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Change of direction for Thanksgiving parade

November 26, 2009 4:30:38 AM PST
After 82-years of bringing Thanksgiving Day joy to millions of people, there is a historical change to this year's event. For the first time ever, the parade will bypass Broadway and make its downtown procession along 7th Avenue and 6th Avenue.

The reason is part of Broadway is now a pedestrian mall.

The new parade route still begins at 77th Street and Central Park West. At Columbus Circle marchers will turn left for a one block walk along Central Park South. Then it's a right turn down 7th Avenue, followed by a left at 42nd Street and a right down 6th Avenue. At 34th Street there's a final right turn before the parade ends in front of Macy's.

Parade veteran John Piper, now in his 29th year, says the new route should provide a bit more clearance for pilots handling the massive helium filled balloons.

The demands of the new route will challenge the marching bands and handlers of the parade's signature balloons, for whom precision is key, said Brian Schwartz, physics professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "There really is a lot of science" to it, he said. "If they're taking a new route, they're going to have to be really careful in the turning of the corners," he said.

Macy's giant balloons, featuring Buzz Lightyear, Spider-Man, and Ronald McDonald this year, among others, measure several stories tall and wide and are filled with thousands of cubic feet of helium. Each balloon is tethered to several human handlers - the number depends on the size and shape of the balloon - who are responsible for guiding it down the route on foot. The physics involved with moving a balloon down a straight path are different from what's needed for a corner, Schwartz said.

"If you're doing a turn, then the people on the inside of the turn have to walk slower than the people on the outside of the turn," he said. "It has to be very well-coordinated."

The handlers also have to know when to start their turning motion and how wide a turn to take, he said, likening it to trying to turn a car into a narrow parking space. If the driver turns too sharply or too widely, the car won't fit into the space properly.

Wind could also be an issue, Schwartz said, with changes in the direction of the route meaning changes in how the wind hits the balloons and what handlers have to do to compensate.

"The tension on the ropes will be changing, and people have to adjust for that in real time," he said.

The effect of the wind on the balloons is something that Macy's is mindful of, and city guidelines are in place to ground the balloons if the winds are too high.

The protocols were established after 45-mph winds drove a Cat in the Hat balloon into a metal pole during the 1997 parade and left a woman in a coma for almost a month before she recovered. The balloons were lowered to a maximum of 17 feet on a stormy Thanksgiving Day 2006.

A route with corners in it is not for the faint of heart, said Judith Matt, president of a Massachusetts nonprofit called Spirit of Springfield, which holds a big balloon parade the weekend after Thanksgiving.

"All they have to do is have some wind when you go around one of those corners," she said.

The Springfield parade changed its route more than a decade ago to one that is almost perfectly straight to avoid issues like hills, turns or trees.

It's not just the balloons. The Macy's marching bands, 10 from around the country, will have to make the turns while maintaining the precision of their marching lines.

"When you're in an event, you kind of live for it, you want to execute those turns so they are precise and crisp," said Robert Jacobs, executive director of the Jersey Surf, a drum and bugle corps based in Mount Holly, N.J.

Marchers will have to closely follow the path of the person in front of them to avoid having their band lines disrupted, and will have to time their steps carefully, since the person on the inside of the turn is taking smaller steps than the person on the outside.

"If you have to run to keep up, you're doing something wrong," said Jacobs, whose group has marched in its share of parades but is not taking part in the Macy's event.

"Corners can be the enemy of a marching band but also a source of inspiration," he said.

Orlando Veras, a spokesman for the Macy's parade, said organizers are confident the additional corners will not pose problems. Parade officials walk the route every year to assess potential problems.

Veras also pointed out that previous routes included one turn at the end, and that marchers and balloon handlers had to make a turn at the beginning to get from staging areas on side streets onto the main parade route.

If anything, the concern is timing, he said. The nationally televised event has a three-hour window, which now has to cover a longer parade route.

"The parade is such a perfectly timed machine; we like to know at 9:07 you should be at this block," he said. "It's really not about the turns, it's about the length of the route." Observers were confident that Macy's would make it work.

"They're the epitome of what a parade does," said Toni McKay, CEO of Starbound Entertainment, which produces giant balloon parades. "They're going to be able to handle that quite well."

Of course, one man's gain is another's loss. For more than eight decades people along Broadway had front-row seats for the annual spectacle. Now, those living and working along 6th and 7th Avenues have the premier vantage points.

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