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US: 'Join in on the fun': What's it like to hold up a balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?

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Baby Yoda, Ada Twist Scientist, and me. What do the three of us have in common? This year  was our Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade debut. While Baby Yoda and Ada were towering four stories above Columbus Avenue, I was busy on the ground, making sure these giant balloons didn’t float away.

The author, left, prior to carrying the Diary of a Wimpy Kid balloon at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Right, the view from underneath one of the giant balloons. © Kate McCarthy The author, left, prior to carrying the Diary of a Wimpy Kid balloon at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Right, the view from underneath one of the giant balloons.

Since 1924 the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade has been a cultural icon, helping families kick off the holiday season. While giant balloons, celebrity cameos and Santa himself may be the main attractions, volunteers like myself are a major part in getting the festivities off the ground, quite literally.

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This year, over 20 giant balloons, with dozens of balloon handlers carrying each one, were seen by millions through the streets of New York City and televisions across the country. But for a position that pays nothing and is free to participate, it’s shockingly hard to join in on the fun. There is no volunteer sign up or parade lottery, and all parade volunteers need a sponsor to join. Like most of my fellow balloon handlers I spoke to, my “friend of a friend helped me out!” situation was extremely common. So yes, even when it comes to willingly carrying balloons down New York City streets in freezing weather, it’s all about who you know.

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The morning of the parade

Goku and Toni the Bandleader Bear lay on 72nd street, ready to take to the air, the morning of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. © Kate McCarthy Goku and Toni the Bandleader Bear lay on 72nd street, ready to take to the air, the morning of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

As a balloon handler on the Diary of  Wimpy Kid balloon, I walked through the city streets in full costume—coveralls, a giant bib with the balloon’s name on it, hat, and gloves – in awe that spectators were staking out spots in the streets by 6:30 a.m.

Though plenty of parade excitement airs on TV, so much of my joy that day was seeing the action behind the scenes. Upon arriving to my balloon prep location, about seven giant balloons were already inflated and lining the street, weighed down with sand bags and nets. After a morning of long portable toilet lines, directions from balloon captains and pilots (yes, those are a thing), it was time to find our spot alongside Greg Heffley, the Wimpy Kid himself.

Our pilot opened the front of the net to let us underneath the balloon, which unleashed a mayhem I can only describe as balloon Hunger Games. With people scrambling to grab handles to hold the balloons, which are properly called “bones." I was left in the dust, low-key stressing that this article would include everything about the parade minus what it felt like to hold one of these things.

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While the balloon pilots and captains instructed my fellow handlers on how to raise the balloon up and take the net off, I stood to the side with about fifteen other handlers, as approximately 65 others started raising Greg Heffley into the air.

Underneath the Diary of a Wimpy Kid giant balloon, the morning of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. © Kate McCarthy Underneath the Diary of a Wimpy Kid giant balloon, the morning of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The march to Herald Square begins

With three hours of anticipation under our belts, team Wimpy Kid took to the skies and turned down Central Park West to begin our march, only to immediately be entangled with a tree. Was I hoping for a crazy balloon story to happen? Maybe. Was I expecting the balloon to get caught in an altercation with foliage only 20 yards onto the route? Definitely not. Was the three minutes of drama that the detangling process took exhilarating for both the crowd and myself? Absolutely.

While the crowd shouted “It’s stuck in a tree!” and other balloon handlers rushed to detangle poor Greg, the rest of the parade kept rolling on full steam ahead. So once the crowd let out one of the wildest cheers I heard all day upon freedom, my team took off running, and I couldn’t have asked for a zanier way to begin one of the most surreal 90 minute of my life.

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Being a part of the Macy’s parade is experiencing all the same joy and endorphins you’d get while running a big city marathon, without the actual pain of running. The crowds were blocks of people deep. Looking ahead, to either side, even above you, all you could see were people. Little kids bundled up in all their winter gear, families hanging out windows, and couples cozied up on folding chairs all dotted the entire two and a half mile route.

What’s it like to hold a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon?

The shouts of “happy Thanksgiving” and chants of “wimpy kid, wimpy kid” gave me the kind of feeling that I can only imagine celebrities experience on red carpets. Being on the opposite side of a sea of iPhone cameras is something everyone should experience once i.

Before fame went completely to my head, I finally got my hands on a bone, where I could answer the question I’ve been dying to know ever since I watched this parade as a child, “What does holding one of those balloons feel like?”

Spoiler alert, these balloons aren’t like the ones from childhood birthday parties. Imagine holding a resistance band at it’s tautest, your biceps strain and your core is fully engaged, that is what it feels like to hold one of those giant balloons. Throw in a few gusts of wind, and you can see why it takes so many people to handle these absolute beasts. While children periodically chanted “Let it go! Let it go!” I couldn’t help but murmur to my fellow balloon handlers, “Damn, this is a pretty good workout”.

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When holding the balloon, your main focus is your balloon pilot. Sporting a white jumpsuit, bright orange gloves, and a green hat, the pilot is an integral part of every balloon. These are the people who tell you when to speed up and slow down. They also tell you when to give the balloon more slack, or you know, lower it because it’s stuck in a tree. Meanwhile, the balloon pilots are walking around the perimeter of the balloon, ensuring the handlers are in order, so the lines don’t get crossed. They give you directions on how to arrange yourself, and best of all, stop to remind you that you’re marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and you should be having fun!

After crossing through Midtown Manhattan you finally get to the iconic parade stop —Macy’s itself. This is where you see the parade on TV, where the performances happen and where your float is announced to the lucky crowd sitting on the bleachers in Herald Square. It’s where I saw the back of "Today Show" hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb’s heads. And it’s also where I unsuccessfully tried and failed to get on national television. By the time we got to Macy’s it felt like I’d been walking for only 15 minutes. The energy from the crowd made you feel as though you yourself had floated down to Macy’s, not just the balloon.

What happens to the giant balloons after the Macy's parade?

One of the parts I was most curious about was the deflation process. And yes, like all things Macy’s Day Parade, it was just as wild and funny and teamwork oriented as the march itself. After appearing on TV, the balloon is hustled down 34th street where your team slowly brings it down to the ground. While lowering a balloon down to the ground sounds easy, it’s not so simple when it’s as high as a five-story building.

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Slowly yet steadily wrapping the rope around the bones takes strength and precision, and a few people on each one to get it low enough, then the fun really begins. Each balloon has several zippered flaps where the helium enters, so those are torn open and the balloon slowly sinks to the ground. The handlers then stand around the drooping balloon and we fold it into one another and for the grand finale, lay on top.

The deflation process was filled with precise instruction from balloon pilots, giggles from handlers, and a quick search for an unopened flap that left our Wimpy Kid stubbornly slightly inflated on the ground. In the end, you come together as a team once more, with the final act of rolling up the balloon and putting it into a giant roller cart, only to be revived next holiday season.

If you had told me this time last year that laying on top of a slowly deflating balloon would be one of my highlights of 2021, I would have been wildly confused. However, if the past couple years have taught us anything, it’s that when a once in a lifetime opportunity presents itself, you better take the chance to join in on the fun, especially when it involves a crowd.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Join in on the fun': What's it like to hold up a balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?

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