Most people know the Kilgore Rangerettes are fan favorites at the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving, but did you know there’s a ton of fun to be had going behind the parade scenes the day prior? While the parade ends out front of Macy’s flagship store in midtown’s Herald Square, it starts several miles uptown, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
That means, come rain, snow or shine, on the day prior to Thanksgiving, West 77th and West 81st streets, on either side of the American Museum of Natural History are the staging areas for the signature balloons that float (or “fly,” to use the correct term) high above the parade.
Throughout the day, teams of Macy employees work to inflate the giant balloons, which are trucked in (completely deflated) alongside massive gas cylinders that help transform beloved characters like Snoopy, Woodstock and Spiderman from unrecognizable to magnificent. And you can get a front row, close-up look at the entire show — all you do is show up. No reservation, no pricey ticket and no badge needed.
Here are some tips to see New York at Thanksgiving right.
1. The earlier in the day you arrive, the fewer people there are blocking your view. However, the earlier you go, the less recognizable the balloons — which might be a problem if you’re there with the kids. Whatever you do, don’t wait until late afternoon or early evening. By then, the streets are packed with families. Kids, strollers and dogs all combine to ruin any chance of you getting a cool selfie with the Pillsbury Doughboy.
2. For the full experience, I recommend checking in two or three times, starting around midday. Every balloon has its own sign, with a photo and mini bio of the character (size, how many people it takes to wrangle it, when it first flew). That means, even if inflation hasn’t started, you can tell what you’re looking at.
3. After the mid-day visit, take a break for a couple of hours before going back to check on progress. Balloons are inflated throughout the afternoon, so photo opportunities will be abundant.
4. What to do between balloon visits? You’re right outside of the American Museum of Natural History and its Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, which have tons of exhibits and activities to occupy the whole family (Think giant dinosaurs and spectacular star shows). You’re also right by the New York Historical Society (better suited for older kids and adults) and across the street from my favorite spot in Manhattan: Central Park.
5. Had your fill of balloons? There are several cute restaurants on Columbus Avenue (the street behind the American Museum of Natural History) and you’re a short cab ride or 10 minute walk from another of my NYC favorites: Sarabeth’s restaurant, which is a great place to stop in for an early dinner or just a warming hot chocolate or bowl of homemade soup.
6. On Thanksgiving: go early to see the floats being staged, along with all the marching bands and teams of balloon wranglers—all dressed in costume. You’ll avoid the crowds but beware street closures. Getting around on foot is best, and early means early — 7 or 8am. It would definitely be wise to head out early to allow room for error. And when in doubt, find a native or an official to ask for help.
7. Want to snag a Thanksgiving Day front row seat in the bleachers to watch the parade itself? There’s those two words again: go early! I’ve even been headed out for an early walk in Central Park and seen locals headed to the bleachers on Central Park West at 6 a.m. As horribly early as that sounds, it is fascinating to see the regulars with their kids bundled up in strollers, step ladders (to see over the crowds), blankets and flasks of coffee. Or, you can go home and watch on TV!
By Julie Tereshchuk
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