Balloonatics Prepare for Thanksgiving Parade

Talk about inflated egos: When it comes to consuming helium, Macy's is second only to the federal government, and it's all on account of Big Bird, Garfield and other balloon celebrities.

It will take 400,000 cubic feet of helium to blow up the 16 giant balloons and other attractions featured in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

The new cast of giant balloons features a 62-foot-tall SpongeBob SquarePants as well as an extra-large Chicken Little, who will require 50 wranglers to keep him from flying the coop.

The M&M characters have also been balloonified for the first time. The red and yellow corporate mascots have forgone their usual chocolate filling for 13,335 cubic feet of helium as part of a 50-foot attraction.

The 78th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade kicks off at 9 a.m. Thursday, marching 2½ miles down Manhattan, from West 77th street, through Columbus Circle and down Broadway to -- where else? -- Macy's flagship department store at Herald Square.

Marching bands from all over the country, floats celebrating everything from Barbie to the Weebles, not to mention stars such as Hilary Duff and American Idols Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, will be joining in on the fun.

But it's hard to eclipse the shear magnitude of the giant balloons. The beak alone on Big Bird is 13 feet long.

These balloons -- once rubber, now polyurethane -- have been a Thanksgiving tradition since the earliest years of the parade, but they remain a source of wonder.

If you're watching this event with a kid -- and that's the best way to watch any parade -- here's a handy timeline that just might help explain how America's most famous parade took off, what happens to old balloons when it's time to retire, and what keeps these airborne behemoths from spinning out of control.

1924: Lions and Tigers and Clowns, Oh My
In the first parade, horse-drawn floats carried real lions and tigers through Manhattan. Macy's employees marched through the streets dressed up as cowboys, clowns, Arab sheiks and knights in armor. On the last float -- where you can still find him -- rode Santa.

Back in 1924, Macy's never imagined that its holiday parade -- originally dubbed the Macy's Christmas Parade -- would be anything more than a holiday party for its staff. Crowds lined the streets, however, and that's when management saw its potential to kick off the holiday shopping season.

To avoid confusion, Macy's changed the parade's name. Santa remained the star, but the wild animals scared some kids. That's bad for business. What attraction could please everybody? How about giant, colorful balloons shaped like animals?

Thus, Felix the Cat -- and eventually Mickey Mouse and Garfield -- replaced critters from the Central Park Zoo to become America's ultimate party animals.

1927: Up, Up, and Away in an Exploding Balloon
The first parade balloons were filled with air and carried through the streets. Then, in 1927, helium came along, and it was an instant sensation, giving the world, among other things, the first 50-foot inflatable hummingbird.

At the parade's finale, someone had a really novel idea -- what if the giant balloons got to go free? Parade organizers decided to liberate 10 balloons into the skyways.

Unfortunately, helium expands with altitude. One by one, four of the balloons exploded -- even before they could pass the top of the Empire State Building. Among the casualties: a 21-foot toy soldier.

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