The Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a quintessential time honored tradition of the holiday, was not an outing high on my list of festive fall activities to do during my family’s holiday visit. In all honesty though, attending the parade properly is not the horrendously overcrowded mess of an experience people make it out to be.
I went to the parade the first year I moved to the city and hadn’t been back since. I absolutely loved how my friend and I went about seeing it. We didn’t bother getting up early or staking out a territory. At the time we were living on the east side, on the border between the Upper East Side and Midtown East, and didn’t leave our apartment until 9:00am — aka the start time of the parade. We walked over making our way up to 59th and 5th Ave just in time to catch the beginning of the parade as it made its turn down 6th Ave. We got a clear, unobstructed view of the beginning, caught sightings of the first few balloons and bands before making our way into Central Park.
After walking through the park towards the west side somewhere between 60th and 65th we found a bridge overlooking Central Park West. There was a clearing in the trees that gave us stellar views of the balloons. We sat there, feet over the bridge’s edge, sipping our coffees, taking in the view. All-in-all it was a very easy, stress free way to experience the parade without it being a huge effort. Photos from that parade can be found here.
This year however, with family in town, I decided to go all out and do the parade properly. I’ll be the first to admit that I was not overly eager about this experience, being quite apprehensive of the impending masses of people. How wrong I was! Understandably it’s a whole production and if you’re not prepared it could very easily have been a nightmare, but it was an incredibly simple and easy experience. I did my research and talked to friends that had been previous years so I felt like I was well informed on the outing. Here is a breakdown of tips from me to you to have to best experience possible!
- Go Early
Everyone should already know this, but let me reiterate… GO EARLY! It will make all the difference. If you don’t care about being next to the rail in the front, by all means, show up 2hrs before, but if you’re going to take the time to go, you might as well get up a little earlier and guarantee yourself a good spot. Most sites will tell you 3hrs is good, but we arrived 3.5hrs before to a non crowded area and all the spots directly against the rail were already taken. My advice? Bite the bullet and get up even earlier. 4hrs before the parade, aka 5am should be good.
- Location! Location! Location!
The entire parade route is a long one stretching down Central Park West, 59th Street, turning down 6th Ave, ending up at the 34th Street Herald Square Macy’s. Many many places to take in the view, but the further you are away from Macy’s the better. Central Park West is your best bet, before the route makes its turn on to 59th. I originally planned to stake out a spot at Columbus Circle, but when I emerged from the subway to find the circle practically empty and masses of people heading uptown, we decided to follow the crowd. All of Central Park West had people lined up on both sides of the street against the barricades. After talking with others around us who had been to the parade before, we learned that Columbus Circle isn’t great for interacting with the people in the parade. The spot would have been ideal for getting wide, unobstructed views as the balloons made their turn from CPW to 59th, but not so much on the close ups of the parade. We ended up snagging a spot at 64th and CPW. Limited light poles, no door awnings, nothing to obstruct our line of vision.
- Have a Team (or find one there)
Make it easier on yourself, bring company. Not everyone in your group needs to be there right from the beginning, but it makes it easier to lay claim to your spot. A gentleman already camped out at the gate overheard me and my mother contemplating about where we wanted to stand. He chimed in and told us it was a great area where we were and that it was his 3rd consecutive year coming to this spot. So we tacked on to his group, kept people from crowding him and his son, made friends, and he generously shared some of his prime real estate up against the barricade for my family.
- Bring a Chair… and a Blanket
Now I did fine standing the entire time, but bringing a chair or a stool isn’t a bad idea to give your legs a break. The chairs also help set a definitive boundary for what area is yours. Blankets help do that as well; set those visual barriers and people will stay off.
- No Fluids but Snackage is Encouraged
Absolutely NO fluids!! I drink copious amounts of water and notoriously always have to pee so this issue was something I was worried about. There are no porta potties set up along the route so the only restrooms available are that of local businesses. Aka that Starbucks bathroom line might last as long as the entire parade. So starting the night before, limit the amount of fluids you take in. Take a bottle of water with you to hydrate during or after the parade, not before. I didn’t eat anything either because I knew it’d make me thirsty, but if you’ve got kids, don’t forget to pack the snacks!
