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Ever wonder what it takes to create the massive helium balloons of the Thanksgiving Day Parade? It’s a full-time, year-round job—check it out.

All year for one day

For over four decades, the helium balloons of the Thanksgiving Day Parade were made in a Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken, New Jersey. Recently, Macy’s moved the entire operation to a 72,000 square foot design studio in a warehouse in Moonachie, New Jersey.

This is where a full-time team of 28 people spend the entire year designing, planning, and building the floats and helium balloons for the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Paper and clay

Every single helium balloon character in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade® starts out as a sketch on a sheet of paper. That drawing then becomes the guide for a small, to-scale 3-D model, which is molded from a pile of clay.

The sculptor begins with an armature—a framework made of bent and welded metal that serves as a skeleton for the molded clay creation that is formed over top of it.

The finished clay sculpture is used to make a mold, which will cast two miniature, plastic replicas of what will be the final helium balloon design.

The first of the replica models is carefully detailed and exquisitely painted to show exactly what the finished balloon has to look like.

The second replica model is painted flat white. On this white canvas, all of the technical details are drawn on. This includes dimensions, where the seams need to go, where the handling lines will be attached, and where the helium inflation and deflation ports need to go.

Model to balloons

The models are sent out and scanned into a computer using a special 3-D software that can produce exact schematics for the full-size helium balloon.

These measurements are used to begin cutting and stitching the enormous pieces of polyurethane-coated fabric that traps the notoriously leaky helium gas inside. The seams are heat-sealed to ensure that there are no leaks.

One house with different rooms

The helium balloons are not one giant, helium-filled cavity as some tend to believe.

Because so many balloons tend to have minor mishaps during the parade, they’re designed and constructed in individual, sealed-off chambers. For example: the head, arms, legs, hat, nose, body, etc. will all be separate, sealed helium compartments inside of the balloon shell.

This is so that when a balloon clips a light pole or tears a hand or foot on a tree and deflates (and it happens almost annually), the rest of the balloon can still finish out the parade.

Leak testing

Once the balloon is stitched and sealed, the entire balloon is fully inflated and left to sit on the warehouse floor for six hours.

If the balloon is still full after six hours and there are no leaks or pinholes anywhere in the fabric, it’s considered good to go for the parade. It’s off to the painters.

Final touches

If the fabric of the Thanksgiving Day Parade helium balloons was painted in a deflated state, the paint would crack and split as the balloon is filled and the shell material expands.

So, the artists get to work on 3-D canvases, hand painting the balloons while they’re fully inflated, thereby ensuring a perfectly smooth finish for the parade. With many balloons being 3-4 stories tall or more, it takes a lot of scaffolding and the ability to suppress any fear of heights one might harbor.

The handler test

Once the helium balloon is painted, dried, and ready to go to the big show, it has to complete a test-flight. The balloon is filled with helium and air and walked by a full team of handlers below, just as it would be during the parade.

This tests that the balloon’s balance is stable and that there are no flaws with any of the handles or ropes.

Packed away for Thanksgiving Day

Once the balloon is dried and fully tested, it’s deflated, folded up, and stowed away in the balloon warehouse until the day before Thanksgiving.

On the eve of the big day, the balloons are driven over to the parade staging area, where they get re-inflated under giant holding nets. On Thanksgiving Day morning, they’re topped off with a final pump of helium.

The more sun the better

The giant helium balloons actually need some time in the sun to help their appearance, so unless the weather is miserably gray and cold, the balloons are usually under inflated intentionally.

This is because helium gas expands as it warms in the sun. That’s why on sunny parade days, the helium balloons will often appear fuller than poor weather parades.

This science gamble doesn’t always work exactly as planned however, which is why the Sonic and Pikachu balloons never fully plumped up during the 2012 Thanksgiving Day Parade. They finished the day without incident, but fought and struggled to stay afloat along the route.

364 days left

As soon as the Thanksgiving Day Parade is over, it’s time for the team to start working on next year’s balloons and floats.

They only have 364 days left to pull it off.

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Sources: Macy’s Parade, American Chemistry Council