Burning Question: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

The SpongeBob SquarePants balloon takes a test flight
The SpongeBob SquarePants balloon takes a test flight

Q: The annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is right around the corner. What happens behind the scenes with the balloons?

A: It takes a team of dedicated engineers and artisans, not to mention squadrons of handlers, to operate the dozens of candy-like attractions that populate the parade every year. For this column, I corralled the folks at Macy's and threatened to squeeze the living helium out of them if they didn't spill their balloon secrets. I also reached out to Cartoon Network, whose "Adventure Time" characters Finn and Jake are getting a new balloon in the parade this year.

So here it is, everything you ever wanted to know about Macy's balloons in a handy, clip-n-save format.

Q: How many balloons are in the parade this year?

A: According to Macy's spokesman Orlando Veras, this year, there are 15 "giant character" balloons and 37 other various types of balloony wonders, such as smaller inflatables. "The other balloons are either generic characters we created, or the addition of some sort of balloon element to another part of the parade," Veras explains.

"Adventure Time" Finn and Jake balloon
"Adventure Time" Finn and Jake balloon

Q: How are new balloon characters selected?

A: In a severely fun manner. First the Macy's parade team does its research to determine what's hot right now in the balloon-enjoyment community. For example, they attend San Diego Comic-Con and see which superfans are standing in line to see what. That's how the two main characters of Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" — Finn and Jake — were selected for this year's balloon lineup.

"We'd been looking at 'Adventure Time' for a while, but when our team went to Comic-Con last year and saw the huge line of people waiting to get in, and so many of them dressed up like the characters, we knew it was time to have a new conversation," Veras tells me.

Other characters may hold timeless appeal, such as Spider-Man, or celebrate a specific event.

For example: This year, Macy's repurposed an older balloon to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the "Wizard of Oz" movie. The designers took a balloon shaped like a — see if you can follow — hot-air balloon and decorated it with images of the beloved L. Frank Baum characters.

"One of our master painters hand-painted it," Veras says.

[Photos: 27 Memorable Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons]

Q: How long does it take to design a balloon?

A: The design process alone takes months of collaboration between the license holders and the geniuses at the Macy's Parade Studio. (Yep, that's a real thing. It's based in Moonachie, New Jersey.)

For example, the Cartoon Network folks first suggested a balloon version of Finn raising his mighty sword, but "the dimensions of the sword, the length of it, the thickness — they told me that, logistically, it might not fly or it would be a wind hazard," says Scott Thomas, vice president of consumer marketing for Cartoon Network. So they came up with another cute idea instead. Whoa, mathematical!

Q: What about making the balloon?

A: About a year, Veras tells me.

"They start with a pencil sketch, then move into 3-D models," Veras says. That includes miniatures made from clay and eventually fiberglass. Models are submerged in water to calculate how a balloon would float in a parade environment, Veras informs me.

Model for Spider-Man balloon
Model for Spider-Man balloon

The schematics are scanned into a computer and then a machine much like a real sewing machine cuts the fabric for each piece of the balloon. "They're heat-sealed together," Veras says, "just like you're making a real garment."

Each completed balloon is actually a series of chambers, so the designers also need to determine "how many pieces of fabric is needed to, say, create the hand or the nose," Veras says.

After that, each balloon gets two test flights — one indoors, one outdoors.

"We take it around, see what happens when we move fast, or we run, without any wind conditions, and then do the same outdoors," Veras tells me.

Q: What happens to older balloon characters?

A: Some remain in storage; and some disappear into that great helium tank in the sky.

"Some of the older balloons are from, say, the 1960s," Veras says delicately, "so they're … not around."

Snoopy balloon in 1970, 2000, and 2010
Snoopy balloon in 1970, 2000, and 2010

Q: Do any characters ever get to come back?

A: Oh yes. Finn and Jake, for example, are part of a multiyear deal with Macy's that will definitely see their return in the 2104 parade, Thomas tells me.

And then there are the timeless characters that get a nose-to-tail makeover. Take Snoopy. This year will see the debut of the seventh balloon iteration of the Peanuts beagle. "It's a leap in design and technology across the board," lead designer John Piper recently told Wired magazine. The new Snoopy, which features Woodstock riding on his back, is 67-feet-long and includes 12 inflatable chambers, including one just for his new polyurethane-coated nylon nose.

Q: How much does it cost to create and maintain a balloon?

A: Neither Macy's nor Cartoon Network would tell me. "We see the parade as a gift to New York City and the nation," Veras says. "And when you give a gift you take the price tag off." (According to various sources, it takes upwards of $200,000 in construction and fees to get a rookie balloon into the parade and about $100K/year to keep it soaring.)

Q: Have any balloons ever misbehaved?

A: Big time. Past indiscretions include knocking over parade-goers and toppling lampposts. Bullwinkle suffered a nose leak in 1982. The most recent incident happened in 2011, when the Kool-Aid Man deflated and got a little tipsy, literally.

Volunteers struggle with the Bullwinkle balloon on Broadway after its nose was punctured above Central Park West
Volunteers struggle with the Bullwinkle balloon on Broadway after its nose was punctured above Central Park West

Q: What about balloon handlers? Can I be a balloon handler?

A: Each balloon requires a team of handlers to operate, plus a couple of heavy vehicles with military-grade tethers to keep the balloons from floating away. You, too, can volunteer to handle a balloon, Veras says … but only if you're a Macy's employee, or a friend or family.

Get a sneak peek of this year's floats:

 

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Leslie Gornstein is an entertainment writer and the host of the weekly Hollywood gossip podcast The Fame Fatale.