Bowing to Covid, Macy’s Reimagines the Thanksgiving Parade

Among the many changes, specialty vehicles will be wrangling the famous balloons instead of volunteers

olaf from frozen balloon
There's no word on whether Disney's Olaf will be in the parade this year—but his human handlers will not. Getty Images

Covid-19 has already lowered the boom on scores of big-crowd events like SXSW, Comic-Con, Pride and the NCAA Tournament. Now, the virus has taken a swipe at still another: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

While the annual event will still take place this year, Macy’s has announced some severe restrictions on the traditional format. First to go is the actual parade: The usual 2½ mile route is out, to be replaced by a two-day staging of “parade elements” in front of Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square in Manhattan.

Also out: the 3.5 million spectators who usually turn up along the route. Macy’s announcement last night specified that the parade will be a TV and streaming-only event. NBC will carry the event on Nov. 26 from 9 a.m. to noon in all time zones.

As for the thousands who customarily volunteer to take part in the parade, the retailer has restricted the headcount to a quarter of normal and will require appropriate distancing and personal protective equipment for all participants. Macy’s has also asked high school and college marching bands to stay home, and plans to replace them with professional musicians recruited locally.

“While it will certainly look different in execution, this year’s Macy’s Parade celebration will once again serve its historical purpose,” the parade’s executive producer Susan Tercero said in a statement.

Tercero’s team partnered with the City of New York to develop the curtailments, and Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to put a good spin on it during a City Hall press conference on Tuesday.

“It will not be the same parade we’re used to. It will be a different kind of event,” de Blasio said. “They’re reinventing the event for this moment in history. And you will be able to feel the spirit and the joy of that day on television, online—not a live parade, but something that will really give us that warmth and that great feeling we have on Thanksgiving Day.”

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade turns 94 years old this year. And though the event has become a golden marketing opportunity for the retailer, in the beginning it actually had nothing to do with advertising—and little to do with Thanksgiving.

The first procession in 1924 was called, simply, the Christmas Parade. Macy’s staged it as a morale builder for its largely immigrant workforce, many of whom had come from European countries where holiday pageants were a tradition. The New York Times referred to the parade as a “retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats.” The animals were real, borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. As for the famous helium balloons, those did not appear until 1927, when Felix the Cat made his debut over Broadway.

Macy’s announced on Tuesday that its signature balloons will remain a part of this year’s program, but the 90-person crews required to control each of them will not be on hand. Instead, the balloons will be handled by what the retailer calls “an innovative, specially rigged anchor vehicle framework of five specialty vehicles tested and approved by the NYCDOT and NYPD.”

The last time the parade was interrupted this dramatically was during WWII, and the balloons were the reason. The government’s need for helium and rubber made it impossible to feature the airborne creatures, and so Macy’s called off the entire event.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.