The balloons were introduced in 1928, replacing live zoo animals, Sarg's large animal-shaped balloons, were produced by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio from the 1920s through 1980. That year there was no procedure to deflate the balloons and they were simply released. In 1928 five of the larger balloons were designed and filled with helium to rise above 2,000 feet (610 meters) and slowly deflate for whomever was lucky enough to capture the contestants in Macy's "balloon race[s]" and return them for a reward of $100 (equivalent to more than $1,500 with inflation as of 2020), this lasted until 1932.
The balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade have had several varieties. The oldest is the novelty balloon class, consisting of smaller balloons ranging widely in size and handled by between one and thirty people (the smallest balloons are shaped like human heads and fit on the heads of the handlers). The larger and more popular class is the character balloons, primarily consisting of licensed pop-culture characters; each of these (16 in 2019) is handled by exactly 90 people. From 2005 to 2012, a third balloon class, the "Blue Sky Gallery", transformed the works of contemporary artists into full-size balloons; after a five-year hiatus, the Blue Sky Gallery returned in 2018.
A falloon, a portmanteau of "float" and "balloon", is a float-based balloon. They were introduced in 1977.
A balloonicle, a portmanteau of "balloon" and "vehicle", is a self-powered balloon vehicle. They were introduced in 2004.
In addition to the well-known balloons and floats, the Parade also features live music and other performances. College and high school marching bands from across the country participate in the parade, and the television broadcasts feature performances by established and up-and-coming singers and bands. The Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall are a classic performance as well (having performed annually since 1957 as the last pre-parade act to perform and their performance was followed by a commercial break), as are cheerleaders and dancers chosen by the National Cheerleaders Association from various high schools across the country. The parade always concludes with the arrival of Santa Claus to ring in the Christmas and holiday season (with the exception of the 1932 parade, when Santa led the parade).
On the NBC telecast from in front of the flagship Macy's store on Broadway and 34th Street, the marching bands perform live music. Most "live" performances by musicals and individual artists lip sync to the studio, soundtrack or cast recordings of their songs, due to the technical difficulties of attempting to sing into a wireless microphone while in a moving vehicle (performers typically perform on the floats themselves); the NBC-flagged microphones used by performers on floats are almost always non-functioning props. Although rare, recent parade broadcasts have featured at least one live performance with no use of recorded vocals.
Every year, cast members from a number of Broadway shows (usually shows that debuted that year) perform either in the parade, or immediately preceding the parade in front of Macy's and before The Rockettes' performance (since NBC broadcasts the parade's start, the performances are shown during the wait for the parade itself). The 2007 parade was notable as it took place during a strike by the I.A.T.S.E. (a stagehands' union), and as such, Legally Blonde, the one performing musical affected by the strike, performed in show logo shirts, with makeshift props and no sets. The other three shows that year performed in theaters that were not affected by the strike.
For the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in 2011, the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade invited family members from Tuesday's Children, a family service organization that has made a long-term commitment to those directly impacted by the attacks and terrorism around the world, to cut the ribbon at the start of the parade with NBC's Al Roker and led the parade with Amy Kule, the Parade's executive producer.
More than 44 million people typically watch the parade on television on an annual basis. It was first televised locally in New York City in 1939 as an experimental broadcast on NBC's W2XBS (forerunner of today's WNBC). No television stations broadcast the parade in 1940 or 1941, but when the parade returned in 1945 after the wartime suspension, local broadcasts resumed. The parade began its network television appearances on CBS in 1948, the year that major, regular television network programming began. NBC has been the official broadcaster of the event since 1953, though CBS (which has a studio in Times Square) also carries unauthorized coverage under the title The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS. Since the parade takes place in public, the parade committee can endorse an official broadcaster, but they cannot award exclusive rights as other events (such as sporting events, which take place inside restricted-access stadiums) have the authority to do. The rerouting of the parade that was implemented for the 2012 event (see below) moved the parade out of the view of CBS's cameras and thus made it significantly more difficult for the network to cover the parade (though the route now passes along the west side of the network's Black Rock headquarters building along Sixth Avenue, and the hosts are stationed on a temporary tower platform at the Sixth/W. 53rd St. corner of the building); CBS nevertheless continues to cover the parade to the same extent as in previous years.
Since 2003, the parade has been broadcast simultaneously in Spanish on the sister network of NBCUniversal (Telemundo) hosted by María Celeste Arrarás from 2003 to 2006. The parade won nine Emmy Awards for outstanding achievements in special event coverage since 1979. Since 2020, the parade also provided audio description via a second audio program channel.
