street1It’s next to impossible to explain the experience of participating in one of the most famous parades on the planet, especially when it is the culmination of a bucket list experience crossed with a childhood fantasy.

Before leaving for New York, I watched the Wizard of Oz and Miracle on 34th Street like a prize fighter preparing for a championship match, but nothing could compare with the moment I found myself standing on the corner of 81st and Central Park West watching Cirque Du Soleil performers practice their routine on a gorgeous pirate ship while beautiful girls dressed in dark purple coats swirled on motorized umbrellas in the street to pass the time, and grown men with scruffy beards dressed as fairies waited with people dressed as Vikings, firemen, Keystone Cops and clowns for the parade to start.

waiting

The morning began early outside the New Yorker Hotel.  We got up at 3:45 and drove into the city from my friend, Kim Hendrickson’s house in Pearl River.  It was an easy forty five minute drive, and we were in line by 5:30 Thursday morning.  Long lines of balloon handlers and character volunteers waited on either side of the hotel to be admitted to the costume staging area on the fourth floor of the hotel. This year they divided the balloon handlers into groups according to which street your balloon was on, and when it would enter the parade line. Since we were the fifteenth balloon we waited until almost seven o’clock to get into our overalls and head for the buses that would take us to the Natural History Museum, where the giant balloons are located.

buses

Part of the fun of the parade are all the behind the scenes moments we get to experience as part of this remarkable adventure.  Adults dressed as seahorses or bacon and eggs mingle with people dressed as cue balls, members of a marching band, clowns, elves and characters from books, like the ones from “The Wind in the Willows”  burst from the side doors of the hotel into the early morning light, while someone yells “All the boxes, this way” from the crosswalk where girls dressed as wrapped presents wait to be ferried to the parade line.

seahorse

street

the gang

michaelandfairy

Once we arrived at the flight line, an entirely different scene unfolds.  The last time we did the parade, very few floats were lined up on Central Park West, but instead, were waiting on side streets to feed into the parade at designated intervals.  The crowd of spectators started at 81st and Central Park West, and acts would feed onto the street in a staggered formation; a band would start down the street, then a float would  come in behind them, and a giant balloon behind the float, like an assembly line.  This year, the floats commanded Central Park West from 81st to uptown,  all the bands lined one side of the sidewalk in the order they would feed into the parade at the starting line, and all the character acts (like the clowns) lined the opposite side of the street, so standing on the corner of 81st and Central Park West, I could see the visual chaos of the event in all its glorious color and motion, and because I was part of the parade, I had the freedom to wander among the floats and balloons while barricades restrained the crowds of people who gathered to witness the spectacle for themselves.

cirque kimandmewizThe balloons are kept under nets until an hour before the parade starts.  We all crawled under the nets to find a “dog bone” which is wrapped with rope and attaches to the balloon to make it possible to maneuver and control it.  I made a mad dash for the front of the balloon, only to find all the dog bones had been claimed.  The parade consistently overbooks volunteers to ensure there are enough handlers and character acts, since people drop out for all sorts of reasons.  The weather was so questionable up until the very last minute that one newspaper reported that the giant balloons had been grounded.  We received an email from parade officials a few hours later ensuring us that the decision to ground or not would come the morning of the parade, and implored us to all show up, so there were plenty of additional balloon handlers to help manage the basket the wizard was in thanks to occasional wind gusts.  Kim and I wound up in the front row of the balloon, and traded the dog bone back and forth along the parade route, which allowed me to actually LOOK at the parade this time.

There is absolutely nothing like stepping out onto the street the first time, and seeing crowds of people, sometimes twenty deep, on either side of the street, and then, looking up and seeing people in office buildings, apartments and hotels, gathered at the window, or on the balcony or roof, watching the parade, while hundreds of police officers and what seems like an equal number of people wearing press badges stick giant cameras in your face, while people yell “Happy Thanksgiving” enthusiastically from the sidelines.  Up ahead I could see the high school band that Macy’s outfitted with munchkin costumes playing their hearts out along the parade route, and in front of them, a float carrying the Goo Goo Dolls.  Because our balloon was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz, we were accompanied by a woman dressed as Dorothy (she looked more like Little Red Riding Hood for most of the parade, since she was wearing a red cape to keep warm) and four characters with giant balloon heads who were led down the street by young women dressed as characters from the Emerald City.  The Cowardly Lion’s head slowly started to deflate, and the Witch got so far behind us that she was loaded onto a golf cart and whisked away.  The Tin Man gave up the ghost at one point and had to be driven to the “Parade Quiet Zone” where each balloon or float waits until they are called before the cameras for their 30 seconds of glory.  The Cowardly Lion’s balloon head was filled with helium again just before it was our turn to be on camera, and out of nowhere, someone got Dorothy’s cape and gave her a dog who looked like Toto.  We passed the cameras on cue, only to discover that Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthry were sitting with their backs to us so the cameras could show us passing behind them.

withthewizardWhat most people don’t know is that the parade ends the minute we pass the cameras.  Macy’s officials and police officers wait at the end of the street to direct us to our respective finish lines, so bands go down one street, floats go down several others, and all the giant balloons all march to a giant red net laid out on the road where we help deflate them and put them in a storage bin.theend

The trouble is, the helium release vents on the Wizard of Oz balloon are on TOP of the balloon, instead of being strategically placed on the underside of the balloon the way Spiderman and Pokeman are.

deflatingspidermanThe balloon handlers for How to Train Your Dragon, Spiderman, Pokemon AND the Macy’s Star, all had their balloons deflated before we figured out we needed to roll our balloon down to reach the vents.  Once the balloons are completely deflated, they are rolled up, and placed in a large laundry style cart.  The floats are dismantled and loaded onto flatbed trucks, and back at the hotel, costumes like the ones worn by the Tin Man and the Wicked Witch have been loaded into large carts, sealed, labeled and stacked into moving vans.

withmichaelI can’t imagine ever getting tired of being part of the parade.  It’s such an amazing experience that I hope I will still be doing it when I am 90.  And I suspect I will feel like a six year old every time I do….