Very few things can get millions of Americans to tune in to the same television channel at the same time anymore. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is still one of those things. In my household, it’s always playing in the background on Thanksgiving morning but the marching bands, lip-synching, and Broadway dancing just aren’t something we have an interest in watching. The larger than life balloons, however, are a favorite and still draw everyone’s attention at my house.
Since 1924, the Thanksgiving Day Parade (originally the Macy’s Christmas Parade) has entertained hundreds of millions. Originally the parade featured employees in costumes and animals from the Central Park Zoo, including tigers and elephants. In 1927, the game changed when Felix the Cat became the first iconic giant balloon.
More often than not the balloons glide down the streets of New York City in front of the crowds filling the sidewalks and the millions watching at home. Sometimes, though, there have been several times where things just didn’t go as planned.
For the first few years when the parade ended, Macy’s would release the balloons into the atmosphere. The balloons would include a postcard with the information about where to return the deflated balloon for a cash prize. This practice of releasing the balloons ended when in 1932 the Tom Cat balloon nearly took out a small airplane. A young woman was taking flying lessons over Jamaica, Queens (now the site of JFK Airport) when the 60 foot tall Tom Cat floated into view. The young pilot began flying closer for a better look when the plane’s left-wing accidentally hit the balloon. The plane began a downward spiral but the flight instructor recovered after the balloon luckily slid off the wing.
In 1957, the Popeye balloon dumped ice water on the spectators in the crowd when a design flaw in Popeye’s sailor hat collected rainwater the night before the parade. As temperatures dropped during Thanksgiving morning the water began to freeze into a slushy ice mixture. As Popeye turned the first corner on the parade route his hat tipped over and dumped what was later measured to be 50 gallons of icy water on the unsuspecting crowd.
In 1964, Popeye again met with some controversy as the parade employees forgot to reseal a rip in the balloon from the previous year and was forced to sit out the parade this year. Could you imagine this happening in today’s structured and regimented corporate world?
In 1971, for the first time in the event’s history, wind gusts exceeded 40 miles per hour and the parade was canceled. Instead, NBC aired footage of the 1970 parade instead.
In 1990, during the meteoric rise in popularity of “The Simpsons,” Macy’s created a Bart Simpson balloon to march through New York for the first time. In another case of I can’t imagine this would happen in 2019, failure to make repairs properly the night prior to the parade caused the balloon to deflate just hours before the event. Parade officials completed the repairs just in the nick of time and Bart was only slightly late starting the parade.
In 2000, Rocky the Flying Squirrel was accidentally deflated right before the parade began leaving Bullwinkle to fly all alone.
Those were some interesting mishaps but how about some real disasters?
In 1985, Kermit the frog caught a light post and began to deflate before the live crowd. The following year in 1986, Raggedy-Ann caught another lamppost and was split in half. The post came down into the crowd but thankfully no one was hurt. The same year, Superman’s arm was ripped off by a tree branch.
In 1993, Sonic the Hedgehog caught hold of yet another lamppost that broke off and injured an off-duty police officer. In 1994, yet another lamp post brought down Barney the big purple dinosaur. Barney got so out of control that parade officials used knives to slice him open to allow the air to escape before dragging him sadly off the parade route on live TV.
In 2005, The M&Ms balloon hospitalized two sisters in the crowd when the balloon knocked debris off of a nearby building. The two suffered broken teeth and other head injuries. The M&M’s balloon was retired after that parade and was replaced by a float saluting Broadway musicals. The injured sisters got a lifetime supply of M&Ms that I bet they wish they still had their original teeth for.
Going back a few years, though, 1997 was the year that changed the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade forever. Almost every balloon in the parade sustained damage or caused damage or injury along the parade route. Often snarkily referred to on the internet as “The Cat in the Hat Carnage of 1997,” the Cat in the Hat balloon collided with a lampost and caused several injuries when the winds were an unusually high 35 mph.
As the Cat in the Hat was in its own deflating death throes, Barney the Dinosaur once again looked to be headed for disaster. Parade officials quickly stabbed holes into Barney to deflate him before any real damage could occur.
The Arthur balloon was torn by a tree branch at the parade’s opening and slowly deflated but limped to the finish line. Garfield’s tail was damaged overnight and he completed the parade route with a deflated rear paw and tail. The very large Pink Panther balloon was lowered to just a few feet off the ground to help stabilize him from the high winds. Even still, Pink Panther ended up collapsing at 42nd Street and was eventually ripped open by parade officials and New York Police Officers to keep him from injuring the crowd. The damage caused to the Pink Panther permanently destroyed the balloon.
The Nestle Quik Bunny delayed his start due to the high winds and went out of control on 36th Street. Once again a lamppost caused issues when the Quik Bunny’s right ear was ripped off, destroying the balloon. Somehow the Bunny continued the parade but was so heavily damaged that NBC had to use archival footage instead of the live feed.
The Cat in the Hat then hit the same lamppost that the Peter Rabbit balloon hit twice at the Central Park West and 72nd Street intersection. When the Cat in the Hat hit this same post it knocked the pole into the crowd injuring 4 people. The balloon itself had “The Hat” part ripped off by the lamppost and continued on without it before being pulled from the parade before reaching the finish line.
The worst hurt was a woman named Kathleen Caronna who was placed into a month-long medically-induced coma for brain trauma. She later sued New York and Macy’s for $395 million and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount in 2001. In a twist of real-life version of “Final Destination,” this same woman’s apartment was hit by a small plane years later. Former New York Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle was flying in low visibility and high wind conditions in his private plane when he veered off course from the East River and collided with her apartment balcony.
This horrible event caused numerous rule changes in 1998 to prevent further incidents from occurring. Giant character balloons would be now be attached to two heavy floats and were no longer allowed to exceed 78 feet long and 70 feet high. The new size restrictions meant that the largest and most popular of balloons were no longer allowed to participate. Woody Woodpecker, Betty Boop, Pink Panther, Bugs Bunny, Bart Simpson, Rex the Dinosaur, Olive Oyl, and the Cat in the Hat were now deemed unsafe and barred from making further appearances.
In 2006, after the M&M’s incident, wind measurement devices were installed on the balloons to alert parade organizers to unsafe wind speeds and weather conditions. A new wind speed limit of 34 mph was also enacted.
High winds and rain can cause chaos and destruction on the streets of New York even on the happiest of holidays. Much like the audience who loves a big car wreck in NASCAR, many people enjoy the mishaps of the parade balloons. While it may be fun to watch the balloons struggle in higher winds and deflate, we can all be thankful that only once did a serious injury occurred.