Balloons Fly in Turkey Day Parade

Mickey Mouse was more like Mighty Mouse today as he floated high above New York streets during Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Mickey, back after an 18-year absence, was bigger than ever — now a 40-foot tall Mickey balloon, wearing a red and gold uniform and carrying a drum.

The fans came out early.

“If I don’t do this, I get yelled at,” said Michael Brady, 44. He was brought to the Manhattan parade from West Islip, on Long Island, by his eager offspring—Mikey.

Mikey, by the way, is 20 years old.

They stood at 50th and Broadway, which was lined about four-deep as the parade stepped off at 9 a.m.

When the parade kicked off, it was about 27 degrees, but the National Weather Service says the wind-chill factor made it feel like ten degrees.

The parade also featured Cassie of the PBS series Dragon Tales, the Internet butler Jeeves and Ronald McDonald. The fast-food clown, at 44 feet high, is billed as the largest of the newest balloons.

The balloons almost didn’t fly, though. An earlier forecast had parade officials concerned that winds would be too high to allow the giant hellium-filled characters in the parade.

But with the forecast calling for 15 mph winds today, city officials gave the balloons the green light.

City officials have been sticking to tougher guidelines set after a 1997 accident, which left a woman comatose for more than a month.

The standards say the balloons must be grounded if the wind speed exceeds 23 mph, or if gusts are higher than 34 mph.

Lessons of Past Parades

Officials began taking additional precautions after a series of dangerous events in the past. Most notably, in 1997, The Cat in the Hat balloon spun wildly out of control due to the 40-mph winds, knocking down a lamppost, leaving one woman comatose for nearly a month. She subsequently sued the city, the parade organizers and the manufacturer of the lamppost for more than $300 million.

In 1998, heavy winds and rains knocked The Wild Thing balloon into a lamppost. No people were injured, but the balloon had a 10-foot gash in its side and had to be removed from the parade.

“The function of engineers to protect life and property, but first and foremost is public safety,” said Henry Perahia, chief engineer, for the Department of Transportation of New York City.

Perahia said that Macy’s, in conjunction with the DOT has bolstered its balloon safety standards. Each balloon weighs between 150 and 700 pounds and the number of people managing each balloon has gone up from 40 people in 1997 to more than 60 people per balloon this year. The harder the wind blows, the harder it is for controllers to keep each balloon aloft and in control.

“We estimate that each of the handlers can manage about 40 pounds each,” he said. “Another major change we made is that there are two anchor vehicles that look like golf carts that will also assist the handlers.”

Although there are some first time operators, training has been made more rigorous than in years past, Perahia said. And guidelines require experienced pilots and balloon captains working on each of the 14 balloons. ABCNEWS.com’s Melanie Axelrod contributed to this report.

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