Every year, after Santa's 60 foot-long sleigh float rolls up in front of Macy's Herald Square store on Thanksgiving morning, 50 million television viewers turn off their sets and say "Well, that's it for this year's parade."
Though NBC's broadcast of this NYC tradition ends promptly at 12 p.m. ET, Macy's employees will then spend much of Thanksgiving afternoon deflating the 16 balloons and dissembling those 27 floats which traveled that 2.65 mile-long parade. Once everything's packed up small enough to fit through the Lincoln Tunnel, all of these assets are then trucked back to Macy's Parade Studio in Moonachie, NJ. Where most will then tucked away inside of this nearly 72,000-square-foot structure for a long winter's nap until the 100 or designers, carpenters, painters, animators, metal fabricators and electricians who actually build & maintain Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade then begin working on the 2015 edition.
Now please notice that I said "most." Because a select group of balloons, floats and costumes aren't immediately put into storage. These assets actually hit the road on Black Friday. They travel in a two truck convoy all the way down to Central Florida so that they can then be featured in Macy's Holiday Parade. Which begins marching through the streets of Universal Studios Florida later today as part of the Universal Orlando Resort's month-long "Oh What Fun It Is" holiday program.
"We've actually been doing this since 2000," John Piper, Vice President of Macy's Parade Studios, said. "The first year that we sent our balloons via truck down to Universal Studios, there was this surprise snowstorm up in North Carolina which then closed all of the highways. So my crew and I were all down here without a parade. We missed one day of prep. We had to put in a little extra overtime in order to get that year's edition of the Macy's Holiday Parade up & running. But ever since then, it's all gone off without a hitch."
Mind you, Macy's Parade Studios doesn't send its biggest balloons down to Orlando. Taking into consideration that the streets at Universal Studios Florida are far narrower than New York's super-wide city streets (More to the point, given that the designers of this particular theme park used tricks-of-the-trade like forced perspective to make their recreations of Hollywood Boulevard and Central Park seem a lot bigger than they actually are), they opted to only bring down the parade's mid-sized balloons.
"Now when I say 'mid-sized,' please keep in mind that we never do anything small at Macy's. So even our mid-sized balloons are upwards of 30 feet tall," Piper continued. "More to the point, the balloons that we bring down to Universal Studios Florida each year are the ones that have historic significance when it comes to Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. So we're talking about classic characters like the Toy Soldier, Chloe the Holiday Clown and our iconic Elf balloon which dates back to the early, early days of the parade. These are the kinds of major pieces that we send down to Universal Orlando."
Which isn't to say that the balloons featured in Macy's Holiday Parade at Universal Studios Florida are on the old side. In fact, as part of this year's edition of the parade, a brand-new balloonicle version of Chloe The Holiday Clown will be making her USF debut.
But what exactly is a balloonicle?
"It's the combination of a balloon and a vehicle. I always like to tell people that we call these things balloonicles because vehicloons just sounds weird," Piper laughed. "Now when it came to designing Chloe The Holiday Clown, since we knew that we wanted to bring this balloonicle down to Universal with us, we actually took into consideration some of the dimensions that we would have to deal with backstage at the theme park. So Chloe's height was specifically designed so that she could then fit in the structure at Universal Studios where she is stored overnight from parade to parade."
Speaking of which: Rather than doing what they do with the giant balloons that are marched through New York City (i.e., these balloons are inflated the day before Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and then deflated right after they float past the cameras in front of the Herald Square store), the mid-sized balloons are kept inflated for the entire time that they're down in Florida.
"Each day, all of the balloons receive a top off of helium for any that was lost through diffusion or change of temperature overnight. So they're topped off right before they go into Universal's parade. Which is just what we do in New York on Thanksgiving morning just before each balloon is then marched into the line-up for that year's parade," Piper enthused.
Now you'd think -- given that John and his Macy's Parade Studio team actually spent their entire year getting the next edition of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade ready -- that to then have to decamp for the Universal Orlando Resort and stage a theme park-sized version of this NYC tradition every day for a month might be something of a hardship. Especially given all the time that Piper & Co. have to spend away from their families during the holiday season. But John actually feel that he owes this to all the people who've been watching Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television for all these years.
"For a lot of folks who live in Florida or the southern part of the country, it's just not realistic to expect that they're eventually going to be able to get up to New York City and see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in person. I mean, it's only presented one day a year and -- given how changeable the weather can be in November -- it's a tough time to travel," Piper explained. "But by bringing these balloons down at Universal Studios Florida and then presenting Macy's Holiday Parade in that theme park -- this year for 29 days in a row -- I feel like we're then able to help a lot of people take something off their bucket list. Or should I say their holiday wish list?"
"And the best part is -- given the New York backlot structure that Universal had built at this theme park, which looks just like Fifth Avenue & Sixth Avenue, not mention Herald Square with a Macy's store where they've painstakingly recreated our memorial entrance -- when those balloons go marching by ... Man, those medium-sized balloons in this setting look just like the parade does up in New York does with its giant balloons. It's this wonderful mixture of movie magic and Macy's magic all at the same time," John concluded. "So for folks who can't quite make it to New York or haven't gotten to that point on their bucket list yet, Orlando's a great place to go this time of year. You can have a lot of fun and see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade live and in person for all the holidays.
Universal Orlando Resort's month-long "Oh What Fun It Is" holiday program -- which includes a daily presentation of Macy's Holiday Parade at the Resort's Universal Studio Florida theme park -- runs December 6, 2014 through January 3, 2015.