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By Suzanne Russo in New York—
Macy’s is the second largest consumer of helium in the nation (behind the U.S. government). What’s a retail store doing with all that hot air? Supplying us with a Thanksgiving tradition, that’s what. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with its characteristic enormous balloons, is nearly as ubiquitous in homes throughout the U.S. as are turkey and mashed potatoes. 2010 marks the 84th anniversary of the parade.
We know with an estimated 3.5 million people lining Manhattan’s streets to catch a glimpse of floating Spider-Man and Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, heading out yourself can seem like a bit of a nightmare, but we have a few tips to make it all worthwhile.
The Route (and Where to Watch)
The parade starts at 77th Street and makes its way around Central Park, first south along Central Park West, then curving at Columbus Circle to head east on Central Park South. It will turn south down 7th Avenue until 42nd Street, where it will go east for a quick block before moving south again down 6th Avenue. At 34th it will head back west to 7th Avenue and its final destination: Herald Square and Macy’s itself. Got that?
Not to worry: All you need to keep in mind are three segments, our short list of best places to watch. We factored proximity to food and facilities into our choices, in addition, of course, to good views.
1. Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street
Subway: B/D/F/M to Bryant Park, N/Q/R/1/2/3/7 to Times Square
The 6th Avenue stretch is a wider street, which means more space on the sidewalk for onlookers, so pretty much anywhere on 6th will do, but the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street is a particularly good vantage point. Floats move down 42nd from 7th Avenue, so at that corner you’ll have a direct view. Along Bryant Park is also lovely, but we do recommend staying north of 38th Street so as to give a bit of berth to the chaos that will be Herald Square.
Where to fuel up
Grab coffee (and a delicious pastry) at the Pain Quotidien on 40th Street and 6th Avenue, just across from Bryant Park.
2. Columbus Circle and Time Warner Center
Subwaway: A/B/C/D/1/2 to Columbus Circle, N/Q/R to 57th Street/7th Avenue
If you’re claustrophobic, this area tends to be a little less crowded. We should caveat: It tends to be a little less crowded because higher winds in this small stretch sometimes spur balloon teams to race through a little quicker. That being said, they won’t be whizzing past fast enough that you’ll miss them, and you may be able to evade some of the throngs over here, on the west side of the circle.
An added bonus is that the Time Warner Center is a great place to avoid the elements. If it’s a nasty day, just head up to the second floor to watch from the windows there.
Where to fuel up
The Whole Foods on the lower level of the Time Warner Center is perfect for a quick cuppa joe and a muffin.
If you’d rather indulge before the evening feast, dig into a flaky croissant or a fluffy, fresh donut at Bouchon Bakery on the third floor.
Also up there is Landmarc, a sit-down restaurant that’s keeping a whole room free of seating for guests to watch the parade. The menu is not totally un-Cheapo either: We like the egg sandwich with gruyere and bacon or sausage for $10. Note that reservations are only available for parties of six or more, so plan to arrive early and secure your spot.
3. Central Park
Subway Stops: 1 or 2 to Lincoln Center, A/B/C to 72nd Street
It’s never bad to be hanging out along Central Park, so it’s a great thing that the parade makes its way down Central Park West. The parade starts at 77th Street, so anywhere south of that is grand. (We’ve heard that from 61st Street to 72nd Street is a good stretch.)
Where to fuel up
Pick up some coffee at the Ferrara Italian Cafe kiosk (at the entrance to the park, right near Columbus circle) before moving north on Central Park West.
Or hang out around what was once the enchanting Tavern on the Green, which is now an inviting visitor center (Central Park at 67th Street). The center itself will be closed that day, but the (clean) public restrooms should be open, and at least one of the food trucks who hang out outside will be serving up sustenance.
Sugar fiends should note that Magnolia Bakery (69th Street and Columbus Avenue) is just a block from the park and will be serving up their heavenly confections and signature blend coffee on the big day.
The Basics: How to survive the parade
Timing: So you’ve scouted your spot. What time to arrive? Early. The parade starts at 9 a.m. at 77th Street, but wherever you choose to watch it, crowds will already be forming at least two hours in advance. We recommend getting to your chosen spot by at least 7 a.m., earlier if you’re concerned about being up front.
Clothing: Also, it’ll be chilly that early on a November morning, so layer up, and bring along a thermos or two of something warm to keep you going while you wait.
Thanksgiving Eve Inflation Celebration
Another option is heading out the day before for a little pre-parade revelry. Balloon inflation has become just as big a draw as the parade itself.
Public viewing is from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m on the two streets flanking the American Museum of Natural History, 77th Street on the south and 81st Street on the north. The entry point is 77th Street and Columbus, and from there the action winds northeast up to 81st Street. The area is sectioned off so that crowds can move through in a semi-orderly fashion.
The real action takes place around 5 p.m., but as can be expected it gets crowded around then too, so if you can show up earlier, it’s worth it to get close to big balloons when they’re spread out flat and being prepped. Likewise, don’t worry if you show up a little later. It all moves along pretty well.
Did Ya Know?
Finally, five fun Macy’s Parade facts for your reading enjoyment:
1. Zoo-crazy: During the first years of the parade (which started in 1924) the Macy’s employees who marched in costume—think cowboys and sheiks and knights, oh my!—brought along animals from the Central Park Zoo to join them. Donkeys and goats paraded down the street, and one year there were even lions and tigers and bears. Until, that is, they terrified small children.
2. Burst your balloon: The first balloon, in 1928, was Felix the Cat. Because he was filled with helium only, and helium expands in high altitudes, Felix, sadly, popped.
3. Biggest balloon ever: It’s a balloon, it’s a parade, it’s Superman, way back in 1939.
4. The long way down: The first parade started at 145th Street, a 5.5 mile trek down to Macy’s.
5. Doggone popular: Since his debut in 1968, Snoopy has gone through six incarnations, making him the character with the most balloons.