As a child growing up very far away from New York City, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was an annual holiday ritual. At Thanksgivings spent at my grandmother’s house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my brothers, cousins, and I would all settle in next to the flickering screen of the boxy television in her living room as the adults began to prepare the meal, watching the enormous balloons and spangled floats drift down Sixth Avenue, the lacquered-looking announcers in their mittens grinning at the gargantuan, helium-supported versions of Clifford, Snoopy, and Kermit the Frog.
In the holiday season, where the syrupy brightness and cheer come with a commercial, materialist tang, the Thanksgiving Day Parade is the one thing that I just can’t seem to be cynical about. So when a representative from toy company Goldieblox reached out to offer a preview of a new float at the Macy’s float warehouse, it was the most I looked forward to traveling into New Jersey in my life.
The float warehouse itself is a fairly nondescript brick building in Moonatchie, New Jersey, located down an industrial road not far from the Carnegie Deli’s frozen meat holdings. On the Tuesday I went, a preview day for the media and also for some select lucky grade school students, the parking lot was packed with yellow school buses. Inside the front door, there are various parade-related trinkets mixed in with average office decor. In one corner, under glass, is an Emmy statuette; in the room just beyond, you can spy models of the enormous parade balloons dangling from the ceiling. A cardboard cutout of an elf in green stockings and a red, pointed hat, stares down visitors. A conversation bubble above his head reads:”Welcome to the Macy’s Parade Studio.”
The floats housed in the warehouse aren’t, of course, the sum total of what will appear in the parade on Thursday. The lineup this year features 27 floats in total, plus, according to a press release, 1,300 cheerleaders, 1,000 clowns, 12 marching bands, and 49 giant balloons, plus a number of celebrity and semi-celebrity performers including “the return of the KOOL-AID man.” What was on display on the Tuesday afternoon I visited the studio was the five newest additions to the parade, floats from Cracker Jack, Pirate Booty, the Sino-American Friendship Association, and Dora the Explorer and Friends, as well as the one from Goldieblox.
The Goldieblox float itself was an enormous, three stage number named The Girl-Powered Spinning Machine. Goldieblox is a company that makes engineering toys for girls; the company is the brainchild of Stanford-educated mechanical engineer Debbie Sterling, who began initial production through a Kickstarter campaign. (You may know the name from a now-resolved legal controversy between GoldieBlox and the Beastie Boys over the use of the song “Girls” in a viral video for the company.) The idea for the float was to incorporate some of those engineering-is-fun tropes over from the toy sets over to the float, Sterling explained.
“It’s the first float in the parade that’s ever been engineering themed,” she told me. “And that makes sense because these floats are themselves huge feats of engineering. We’re so excited about it.” And the float is designed to be “kid-powered,” meaning that the crowd of children who are riding the contraption will operate various aspects of the float: The person riding the bicycle in the front will power gears that run a bubble machine; boys and girls running in a pair of giant hamster wheels cause a spinner at the top of the float to turn around.
What’s the process for designing a float for the parade? From design to a fully-formed float takes seven months and a team of engineers, designers, and construction workers. Twenty-five people worked on the GoldieBlox float from start to finish, keeping in mind the dimensions of the roadways that the float has to travel on. The floats set up in the warehouse would be deconstructed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and set up again in the very early morning on Thursday.
I walked around the warehouse to take in the creations as groups of students and press photographers milled around, following a tour from one of the float engineers. A crowd of bored-looking Power Rangers stood by an area with posters explaining the challenges of building the creations. Every so often a tour guide would lead the group of kids in a chorus of “Happy Thanksgiving!”
Seeing one of these enormous creations close-up, I expected to be sort of disappointed. I imagined the same feeling that you get when you see a lavish costume from fewer than thirty feet way, discovering that all the sparkle is just cut glass, the brocade loud and chintzy. But in these floats, that wasn’t the case. It’s evident the level of care and creativity poured into each of them. They’re each well-designed stage sets combined with a vehicle, meticulously painted. And they’re enormous, too: Each the size of a good-sized yacht, towering several stories in the air. It’s like a small city or theme park that only gets uncovered for the time of a morning-long television broadcast. They’re gorgeous, incredible things. And they’re worth taking a closer look at this Thursday, when you’re gathered around, making preparations to cook or just lolling around on the couch as, once again, the parade goes by.