The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the long-lasting, globally-beloved occasion that heralds the start of the winter vacation season, will bear a few of the most drastic modifications in its 94-year historical past as a result of coronavirus pandemic this 12 months. Gone would be the sprawling crowds huddled alongside the two.5-mile route by New York Metropolis. Excessive-school marching bands won’t be pounding out heart-racing rhythms, and the balloons themselves won’t be floating overhead down the corridors of Midtown Manhattan to Herald Sq..
As an alternative, your entire occasion this 12 months might be a television-only affair. And somewhat than being cellular as previously, it should happen subsequent to Macy’s flagship retailer at 34th Avenue, incorporating social distancing security measures for a dramatically lowered variety of contributors. However as disheartening as that could be throughout a remarkably dangerous 12 months, 12 large helium character balloons (down from 16 final 12 months) and 35 floats will nonetheless be the centerpiece of the long-cherished November present.
The truth that the present is happening in any respect within the midst of a world pandemic, nevertheless, is notable. The one instances previously that the parade has not been held was from 1942 to 1944 throughout World Conflict II, when rubber and helium had been wanted for the battle effort. In 1963, only a week after President John. F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, the parade went on, making a buoyant spectacle for a nation in mourning.
Whereas this 12 months’s occasion (it’s onerous to name it a parade because it gained’t be transferring very a lot) guarantees to be some of the uncommon in Macy’s historical past, evolutionary change has truly been a relentless theme virtually each Thanksgiving because it started in 1924. Right here’s what’s modified—and stayed the identical.
The balloons: New supplies and 3D-printed fashions
When the parade first began, the balloons had been made out of rubber and had been truly stuffed with air. They had been primarily glorified cartoon inside tubes that had been held aloft by cranes. In the present day, the balloons are stuffed with helium and made of sunshine cloth that’s coated with polyurethane, a kind of polymer plastic that’s utilized in 1000’s of various functions, from sponges to varnish. Polyurethane is lighter, cheaper, extra versatile, and stronger than rubber.
“The whole lot with balloons is about limiting that weight,” says Rick Pomer, artistic director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “Any element we add all provides weight and throws off the entire equation.”
The balloons are manufactured by the Macy’s Parade Studio in a 72,000-square-foot warehouse in Moonachie, New Jersey. Macy’s balloon designers, often known as “balloonatics,” nonetheless initially design the balloons with a sketchpad, however the designs at the moment are put right into a Pc-Aided Design (CAD) program like these utilized by architects and engineers. The outcomes are despatched to a 3D printer that, layer by layer, builds a small-scale mannequin that helps the balloon designers higher perceive how the balloon might be assembled.
Most balloons as of late are made with separate chambers—the arms, the top, the physique—in order that the entire balloon won’t deflate ought to a gap seem in a single a part of the balloon. As soon as glad with the design within the scale mannequin, the CAD file is distributed to a different group who makes cloth patterns that might be sewn collectively into the ultimate balloon.
Final 12 months’s crowd-pleaser, the “Love Flies As much as the Sky” balloon, designed by famend Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, needed to have its tentacles moved in the course of the design course of to make sure higher stability in flight.
Macy’s says that somewhat than rent all-new employees skilled in laptop design, they’ve spent the previous couple of years coaching their present design crew in the usage of new high-tech instruments. The balloons’ dimensions range, however most are about 4 to 6 tales excessive and weigh about 200 kilos earlier than inflation.
In the previous couple of a long time, the balloons have turn into so cumbersome that they are often harmful. In 1997, excessive winds induced the Cat within the Hat balloon to hit a lamppost, a part of which broke off and landed on a bystander: Kathleen Caronna fell right into a coma that lasted for a month. Now, pole-mounted anemometers measuring wind velocity transmit reside wind measurements to licensed meteorologists who observe when the setting could also be unsafe. Whereas wind continues to be a priority this 12 months, as a result of the balloons’ motion might be considerably restricted to 100 ft or so, Macy’s officers don’t anticipate related points as in years previous.
Historically, the balloons are moved alongside by many human handlers, specifically skilled volunteers who’re schooled in aerodynamics and physics, and who, when pulling an enormous balloon alongside the route, resemble a band of Lilliputians who’ve simply captured Gulliver. This 12 months might be a lot completely different, with far few handlers. As an alternative of utilizing solely people, Macy’s has constructed 5 specialty autos with an revolutionary anchor tether framework that has been extensively field-tested and authorized by NYC officers.
“What was earlier than 80 to 100 human handlers with strains coming from the balloons will come down to 5 autos and simply 15 handlers per balloon,” says Pomer.
Macy’s ornate floats have additionally undergone related modifications through the years. Initially, artists would draw their designs on paper, and paper blueprints can be drawn up. In the present day, they’re inbuilt computer-based digital modeling packages that assist decide the structural integrity of the design.
“We’ve actually launched science to the method and brought it to the subsequent stage,” says Pomer. “It has truly opened up alternatives on the earth of design. We’re capable of take a look at issues and see them prematurely. The artwork continues to be there, it’s simply completed in another way.”
Helium rises to the problem
One factor that hasn’t modified is chemistry and physics. For raise, the balloons nonetheless use helium, the second lightest component within the universe. Helium use began in 1927 and has been a mainstay of the parade since, aside from the 12 months 1958, when a world helium scarcity stored the balloons nearer to earth.
If there’s any vivid facet to the pandemic, one may very well be that it stored us from experiencing one other helium scarcity this 12 months. In response to Phil Kornbluth, an skilled on the worldwide helium commerce, in January, simply earlier than the Covid disaster, international helium demand barely outpaced Source, inflicting a scarcity. However a number of months into the pandemic, fewer staff had been known as in to companies reminiscent of semiconductor manufacturing, the place helium is used extensively.
“When COVID hit, we rapidly went from a scarcity to a surplus,” says Kornbluth.
Helium can be a key element in MRI scanners as a result of its extremely low temperature (-452.2 Fahrenheit) cools down the machines’ superconducting magnets.
In any occasion, the usage of helium within the Macy’s parade is minuscule in comparison with international demand. The balloons fall below a class of use known as “lifting functions” which incorporates social gathering balloons, blimps, and climate balloons, amongst others, which collectively comprise lower than 10 p.c of world helium consumption, in line with Kornbluth. The everyday Macy’s parade balloon could use round 12,000 cubic ft of helium, whereas international consumption is on the order of 6 billion cubic ft per 12 months.