When most people are fussing over Thanksgiving dinner, Kathy Kramer is pulling on a white jumpsuit and reporting for duty. The 57-year-old New Yorker is a longtime balloon handler in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the iconic tradition that attracts 50 million TV viewers.
Every Thanksgiving morning for the past 35 years since joining Macy’s as a college graduate, Kramer has worked the parade — as a float escort, balloon captain, golf cart driver, and, finally, balloon pilot. She has held onto the latter title for 20 years, in addition to serving as the director of lease services and administration at Macy’s.
It’s not easy to be selected for the prestigious parade (You can watch it live in a special 360° broadcast by Verizon, Yahoo Lifestyle’s parent company), though all are volunteers, some of whom travel from all over the country. They either already work at Macy’s or are employee referrals vetted through an online application process and enrolled in yearly parade training.
“I’ve marched alongside the band Menudo, driven a golf cart with Phyllis Diller dressed as Mother Goose, and have flown Garfield and Kermit the Frog,” Kramer tells Yahoo Lifestyle of the famous balloons that have sailed down the 2.5-mile Manhattan route from West 77th and Central Park West down to the flagship store in Herald Square.
Handlers are under pressure, and not just because an estimated 3.5 million spectators bundle up to watch the parade in person and another 50 million tune in to the NBC broadcast. “One week before, my stomach starts twisting up,” Kramer, who will operate Astronaut Snoopy this year, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s a big responsibility.”
Kramer arrives at the Javits Center on 11th Avenue at 5am to pick up and change into her costume, she says. At 7:30am, after a short bus ride to the parade’s starting point, the balloons are lifted into the air and the procession begins at 9am.
Although the helium balloons are anchored to a golf cart, the handlers — anywhere from 70 to 90 assigned to each balloon — grip the lines’ plastic handles, called “bones.”
Kramer must stay 100 percent focused on flying safely and with the correct orientation — some balloons like Superman are designed to soar horizontally; others like Ronald McDonald lunge forward in motion. Therefor, Kramer walks the entire parade route backwards although her co-pilot charges ahead to alert the team of manhole covers or street debris.
“I have fallen down once or twice but you just pick yourself back up,” says Kramer.
Kramer flies her balloon dead center in the street and monitors the wind using a handheld meter, instructing her team to raise or lower the balloon according to authorized flying heights. “Depending on the wind, we might fly the the balloon anywhere from 15 to 45 feet,” she says. “We all carry cheat sheets with height guidelines.
Balloon handlers have cachet both on and off the route. “A lot of people say, ‘Wow, I have always wanted to do that!’” says Kramer. “People just want to know about it.”
Becoming a balloon handler was a bucket-list item for California writer David Jerome and, in 2012, after 18 months of writing emails to Macy’s associates, he won the Thanksgiving lottery.
Jerome was assigned the Elf on a Shelf balloon, the third from last balloon in the procession. “I wore an elf costume, which made going to the bathroom tricky,” the 53-year-old tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Handlers are asked to use the restroom before the parade begins and, in the event of an emergency, they can exit the route — however, they can’t return.
Due to an abundance of handlers assigned to each balloon, says Jerome, there were not enough strings to go around. “The more experienced people immediately grabbed a rope but we all took turns,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. When he wasn’t holding the balloon, Jerome smiled and wave at the crowd while chanting “Elf Elf!”
Doug Donaldson of Beacon, N.Y. wanted to become a balloon handler because “it seemed like a very ‘NYC’ experience,” the 54-year-old tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
In 2016, Donaldson was referred to the program by a friend who worked at Macy’s and matched with a brand-new balloon: Charlie Brown holding a red kite, a scene from the musical You're a Good Man Charlie Brown (and a twist on the previous design, which included a football).
Wearing a blue jumpsuit and a yellow vest with the character’s name and zig-zag design, Donaldson held a rope attached to Brown’s elbow. That year, since Brown’s balloon set sail toward the beginning of the parade, Donaldson experienced hearing the crowd’s first gasps of excitement.
“There was a continuous sea of people, the most diverse crowd, and everyone yelled, ‘Hey Charlie Brown!’ he said. “It was really uplifting to see everyone so happy.”
The best part came after the parade. Handlers head to Seventh Avenue and 39th Street where tarps are laid out for the balloons to get deflated, rolled up, and packed up into three-by four-foot carts. After opening zippers to release the helium, handlers take a long-awaited rest. “Everyone lays down on the balloons to flatten them out,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Because the parade finishes at noon, there is no reason to miss out Thanksgiving dinner. Especially since handlers are exhausted, keyed up with adrenaline and famished. Says Donaldson, “After the parade, my teammate and I went to a diner and ordered eight entrees.”
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