As the coronavirus surged in New York City last year, the typical fanfare of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was downsized: The route shrank to one block, the number of participants was cut by several thousand people and the public was told to stay home.
It could hardly be called a parade at all. There wasn’t so much a procession as a series of struts down the runway for the television cameras. The broadcast was filmed over three days and edited to give the impression of a seamless three-hour program.
This year, with the city reporting that more than 80 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, the parade is expected to return with all its helium-filled pomp and corporate-branded holiday cheer — with an asterisk: children under 12 will not be allowed to participate in the parade itself. They will, however, be allowed as spectators along the two-and-a-half-mile parade route, as well as at the ceremonial inflation of the balloons on Wednesday afternoon around the American Museum of Natural History.
Their absence is slightly strange in an event whose stars include Pikachu, SpongeBob SquarePants and Papa Smurf. Typically, it would be children riding along on a float that looks like it is made of Legos, or accompanying the Green Giant’s float, dressed as flowers and pumpkins.
But this year, the 95th Macy’s parade is not quite typical. Macy’s announced in September that everyone participating in the parade must be vaccinated. It wasn’t until about three weeks before Thanksgiving that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formally endorsed Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for children age 5 to 11. Attending the parade as a spectator has no vaccination requirement, and children under 12 years old can view the balloon inflation on the Upper West Side if they go with a fully vaccinated adult.
In order to plan for costumes and other logistics, parade organizers needed to know early on who would be riding on the floats, said Will Coss, the event’s executive producer.
“We had to make some decisions well in advance of our parade day to ensure that the health and safety of all participants was delivered upon,” Coss said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to have that specific contingent of young children.”
In years past, that contingent usually consisted of less than 200 children, some as young as 7, who are connected to Macy’s employees and parade volunteers, Coss said.
Two years ago, some of those children waved from the back of a bejeweled hot-pink carriage pulled by a Tyrannosaurus rex or danced energetically on a Sour Patch Kids-branded float, while others stared shyly at the crowd as Ciara performed alongside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
This year, the young people waving from floats will be vaccinated tweens and teens — so viewers can perhaps expect less unadulterated joy and wide-eyed wonder — but the parade’s organizers maintain that the change is minor in a year when the live program and meticulously choreographed fanfare is back.
“That same youthful spirit is still very much a part of this year’s show,” said Wesley Whatley, the parade’s creative producer.
After last year, its ranks have been mostly restored.
About 6,500 people will be working on the parade, less than the normal 8,000, but far more than last year’s 960. The number of giant balloons is back up to 15 and the floats up to 28, roughly what it was two years ago, after a reduction last year. And 10 marching bands, many of which were restricted from traveling from their high schools and colleges located across the country last time, will fill the streets.
It has been a long wait for the musicians, who were told in spring 2019 that they would be performing in Manhattan.
“We jumped and screamed and hugged each other,” said Zoe Huntoon, a mellophonist from Frankfort, Ill., who was a sophomore at the time. “Then in 2020, it slowly hit us that it wasn’t going to be possible.”
But this week, Huntoon, who is now a senior, and about 200 bandmates will board charter buses for the long drive to New York City.
Although the majority of the procession and performances will be live, part of the show will be pretaped, as it is every year, Whatley said.
Thanksgiving morning, Broadway performers will be back on 34th Street to entertain an audience with songs from “Six,” “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Wicked.” Last year, these performances were filmed without cheering, bundled-up fans.
The televised parade, starting at 9 a.m. on NBC, Telemundo and Peacock, will feature the Rockettes, Carrie Underwood, Mickey Guyton, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Batiste and Nelly. (Unless they’re singing, performers must be masked.)
Ballet Hispánico’s School of Dance, the Young People’s Chorus of NYC and a group of competitive rope jumpers who will make the entire parade route their playground will be among the younger participants.
One contingent of parade volunteers is particularly giddy about the relaxed restrictions: the handlers who shepherd balloons like the 43-foot-long Snoopy down Sixth Avenue. Last year most of that work was done by a formation of utility vehicles.
One balloon volunteer, Teresa Kruszewski, got involved in the parade in 2008, after someone she met on jury duty helped her secure the role. Kruszewski, 60, after missing last year’s parade, is returning as a pilot of a new balloon, the title character of “Ada Twist, Scientist,” a Netflix children’s show. Kruszewski said that at first she worried that her year off had left her rusty, but when she went to the Citi Field parking lot to test the balloon, her muscle memory kicked in.
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” she said. “Once I get behind the balloon and I’ve got handlers around me and whistles are blowing, it comes back.”