Tips for Seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Nov 20, 2018

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Seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City is an iconic item on many families’ travel wish lists. Assuming you don’t live in the NYC area, seeing the parade does require forgoing (or delaying) a traditional Thanksgiving at home, but when your kid sees massive cartoon character balloons fly high down Sixth Avenue, skipping one home-cooked turkey is likely well worth it.

See a turkey float instead of eating turkey!
See a turkey float at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade instead of eating turkey!

More than 3.5 million people see the Macy’s Parade in person each year, so in order to make sure you aren’t 10 or more people deep from the curb, struggling to get a glimpse of the street, you need some strategy and planning. Having attended the parade ourselves, here are a few tips for families attending the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Photo courtesy of Macy's
Photo courtesy of Macy’s

See the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Balloon Inflation the Night Before

A great way to get an up-close view of the balloons (and get into the parade spirit) is to see the balloons as they are inflated and come to life the night before Thanksgiving. The inflation starts at 1pm on the Upper West Side near the American Museum of Natural History, and there is a very busy but organized trail you can walk in order to see all the balloons. The earlier you arrive, the less crowded it will be, but more balloons will be inflated by 4:30pm or 5pm. Last-call admission to the balloon-inflation area is before 8pm.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - spiderman

Be aware that the subway station at 77th will be very crowded, which wasn’t too big of a problem unless you happened to need to buy a MetroCard there, in which case the line was intense. Be sure to avoid adding money to your card at that station. It was pretty easy to get a cab out of the area if you go a block or two north of the gated-off section.

What Time to Get to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

We saw the parade from roughly 55th Street and 6th Avenue, which was a few blocks after the parade made its turn from the West Side to head toward Macy’s. We got to our spot a little before 7am and were too late to get a spot directly on the curb. However, we were the second row from the curb, which was totally sufficient, especially since the people in the front were happy to have all the little kids line up in the front to get good views.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The crowd at 7am.

If you want to be sure to have a front row spot on the curb, you will certainly have to line up before 7am as the streets were lined as far as the eye can see by that time. I’m guessing around 6am is the magic time to get a curb spot on this part of the route based on conversations with the folks who were in the front. Some portions of the route may require even a little earlier of a wake-up call than that.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Second row arriving at 7am.

The prime seats in the covered bus stops are apparently full around 4am!

Prime Macy's Parade seats!
Prime Macy’s Parade seats!

Bring Stuff to Keep Yourself Occupied Before the Parade

The parade itself starts on 77th Street at Central Park West on the Upper West Side at 9am, which means it doesn’t make its way all the way down the parade route to Macy’s until probably 9:40am. That results in several hours of waiting around before the parade starts, so be sure to bring some stuff to keep your kids occupied before the events get going. We had breakfast on the street, colored and watched some Netflix on our iPhones. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade lasts for a couple hours, so I encourage the little ones to stay seated in the hours leading up to the parade in order to preserve their standing ability for the actual parade.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The crowd behind us by the time the parade started.

Brings Seats for the Parade

You can bring camping chairs, buckets or anything else you want to sit on to the parade. This won’t really be helpful during the parade since everyone seems to stand, but it will help make the hours leading up the parade a bit more comfortable. At the very least, I would recommend bringing some hotel towels or blankets to sit on instead of the hard, cold, gum-covered NYC sidewalks.

Save your energy for the parade!

Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Naturally, everyone gets very excited as the parade start time nears. The first thing we spotted were clowns roller skating with bundles of balloons. Soon after came the NYPD motorcycles, horses, marching bands, cheerleaders, floats and, of course, the huge character balloons.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - Thomas the Train

Being so close to the front row meant that our daughter got to interact with the parade. This included high-fives from clowns, confetti thrown and even a face to face with a Harlem Globetrotter!

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

If you are going to go through the effort to go to the parade with your kids, my advice is wait until they are at least 4 or 5 years old, especially if only want to go once. My second piece of advice is get up early enough to be close to the front, as otherwise they might miss some of the magic the parade has to offer.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

The parade performances you see on TV by the Radio City Rockettes or some of the dancing and singing groups don’t really happen on the parade route. A few of the performers ride the floats through the parade and wave at the crowds, but the performances are just done in front of Macy’s Herald Square for the TV cameras. Come to see the floats and balloons, not to see someone (pretend to) sing.

Hotels Near the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The parade covers so much of the city that there is no one best hotel to stay at in order to get to the parade. Obviously, there are hotels that are physically on the parade route, so those are options if you don’t want to travel far to the parade. But don’t think you can simply book a room at one of the hotels on the route and watch from your window. There are some windows that will offer good views, but hotels are savvy, and those rooms are often sold as part of pricier parade packages with increased rates and minimum stay requirements. In order words, be ready to pony up more cash if you want to confirm a parade route view from your actual hotel room. Also note that the parade route does change on some years, so be sure you are looking at the current year’s map.

Image courtesy of Macy's
Image courtesy of Macy’s

While you may not get a parade-view room (which would be clutch given this year’s forecasted freezing temps), hotels on the parade route do sometimes have some space outside for guests, or may have partnered with services who hold your spot on the curb for you in the morning for a fee — and yes, that’s a real thing in NYC.

It might be too late for this year, but here are some family-friendly hotels you can book in NYC with points, as well as some tips for navigating the city with kids. On our trip a few years ago, we stayed one avenue off of the parade route at the St. Regis New York (bookable for 60k Marriott Rewards points). It was a very short walk to and from the parade, which was very much appreciated when the parade ended and we were ready to warm up.

Image courtesy of Marriott
Image courtesy of Marriott

The parade itself was wonderful. The floats flew high, the weather that year was decent for late November, the people around us were fantastic and it even started to snow right before Santa arrived at the end of the parade. It was perfect. However, it isn’t something I would want to do every year as I enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving at home in Texas, but I’m so glad we did it with our almost-5-year-old. We’ll have to make the trek again in a couple years when our second daughter is around that same age.

Photo courtesy of Macy's
Photo courtesy of Macy’s

Being in NYC for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade also means you have perfect timing to go see Santa in-person at Santaland on the 8th floor of Macy’s on 34th Street in the following days, though reservations are required. One final note — the parade forecast for 2018 looks quite cold and windy, so dress warmly and hope that wind gusts stay below 35 mph, the maximum allowed to fly the large balloons.

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