A hippo hovered over the ocean. A cartoon character caught fire after drifting through a high-voltage wire. And a 60-foot cat crashed a plane and its two passengers.
These are just a few of the fates encountered by the giant balloons that have slipped through Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City over the years.
After an event cut short and without an audience in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of spectators are expected to take to the streets of Manhattan on Thursday to watch this year’s parade, and millions more will see it on NBC. There will be floats, bands and clowns. But the huge balloons remain one of the biggest draws.
Here’s a closer look at the milestones and incidents involving the helium-filled figures soaring overhead and the sights of a nearly century-old holiday tradition.
Macy used to release the balloons after the parade was over.
Macy’s first parade, in 1924, was very different from today’s celebration. Animals from the Central Park Zoo, including elephants and tigers, joined the procession. The giant balloons for which the parade is now known only appeared a few years later.
In the late 1920s, Macy’s began to drop balloons into the sky after the festivities, with a monetary reward offered for their return.
The New York Times reported on the various places where the balloons landed. In 1928, a balloon called Sky Tiger descended in a district of Long Island where “a standoff ensued for his possession.” Another balloon was found broken in half and floating in the East River, “chased by two tugs”.
In 1931, the balloons featured a 287-foot-long dragon that was held by 29 men. Macy’s dropped it along with about 16,000 other balloons, many of them much smaller. Some carried postcards that could be brought to Macy’s for a price.
However, a blue hippo balloon escaped the New York area and is said to have “hovered somewhere over the ocean”.
“Descriptions of the cruise beast have been released,” the Times reported, and “the reward for its return has quadrupled.”
Calls poured in from people claiming to have found the hippo, but they were just looking for the reward money.
Felix the Cat, Macy’s first character balloon, was killed after it floated in a high-voltage wire and caught fire.
Disasters in the sky were narrowly averted.
Despite these difficulties, the balloons were released again in 1932. One of them struck a plane, sending it plunging 5,000 feet. A 22-year-old woman was flying the plane over Jamaica, Queens with her instructor when a 60-foot Tom Cat appeared “like a sea serpent out of his native element,” the Times reported .
“She sent the ship rushing at the spectacle-eyed creature,” the article said. “The left wing of the plane struck the fabric of the balloon which was Tom’s skin.”
The plane collapsed and the woman nearly fell, but disaster was averted when the instructor took control and pieces of the balloon “went off the wing.”
Macy’s said he would not award prizes to aviators who attempted to shoot down the balloons with their propeller blades. The company also decided that the tradition of releasing balloons had to end.
Mickey Mouse was in high demand.
Mickey Mouse made his parade debut in 1934, attracting interest from other countries who, as the Times put it, “have helium and a desire to run grotesque parades.”
The Big Bad Wolf ball was also a draw, and Macy’s planned to send them both to the highest bidders.
The parade took a break during WWII.
In 1942, Macy’s President Jack Straus announced that the parade would be canceled due to the war. He deflated a green dragon balloon and gave the rubber to the military, Macy’s told its website; the company ultimately donated 650 pounds of balloon rubber. In 1945, at the end of the war, the parade returned. Three years later, the parade was televised for the first time nationally, on NBC, Macy’s said.
A shortage of helium led to improvisation.
“Yes, there is a Popeye,” The Times reported in its 1958 headline after a helium shortage sparked rumors the balloons would not appear in the parade.
The 56-foot-tall Popeye balloon had made its debut a year earlier, with its hat periodically filling up with rain during this covered vacation.
After “lots of calls” with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company before the 1958 parade, Macy’s found a way to fill three of their traditional giant balloons with clean air and prop them up with cranes.
The balloons were nailed to the ground, thanks to the wind.
In 1971, for the first time in the parade’s history, gusts of wind of up to 40 miles per hour and heavy downpours brought each balloon to a standstill, the Times reported.
NBC instead aired balloon clips from the 1970 parade.
A Cat in the Hat balloon almost killed someone.
The parade has had its fair share of accidents over the years, such as the time an M&M balloon struck a light pole and injured two people in 2005.
But one of the most shocking accidents happened when a Cat in the Hat balloon struck a light pole and seriously injured a woman in 1997. She was in a coma for 24 days and eventually suffered a agreement with the department store, the city and a municipal contractor in 2001.
Snoopy has always been loved.
Snoopy is just as popular today as he was in 1968, when he made his debut.
He has appeared in over 40 parades – more than any other character – as an aviator, astronaut, skater and more.
When Snoopy was absent from the parade in 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to bring him back. He returned in 2017 aboard his own float and will reappear this year as well.
Here’s how to visualize the balloons in advance.
Can’t wait for the parade? You can join tens of thousands of vaccinated and masked spectators to watch the balloons inflate on Wednesday, November 24, for a preview.
The event starts at noon and ends at 6 p.m. and requires proof of vaccination to attend. Umbrellas, backpacks, large bags, alcoholic beverages, drones or electronic cigarettes will not be allowed.