- Pre-Parade Entertainment
Speaking of children; bring entertainment. I was fine conversing with fellow strangers, meeting new people, talking to my family once they arrived, but if you get fixated on the time it will seem to creep by. Bring a handheld game, phone, or tablet. iPad and earphones are a great solution, kickback and watch a movie! Netflix allows downloading now so have at it!
- Prepare for the Elements
This year provided the absolute best conditions. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday the week of the parade produced absolutely horrendously strong winds that blew the cold straight through you. Thankfully, pun intended, the wind was quite mild and the chill was more of a faint whisper and less a foghorn blaring in your ear. Just be prepared for everything though. Rain poncho, layers for both warmth and dryness, double socks, leggings under jeans, pocket hand warmers, etc.
- Pack Your Own Confetti
This little trick we learned from the friends we met that shared their spot with us. Almost all the volunteers walking around with the balloons along the parade route have confetti they throw and having your own confetti for the kids makes it far more interactive. The kids are interested in the parade no matter what is happening and you can even get into confetti wars with the volunteers.
- Bring a Dog
NOT all dogs, let me explain. If you have a super small chill lap dog that’ll just hangout while you hold him/her… bring along. Anything other than that? Leave your furry friend at home. I say bring a dog because the family we befriended had a tiny rescue dog with them and it was a huge crowd pleaser with the volunteers walking the parade. Volunteers constantly come over to our group interacting more with the kids because they were drawn in by the dog.
- Pay Attention to the Banners
Your eyes are going to be darting to the balloons, the floats, and all that flash; so it’s easy to let those banners preceding the floats to pass without a second glance. Take that glance though because they inform you as to who will be riding the float.
- Bring an Energized Group
Do your best to be surrounded by people you actually don’t mind spending this time consuming experience with. We lucked out and honestly everyone around us was really great; nobody shoving to get closer, no annoying noise makers, etc. We were close to a chanting heavy group of people. The group would do a lot of chanting at bands and dancers to get them to entertain, but those performers have a structure to their route they have to follow. The time where the chanting came in handy was when you wanted the volunteers handling the balloons to do something. Those guiding the large balloons do nothing as I’m sure they are instructed to, but the smaller balloons will do tricks like make the balloon spin by running around in a circle, or making it bounce.
- Photos: Know Your Background
I’ve viewed the parade from both sides of Central Park West and each have their pros and cons, it all depends on the view you want. This year I went for having Central Park in the background. All the fall foliage (well, what was left anyway) and clear skies. In my opinion it makes it easier to focus on the balloons in the photos. On the flip side of that, standing on the opposite side puts the apartment buildings as your background allowing you to put the balloons to scale in your mind by comparing them to the sizes of the windows/how many stories tall the balloons are. Check out the difference here on my post from a previous year.
- Dig Up Some History
Learn about the history and evolution of the parade over the years, how it has changed, how much helium they use, what were the first balloons, etc. Knowing all those little tiny facts makes the whole experience more interesting and worth while. Those tidbits of information are also great conversation while waiting for the parade to start.
- Make Plans for After
Know where you’re going after and how you’re getting there. Unless you’ve made reservations for lunch at restaurant nearby where you can wait for the crowd to dissipate, just get out of the area as soon as possible. Once the end of the parade passes by, police open the street and you can begin crossing the parade route. If it’s convenient, take a walk through Central Park, take in the foliage, and end up on the east side where you can take a train like the 4/5/6 that should be less saturated with parade goers. Or do what I did with my family. Brave the 1 Train from Columbus Circle; shove on, people will make room. Then switch to a different train at 42nd. We switched to an express 2 Train and practically had the whole subway car all to ourselves!
- Be Mindful of End Time
The end of the parade is different everywhere. Since we were only 13 blocks from the beginning of the parade it concluded just after 11am, so roughly 2hrs. Whereas the further down the route you go, the longer you’ll be there. The parade will take longer to get to you and it slows down the further it goes along.
I hope you take all these little tips and tricks and use them to make your very own Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade experience as memorable as mine have been!