While this isn't Santa's North Pole workshop, it might be the closest thing in the world to it. The Macy's Parade Studio, where a group of workers build the floats, balloons, and costumes that are on display during the Thanksgiving Day Parade, devotes itself to the holiday season 365 days a year.
A majority of the team's workload is spent on the famed parade, which happens in New York City every year on Thanksgiving morning. Started in 1924 by Macy's store employees, many of whom were immigrants, the parade was meant to be something for their friends and family members to enjoy in their new home. That was more than 90 years ago, and the tradition is still alive and well.
We took a tour of the studio at the height of their Thanksgiving parade prep. John Piper, VP of the Macy's Parade Studio, showed us how one incredible team puts all of the magic together.
Each parade float starts out as an idea, a sketch on a piece of paper.
Models are then made scaled to size; you can see them sitting on the table here. Hanging above are balloon models from past parades.
The studio has a library of books, mostly for children, that the artists use as a reference to help turn two-dimensional characters into real-life, 3D figures.
Once a rendering is ready to come to life, the sketch is moved out onto the warehouse floor. Here, Piper shows a sketch of the massive turkey and goose float that is almost complete.
Various materials are used to create the floats, including styrofoam, aluminum, and sintra — a moldable, yet durable, material. Hot wire is used to melt right through many materials, like styrofoam.
The construction time of each float varies greatly, but Piper told us it can take between four and nine months from the moment pencil hits the page to the time a float is complete.
By the first week of September the longer work hours have begun, and the team hits the ground running to make sure the floats are ready in time for the parade.
That means working weekends. "We start early," Piper said. "We have a flexible schedule for our folks. On Friday and Saturday they do 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, it's 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m."
Piper loves telling kids when they visit the warehouse that the painter's studio has "every color in the rainbow plus two." Led by head painter Beth Lucas, all floats and balloons are painted by hand.
"She's an incredibly fast worker," Piper said of Lucas' work. "See the back of that turkey? She painted that in a day." This year marks Lucas' 30th parade.
When it comes to building each float and getting them ready on parade day, it's a team effort. Piper likes to tell his team, "You guys are like the post office — neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow — except, we do it one better, we deliver on Thanksgiving."
With a full-time team of 26, backgrounds differ greatly. "We have painters, sculptors, carpenters, construction workers, metal workers, and more," Piper said.
One of the trickiest parts of the job is designing the floats so that they can be packed up to fit through the Lincoln Tunnel and into Manhattan the night before the parade. Once it's folded into itself, each float is only 8.5 feet wide. Here's what a float looks like when it's all packed up. “Every single float gets set up between midnight and 8 a.m., and the parade steps off at 9 a.m.," Piper said.
Projects from past parades decorate the warehouse, which the team moved into four years ago. This frame was originally built for Macy's "Mother Goose Land" back in 1990.
Next up was the balloon warehouse, which was built just large enough to house a large scale, fully blown-up parade balloon. Macy's has experimented with different materials over time. Originally, a cotton fabric was used, then neoprene, which is closer to the material used in a rubber tire's inner tube.
By Halloween, all balloons are prepped, quality control-tested, and neatly packed away along this wall. Some of them have been ready since last December. "As soon as a parade is over, it’s like, 'OK, let's get these ready for the next parade, because we’re on a clock here!" Piper joked.
Balloons are made of a special, nonporous balloon fabric, and different portions of the design are constructed as separate chambers. "If Wimpy Kid balloon stubs his toe and gets a tear, we don’t want the whole balloon to deflate. So for him, both feet are independent chambers," Piper explained.
Workers inflate each chamber for six hours to test its resilience. All tests are marked and redone if the balloons don't pass the first time.
The balloons are hand-painted while fully inflated so that the paint won't crack. On parade day, the balloons are filled with helium, making them lighter for the performer who holds them.
"I always love it when people ask, ‘How do you get those giant balloons over to New York?' That’s the easy part! You take the helium out of them, and you roll them up," Piper said. These balloons are models from parades past.
When it comes to the more than 4,000 devoted Macy's employees who come from all over the Northeast to volunteer in the parade, it's the job of Kimberly Montgomery's team to make sure they're properly costumed and fitted.
All in the window of two hours on parade day morning, she and her team of 200 fitters dress 2,000 balloon handlers, 400 kids, 300 float escorts, and 900 clowns. This year, the team has about 700 new costumes, which is about average. Montgomery designs all the costumes in-house.
Each volunteer is assigned a costume ahead of time. "This entire rack is alphabetized by last name," Montgomery explained. "On parade day, it's about smooth operations."
The costumes stored at the warehouse are worth more than $2 million in total. Rain and snow are the costume department's worst enemies — if the clothes aren't washed and dried in time, they can quickly mildew. After the parade, they have "mounds and mounds of laundry," Montgomery said.
While most costumes are washer and dryer friendly, the very special Mr. and Mrs. Clause outfits are not. "These outfits are custom-made and worth thousands of dollars," Montgomery said. The boiled wool coats are kept in their own custom-made cedar closet for safe keeping against moths.
While balloon handlers are outfitted in jumpsuits, those riding the floats also get custom-made costumes. Here's a wig for the Lindt puppet costume.
Piper described the energy on Thanksgiving morning: "It's the closest to magic time as you can get. The sun starts coming up over Central Park, marching bands start showing up, you hear the drums and tuning, clowns are goofing around, and the nets are coming off the balloons, and the people are cheering."