Suzanne Lippe, living the dream as a float handler (Photo: Ross McGraw)
As the air gets cool and crisp and the leaves start to fall, the sense of winter starts to settle in. But, for many it’s not until Thanksgiving that it really feels like the holiday season. For Suzanne Lippe, aka my mom, it was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that incited that magical feeling as a child and continued throughout her life. “I would watch the big balloons and people in costumes walk the route in New York and I always imagined what it would be like to be a part of it,” says Suzanne. “It has always been on my bucket list to be a balloon handler.”
This year that dream will come true.
Nov. 27 will mark the 88th year of the annual parade, where my mom will be one of the balloon handlers for Ronald McDonald. “I’m beyond excited,” she says. “I can’t stop talking about it. And I got a classic balloon to hold.”
Suzanne Lippe, dwarfed by a float (Photo: Ross McGraw)
Over the years the parade has transformed, starting as the “Macy’s Christmas Parade” in 1924, in which a small group of Macy’s employees dressed in costumes and marched from 145th Street and Convent Avenue to the company’s store on 34 Street.
Three years later, live animals were swapped for giant helium balloons, which have become the highlight of the parade, attracting more than 3.5 million people to the streets of Manhattan, as well 50 million TV viewers nationwide. “It’s the most recognized balloon parade in the world,” said a parade organizer during balloon training on Oct. 12. “This is an eighty eight-year tradition and is always lot of fun.”
Shrek, floating by Rockefeller Center (Photo: joiseyshowaa/Flickr)
Originally, the giant balloons would be let loose at the end of the event and would float in the sky for days. Due to safety concerns, that practice was discontinued. Now, balloon handlers have to go through training to make sure they can manage these giant props.
“I went to training at the Columbia University campus, where we learned the ins and outs of how to hold these larger-than-life balloons,” says Suzanne. “It was actually more difficult than I imagined, with the tugging and pulling of the wind, but it was more fun than I could have ever dreamed.”
Balloon handlers at the 2013 parade (Photo: Charles Lhasa/Flickr)
The day of Thanksgiving could pose many problems — rain, cold, and, worst of all, wind. In 2005, a gust blew a balloon into a light post, injuring two people. That’s why you are required to be 18 years old, weigh at least 125 pounds, and be in good physical condition.
Kermit, coming to life (Photo: Charley Lhasa/Flickr)
Making sure these giant characters safely navigate the often-narrow streets of Manhattan takes a very well-oiled machine. Each balloon has a captain that blows a whistle for how many times the handlers need to roll up or down the rope in his or her hands. That captain gets orders from a pilot at the head of the balloon, who gets directions from another pilot who walks backward, about a block ahead of the group. If weather conditions should change — the biggest concern being wind — that person will alert the others to a change in the height of the balloon or speed at which they are walking.
And he is airborne! (Photo: sal/Flickr)
But, landing this coveted role is even harder than handling the actual balloon. To become an official handler you must either be a Macy’s employee or be sponsored by one. Many of these people return each year, making it difficult for newbies to get in. “I couldn’t believe my luck getting into the parade this year just days before my birthday,” says Suzanne. “The whole process has been amazing. I’ve gotten to handle the balloons a couple of times during practices, but nothing will be like waking up at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to live out this dream.”
A sneak peek at a new float: Thomas the Train (Photo: Ross McGraw)
This year will not only mark Suzanne’s debut in the parade, but six new giant balloons will make their first appearance, as well. Look for Paddington, Skylanders Eruptor, Pikachu, Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Pillsbury Doughboy, and Thomas the Tank Engine to join the roster of characters.
WATCH: The History of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade