Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: Handling Ronald
Thanksgiving morning was thrilling. Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV as a kid I never expected to see the parade in person. Then in 1999, Will and I spent our first Thanksgiving in New York, and, even tough he had to work, I went to the parade. I’ve been a few times over the years and even with living in the city, I never expected to be involved in the parade.
That changed this year since the Flying Goats received a prize for our Braking the Cycle fundraising efforts–handling a balloon in the parade!
I was on line at the New Yorker Hotel just as the sun was starting to come up on Thursday morning so I could get my costume. I don’t think I look very good in red and yellow, but the uniform look is very important.
Seeing all the behind-the-scenes goings on was very cool. While I was on line, other people, already costumed for various duties, streamed out of the hotel. On the bus I took the the Upper West Side starting point, I chatted with some people who were assigned to the NHL’s float. As excited as I was to work on a balloon, I admit I would’ve traded with anyone of them to be with that float that had two NHL Hall of Fame players on it.
Once up on 81st Street, it was incredible seeing the balloons fully inflated, and waiting under their nets. I remember one year trying to go to the annual balloon inflation but giving up because it was too crowded. Thanksgiving morning, there are no crowds on 81st Street, so I could see the balloons up close.
Even though I was at the balloon about 90 minutes before flight time, the time zipped by as I looked around at the other balloons, saw some of the floats lined up on Central Park West (I couldn’t get out on Central Park West for a close look because they needed the handlers to stick close by their balloons), and saw people in all sorts of costumes getting to their places.
The parade steps off from 77th Street at 9am. We started launching Ronald around 8:45. The handler crew, about 75 of us, which included the people manning lines along with additional people walking along side the balloon to wave to the crowd and who are available to take over lines if need be or perform other duties along the way. Plus there was a pilot, a co-pilot, three captains and crew on two vehicles that ran under the balloon.
To get Ronald airborne, we disconnected the sandbags from the handling bones (shown at left) that we’d each carry and then the netting was pulled off of the balloon. Then we worked in unison to release the lines so Ronald could get off the ground. We spent several minutes, while hearing the parade step off courtesy of the loud speakers that were setup near by), raising Ronald up bit by bit.
I handled a line that was attached to Roanld’s left inner thigh. My Flying Goats team mate John worked another line that attached to the same point. It turns out we had some of the lines that would take the most tension turning the flight. You find out on the instructional DVD that you should expect 6 to 25 pounds of pressure on the lines. That was no joke. We got a small taste of that while we were waiting to join the parade.
Ahead of us to join the parade were Julius the Monkey and Snoopy. Once we got to the the front of the line at 81st & Central Park West, I got to see Neil Diamond. He was on a float that was just a bit in front of us. He waved to our contingent as we waited. While his float was stopped for a moment, he took out a camera and shot the crowd to his left and our balloon contingent to his right. So I’m a small dot on some photos or videos that he has. If I couldn’t be near the NHL float, to see Neil Diamond (I am a fan after all) and wave at him was very cool.
Somewhere around 10am we turned on to Central Park West. At 77th Street, an announcer officially welcomed Ronald McDonald as we crossed that line. That was thrilling and I got goosebumps as we became part of the parade for real. Within just a couple blocks though something happened and Ronald’s right foot popped. The co-pilot checked it out while we were stopped for a moment (there is a lot of starting and stopping for various reasons) and we kept on going.
Getting down to Columbus Circle, about 20 blocks from the start, was pretty easy going. We did have to move into the crosswind each time we went across an intersection, but we all caught on how to do that pretty quickly. That involved headling right just before the intersection and then going back to the middle of the street afterwards.
Heading into the Circle though we lowered the balloon to help make the turn. It’s not exactly easy lowering the huge ballon, but we pulled it off everytime. Things got tricker once we turned onto 7th Avenue. The wind increased a bit (I don’t think it was ever over 10mph) and as we got into Times Square proper the pressure on the line increased. The worst spot for me was at 43rd Street. There was a lot of wind right there and it proved to be the most challenging spot to keep doing what I needed to do.
We turned left on 42nd Street and then right on 6th Avenue. We made a lot of adjustments going down 6th, with just 8 blocks to go until we turned on to 34th Street for the big TV moment, which happened just after 11. We kept bringing the front of the balloon up as we got closer to 34th Street. I found out the idea behind this was to allow the TV shots to include the deflated foot as little as possible since we had handlers literally carrying the foot on their shoulders to keep it from dragging on the ground. Sure enough, watching the parade back, I don’t think you’d know the foot was deflated unless you knew about that in advance.
You can’t see me in the TV shots. Unlike some of the ballons where you could see most, if not all of their handlers, I think they kept the cameras higher to help conceal the balloon’s damage. No matter. I know exactly where I was.
Next we turned uptown on 7th Avenue and started bringing Ronald back to the ground. We landed him on a tarp and then go to unzip him and let all the helium out. Once that was done, we flattened him out, rolled him up and put him into his crate.
The morning was an absolute blast! I hope to see the parade from this vantage point again sometime.
You can see more photos from the morning in the Flickr album.