It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No – in fact, it’s a 37-foot-tall inflatable Minion in the sky.
The mischievous Minion Stuart from the hit comedy, ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’, was one of five new balloons that took flight for Macy’s Balloonfest at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford on Saturday, in preparation for the 96th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
At Macy’s Balloonfest, the parade’s new giant figures are flight tested under the guidance of Macy’s experienced flight management team. Joined by a few hundred volunteer balloon handlers, the team navigates an outdoor test course to gain first-hand experience flying the new balloons before their Thanksgiving Day debut.
The excitement in the air was palpable on Saturday morning as dog handlers and their family members prepared for the start of the parade season.
“It’s like Christmas Day,” said Stephanie Senkevich, a River Edge resident who has been in the parade for about 25 years, starting when she was 5.
Senkevich, who said a family member first got her involved in the event, began waving to parade floats as a child. When she was a teenager, she served as a clown in the parade. And for the past 12 years, Senkevich has been on the ball team, helping with inflation.
Being up close and personal with the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloons never gets old, she said.
“It makes everyone a kid at heart,” Senkevich said.
New balloons featured on Saturday included Enlightenment’s banana-loving Stuart the Minion, the adorable puppy ‘Bluey’ by BBC Studios; “Diary of a Wimpy Child” by Abrams Books; and DINOS and Baby DINO by Sinclair Oil. The event also featured a new ‘balloonicle’, from Striker, the star of American football by FOX Sports.
“It’s a really fun event,” said Kathleen Wright, director of production operations. “But it also serves that operational purpose – we need to understand how these balloons will fly in different wind conditions on Thanksgiving morning, so we’re prepared.”
There are 16 large balloons and 40 smaller novelty balloons in the parade lineup, and all undergo extensive engineering so Macy’s production team can accurately gauge the weight needed under the balloon and the number of handlers that will have to control it, Wright said. .
The Macy’s team also performs computer analysis for different wind conditions, so they can anticipate how the balloons will move under varying conditions.
“Safety is our top priority,” Wright said.
Since the parade began to parade balloons in 1927, there have been a few incidents with the large, mostly minor, floating figures. For example, in 1956, a balloon depicting Mickey Mouse was deflated after catching a traffic sign. And in 1991, a Kermit The Frog balloon lost air after hitting trees. The most infamous parade accident happened in 1997, when high winds caused a Cat in the Hat balloon to crash into a lamppost, which then fell on a passerby’s head. The woman was seriously injured and remained in a coma for a month.
This risk is precisely why annual balloon test flights are taken so seriously.
Each giant balloon in the parade is occupied by about 90 balloon handlers, who are either Macy’s employees or friends and family members who have been invited to participate, Wright said. There are about 2,000 volunteers in total.
All handlers go through training to learn how to properly stabilize balloons and direct them accordingly, Wright said. A pilot, as they are called, stands in front of each group with a whistle and megaphone, ready to shout directions.
On Saturday, volunteers tasked with guiding the parade’s new giant balloons practiced maneuvering the massive figures through cones set up the average width of a New York street. It was a clear morning with a modest breeze. A fine day for a test flight, the dog handlers noted.
“You got it, you got it!” exclaimed a handler, as his team successfully navigated a turn with the 52-foot-tall “Bluey” ball.
Macy’s has held a Thanksgiving Parade every year since 1924, except during World War II; 1942, 1943 and 1944. In 2020 there was a parade but without spectators, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year marked the Thanksgiving Parade’s triumphant return and marked a major return to normalcy, organizers said.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be here. We’ve worked really hard to get to this day,” said executive producer Will Coss, in his second year producing Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
This year’s parade will feature more than 5,000 total volunteers, 16 giant character balloons, 40 novelty balloons, 12 marching bands, 10 performance groups and a line-up of artists.
“So we have a full parade that we’re very excited to present at Thanksgiving,” Coss said.
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jackie roman can be attached to [email protected].