Written by Staff Writer
Written by Staff Writer Lauren Lyster, CNN
On the bright and sunny Manhattan morning of August 30, 2019, thousands of people lined streets along Sixth Avenue between 34th and 45th streets to catch their favorite floats. The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has recently undergone a major makeover, and this year it has a new roster of balloons.
The gathering is a Thanksgiving tradition for millions of Americans, a chance to watch floats and elaborate performers pass through the streets of New York City. A release on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture defines Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. as November 22. The USPS’ website explains that the date is “the earliest day that turkey and other traditional holiday foods can be picked up at your local supermarket.”
After several competitive casting rounds, a team of artists who will fill Macy’s show balloons up to 2.25 pounds each are selected to go to work. The final balloons are assembled with some assistance from Macy’s human balloon handlers. Also included in the process are hot air balloons, which are made out of firecrackers and wax.
Founding member Alvin Wung (a 59-year-old China native) said the new Borussia (military vehicle) lineup “was created by Lorenzo DiCarlo, (a 14-year-old car enthusiast) in New York City.” Borussia/Shadow members traveled around the city before delivering the first balloon to Macy’s, where the group has held “balloon military exercises” and “required a small police escort.”
This classic “greenpeace-esque [metallic] design” includes a “headband to represent that we’re protecting the environment and all of the rivers,” he explained. Shadow (short for “talk” or “nonprofit,” German for “collective”) is headquartered in Queens. Two “parked” cardboard skyscrapers with the organization’s logo on their sides are at least 200 feet high.
As part of a three-part series, “Each day we can wear a different costume,” Wung said. “We invite people to dress up in theirs to walk or ride a float in the parade.”
Hans Wittenmeyer has been working as a balloon artist for two decades. Over that time, he’s had several requests to fill balloons with words. The Balloon Peeper (pronounced “Polly”) of “Fields of Gold” is as real as they come. “I had the honor of following my hand — it was just adorable,” he said. Peeper stands for “piloting the world,” a phrase that takes on a new meaning when you see the full-scale model of the Town of Gates in the United Kingdom. Peeper’s “lovely bracelet is cute, too, a ruby bracelet with a small pearl charm,” Wittenmeyer said. His team used digital mapping software to track the construction process. The Manhattan scene felt “all natural” to Wittenmeyer, who added, “I thought it was so clever; perhaps inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 ‘Born in the USA’ album.”
After a spate of mishaps, the parade float production has encountered obstacles. In 2017, a balloon known as Popeye broke its frame, forcing Macy’s to delay the event for two hours. After rigorous training, Jenny Wright — the top balloon handler, who worked on Popeye — won the premier role of guiding balloons in this year’s parade.
“That first year, with the explosion, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, I wish I knew this when I was 25 or 30 or 40 years old,’” she said. A balloon workshop was set up in a renovated firehouse at the parade site, using sample models and mockups to practice movable parts. The last in the lineup is Daniel the Dinosaur. “No, wait, I made a mistake,” Wright explained. “I actually only made one mistake in the whole process — The Sloth balloon.”
“So I was a little bit scared to start with,” Wright admitted, saying that the Sloth gaffe woke her to the need for “higher standards.” She used a water-based glue, instead of the normal dye solution, to attach wiring, and ensured the real Sloth required an injection cushion.