If you want to watch the giant balloons being inflated for Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, you’ll have to get up awfully early. Instead of a party the day before, it’s a middle-of-the-night affair.
This timing allows for a last-minute weather check before making the effort, organizers told Billy Penn.
The parade itself rolls through Philly for the 103rd time this year, kicking off around 9 a.m. Thursday with great fanfare: dozens of marching bands, themed floats, and volunteers carefully leading an assortment of helium-filled characters that float above the spectator-lined streets.
Now presented by 6ABC and sponsored by Dunkin’, Philadelphia’s parade is the oldest in the U.S., having been launched as a marketing device by Gimbels department store four years before Macy’s followed suit.
Of course, that Macy’s parade in New York City is the one that became famous. One of its annual rites is the tradition of gathering the day before to watch the balloons being inflated. From noon to 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Eve, crowds flood an Upper West Side corner of Central Park, and families and friends meet to walk through the inflatables as they’re pumped full of helium and slowly come to life.
In Philly, the same action takes place, but it’s not a public event.
“We don’t inflate the balloons until a few hours before the parade,” said John Morris, VP of content development at WPVI-TV, the 6ABC station. “We do not do it for the public like New York.”
This year’s set-up is happening on Market between 19th and 20th streets, he said — with inflation starting around 4 a.m.
Crews first line the street with huge sheets of plastic, according to a 2019 behind-the-scenes segment on 6ABC, then unfurl the polyurethane-coated fabric shapes that will eventually become balloon floats. The undersheets help protect the inflatables, and keep debris on the street from poking holes in them.
“We’ve done it this way for a while,” Morris said about the wee hours inflation stations. Waiting until just before the parade begins allows organizers “to ensure that the weather is cooperating and safe for the big balloons.”
High winds, rain, and even severe cold can pose serious difficulties. In 2019, the inflatables were all grounded after the National Weather Service issued an early morning prediction of gusts up to 48 mph.
The weather forecast this year is sunny and relatively warm, so if you want to catch the preview, head to Market Street at 4 a.m.
Or just tune into the real thing as the parade marches over the Schuylkill on JFK Boulevard, swings around to the Ben Franklin Parkway at Love Park, and finishes at the Art Museum.