The Man Behind the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Mary-Rose Abraham and Dan Kloeffler


Imagine a job in which an everyday task would be to wrestle a flying Hello Kitty the size of a small house. Or a workday which includes stretching hundreds of feet of bungee cords across a giant guitar. 

When the floats and enormous balloons make their way down New York City’s streets on Thursday morning for the 86th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, few in the audience will know that a team of hundreds of people have spent the better part of the year on their design and construction.  

Those artists and craftspeople have been hard at work at the Macy’s Studio, housed in a nondescript New Jersey warehouse about 30 minutes outside of New York City. Six new floats make their debut this year, ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to what’s being billed as the world’s largest guitar.  

“What’s going to be great this year? The easiest way to explain that is to reach right into the heart of the kids and say what are you looking for? What’s the kid in you want to see?” said John Piper, the creative director of the studio.  

Piper has been working on the parade for 30 years. For a kid who loved cartoons and anything that flew, it’s the perfect blend of fantasy and reality.  

Piper oversees a carefully orchestrated build up to Thanksgiving Day.  

Two weeks ago, the giant balloons had a test run in the parking lot of New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, as hundreds of volunteers mimicked the turns of the actual parade route. On Tuesday night, each of the 29 floats will be dismantled, and will make their way through the Lincoln Tunnel into the city. Then, 120 additional workers will use four cranes to reassemble them in about 7 hours.  

The Parade brings its own set of challenges. Tightening supplies and sharply rising prices have led to a worldwide helium shortage. But Piper says Macy’s has been at the forefront of helium reclamation.  

“We were on top of that many years ago, working with our helium provider,” he said. “We were one of the first groups to look into helium reclamation. The unfortunate news is that the technology is just not there yet to do a whole balloon.”  

As the balloons and floats have been crafted over the last year, this final month brought a huge challenge as workers had to deal with the effects of Superstorm Sandy.  

“Even for people without power, a hard time getting to work, they came together here with their second family,” Piper said. “Everybody was thinking about it together.”  

Thanksgiving Day is going to be a busy one for Piper and his workers. In fact, they won’t be sitting down for a traditional meal that day, but will have to wait until Friday to celebrate. And they’ve already started working on ideas for next year’s parade.  

“Thanksgiving is this one truly unique American holiday,” Piper said. “We’re getting ready now for the holiday season. And we like to think we put the first smile on everybody’s face.”