At first, the telecasts were only an hour long. In 1961, the telecast expanded to two hours, and was then reduced to 90 minutes in 1962, before reverting to a two-hour telecast in 1965; all three hours of the parade were televised by 1969. The event began to be broadcast in color in 1960. NBC airs the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade live in the Eastern Time Zone as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as they use feeds from that time zone (which due to time differences starts at 10 a.m. AST), but tape delays the telecast elsewhere in the continental U.S. and territories from the Central Time Zone westward to allow the program to air in the same 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. timeslot across its owned-and-operated and affiliated stations (except for Guam which airs it the day after Thanksgiving at 9 AM local time due to Guam being a day ahead with the rest of the United States); since the morning program's expansion to three hours in 2000 and eventually to four hours, NBC's Today only airs for two hours Thanksgiving morning as a result, pre-empting the latter two talk-focused hours of the show for the day. NBC began airing a same-day afternoon rebroadcast of the parade in 2009 (replacing the annual broadcast of Miracle on 34th Street, which NBC had lost the broadcast television rights to that year). CBS's unauthorized coverage airs live in most time zones, allowing viewers to see the parade as many as two hours before the official NBC coverage airs in their area; CBS still broadcasts the parade on delay on the West Coast, immediately after the Detroit Lions Thanksgiving game in even-numbered years when CBS carries it, or at 9 a.m. local time in odd-numbered years when they carry the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game.
From 1963 to 1972, NBC's coverage was hosted by Lorne Greene (who was then appearing on NBC's Bonanza) and Betty White. David Hartman and Karen Grassle hosted the parade in 1974, With Ed McMahon serving as a man on the street host, He would become a main host in 1977, until 1981. Since 1982, NBC has appointed at least one of the hosts of Today to emcee the television broadcast, starting with Bryant Gumbel, who hosted the parade until 1984. From 1987 to 1997, NBC's coverage was hosted by longtime Today weather anchor Willard Scott. During that period, their co-hosts included Mary Hart, Sandy Duncan, and Today colleagues Deborah Norville and Katie Couric. In recent years, NBC's coverage has been hosted by Today anchors Matt Lauer (from 1998 to 2017), Meredith Vieira (from 2006 to 2010), Ann Curry (2011), Savannah Guthrie (since 2012) and Hoda Kotb (since 2018) as well as Today weather anchor Al Roker who usually joins the producers of the parade and special guests in the ribbon cutting ceremony.
From the early 1980s until circa 1994, the television broadcast was produced and directed by Dick Schneider; since circa 1994, it has been executive produced by Brad Lachman (who has otherwise been known for producing reality television series), produced by Bill Bracken and directed by veteran sitcom director Gary Halvorson. Announcements during the telecast were first provided by Bill McCord, followed by Bill Wendell, then followed by Lynda Lopez, the telecast's only female announcer, Then followed by Don Pardo; from circa 2000 to 2010, announcer duties were helmed by Joel Godard (who also served as the announcer for Late Night with Conan O'Brien for much of that period), and then were assumed by Today announcer Les Marshak with the 2011 telecast. The musical director for the television coverage is veteran composer/arranger Milton DeLugg.
CBS's coverage was originally part of the "All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade," a broadcast that included footage from multiple parades across North America, including parades at Detroit, Philadelphia and Disneyland (the latter was later replaced by Opryland USA in 1997 and after that Miami Beach), and taped footage of the Toronto Santa Claus Parade (taped usually the second or third weekend of November) and the Aloha Floral Parade in Honolulu (which usually took place in September). Beginning in 2004, however, CBS has focused exclusively on the Macy's parade, but avoids using the Macy's name due to the lack of an official license. To compensate for the fact that the Broadway and music performances can only appear on NBC, CBS adds their own pre-recorded performances (also including Broadway shows, although different from the ones that are part of the official parade and recorded off-site) to fill out the special. With lack of live parade for 2020, CBS aired The CBS Thanksgiving Day Celebration—which was hosted by Kevin Frazier and Keltie Knight of Entertainment Tonight, and featured highlights and new performances.
For the 1997 parade, MTV guest reporters, Beavis and Butt-head, with host Kurt Loder, provided their usual style of commentary on aspects of the parade, and of their take on Thanksgiving in general. The special, titled Beavis and Butt-head Do Thanksgiving, included a balloon of Beavis and Butt-head spectating from their couch. The balloon was not participating in the parade, but stationed on top of a building alongside the parade route.
Radio coverage is provided by Entercom's WINS (1010 AM) in New York City. It is one of the few times throughout the year in which that station breaks away from its all-news radio format.
