging around for a bit after the parade. Go ice skating, take a walk around Central Park, grab lunch, etc. Touristy attractions open include The Empire State Building, the Wollman & Rockefeller Rinks, and most Times Square businesses. Traffic getting out of the city is a nightmare. Unfortunately, even staying until 4, it took us over an hour to get out of the city! Also, consider taking public transportation to avoid unnecessary traffic jams, both into and out of the city.
Obviously, not many restaurants will be open on Thanksgiving. A few decent chains which are open include Bouchon Bakery, Hard Rock Cafe, Maggianos, and Buca Di Beppo. Additionally, here is a guide to local restaurants open for Thanksgiving.
A few highlights from the 2019 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade
The 49 foot tall Snoopy astronaut balloon was the tallest of 2019. The festive balloon commemorated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
More festive character balloons from the 2019 Parade!
The iconic star balloons!
Celeb appearances included 80’s icon Debbie Gibson, Lea Michele from Glee, Jimmy Fallon from the Tonight Show, and many others.
Diverse floats included everything from The Green Giant, to Ronald McDonald, to an imitation of the famous Mount Rushmore!
Fun festive Christmas themed floats included the Nutcracker Mouse King, Balsam Hill, and of course, Santa claus to end the parade on a high note!