From 2016 to 2019, Verizon produced a 360-degree virtual reality live telecast of the parade, with minimal commentary, made available through YouTube. The 2019 edition, produced in cooperation with NBC, had more extensive production, adding hosts Terry Crews, Lilly Singh and Ross Matthews, also adding "virtual balloons" generated through viewers' votes. Verizon's simulcast of the 2020 event ran in a traditional flat, single-perspective format, and was the very first to be broadcast internationally, not just in the United States, thru Verizon's and Macy's YouTube and Twitter handles.
The first ever live international broadcast of the parade was in 2020, when Philippine cable TV channel TAP TV became the first international broadcaster outside the United States to air the parade's live telecast.
The Parade has always taken place in Manhattan. The parade originally started from 145th Street in Harlem and ended at Macy's flagship in Herald Square (at the intersection of Broadway, Sixth Avenue, and 34th Street), making a 6-mile (9.7 km) route.
In the 1930s, the balloons were inflated around 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The parade proceeded south on Amsterdam Avenue to 106th Street and turned east. At Columbus Avenue, the balloons had to be lowered to go under the Ninth Avenue El. Past the El tracks, the parade proceeded east on 106th Street to Central Park West and turned south to terminate at Macy's flagship.
A new route was established for the 2009 parade. From 77th Street and Central Park West, the route went south along Central Park to Columbus Circle, then east along Central Park South. The parade would then make a right turn at 7th Avenue and go south to Times Square. At 42nd Street, the parade turned left and went east, then at 6th Avenue turned right again at Bryant Park. Heading south on 6th Avenue, the parade turned right at 34th Street (at Herald Square) and proceeded west to the terminating point at 7th Avenue where the floats are taken down. The 2009 route change eliminated Broadway completely, where the parade has traveled down for decades. The City of New York said that the new route would provide more space for the parade, and more viewing space for spectators. Another reason for implementing the route change is the city's subsequent transformation of Broadway into a pedestrian-only zone at Times Square.
Another new route was introduced with the 2012 parade. This change is similar to the 2009 route, but eliminated Times Square altogether, instead going east from Columbus Circle along Central Park South, then south on Sixth Avenue to Herald Square.
Balloon teams race through Columbus Circle due to higher winds in this flat area, making it an unsuitable observation location. New York City officials preview the parade route and try to eliminate as many potential obstacles as possible, including rotating overhead traffic signals out of the way. Viewing is restricted from 38th Street through the end of the parade route, as this area is used for the NBC telecast.
On November 25, 1993, strong gusts of wind pushed the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon into a lamppost at Columbus Circle. The lamppost damaged the balloon and the top of the post broke off while inside the balloon, dragging it down, injuring a child and an off-duty police officer in the process.
In 1997, very high winds pushed the Cat in the Hat balloon into a lamppost. The falling debris struck a parade-goer, fracturing her skull and leaving her in a coma for a month. Balloon size regulations were implemented the next year, eliminating larger balloons such as the Cat in the Hat.
In 2005, the M&M's balloon collided with a streetlight in Times Square; parts of the light fell on two sisters, who suffered minor injuries. As a result, new safety rules were introduced. The M&M's balloon was retired.
Other American cities also have parades held on Thanksgiving, none of which are run by Macy's. The nation's oldest Thanksgiving parade (the Gimbels parade, which has had many sponsors over the years, and is now known as the 6abc Dunkin' Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade) was first held in Philadelphia in 1920. Other cities with parades on the holiday include the McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade in Chicago, Illinois and parades in Plymouth, Massachusetts; Seattle, Washington; Houston, Texas; Detroit, Michigan; and Fountain Hills, Arizona. There is also a second Thanksgiving balloon parade within the New York metropolitan area, the UBS balloon parade in Stamford, Connecticut, located 30 miles (48 km) away; that parade is held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, so as not to compete with the parade in New York City. It usually does not duplicate any balloon characters. The Celebrate the Season Parade, held the last Saturday in November in Pittsburgh, was sponsored by Macy's from 2006 to 2013 after Macy's bought the Kaufmann's store chain that had sponsored that parade prior to 2006.
Since 2002, Macy's Studios has partnered with the Universal Orlando Resort (owned by NBC parent NBCUniversal) to bring balloons and floats from New York City to the theme park in Florida every holiday season in an event known as the Macy's Holiday Parade. The parade is performed daily and includes the iconic Santa Claus float. Performers from the Orlando area are cast as various clowns, and the park used to invite guests to be "balloon handlers" for the parade. In 2017, the Macy's Holiday Parade was renamed to Universal's Holiday Parade Featuring Macy's.