Giant balloons depicting the Pillsboury Dough Boy and Rex The Happy Dragon fly through Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It's cold and crowded, but the PIllsbury Doughboy seems content. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Macy’s is famously tight-lipped about the parade’s price tag, but for NYPD and locals trying to get around, the costs can add up.

What will happen if the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons can’t fly? It’s a possibility: An arctic plunge is descending across the eastern seaboard as Thanksgiving approaches, promising blistering winter winds that will batter the city, and could force Macy’s to ground the balloons.

If the balloons do fly (which is more than likely), they’ll be continuing a longstanding holiday tradition that’s nonetheless costly and tumultuous for the city that hosts it. It’s been 92 years since the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day (then dubbed Christmas) Parade first marched through the streets of Manhattan, and as millions flock to the parade itself, and millions more tune in from afar, it’s worth looking at its impacts on the ground in New York City.

Scat, the excitable squirrel from the movie Ice Age, in giant balloon form flying over the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
If the balloons do fly, they’ll look like this. (mpi43/MediaPunch/IPX/AP)

Macy’s is famously sheepish when it comes to discussing the cost. For years, the company has put on the parade without disclosing the money involved. “Macy’s views the Parade as a gift to the City of New York and the nation, and like any good gift, you cut off the price tag when you give it, so we keep to that tradition as well,” a parade spokesperson told NBC New York in 2013.

But a 2016 analysis by Ebates, a cash-rewards shopping program dubbed as “sketchy” and “legit” depending on who you ask, estimated the costs for the company at around $12 million dollars every year. A big part of that cost is just the balloons, which Ebates determined to use between 300,000 and 700,000 cubic feet of Helium (making Macy’s the second biggest consumer of the noble gas, behind the U.S. Armed Forces), and require at least 50 paid handlers each. Add in another $2 million in costumes, up to $3 million in floats, and $140,000 in taxes, and the bill starts to really climb. But, as the analysis shows, corporate sponsors are shouldering a lot of that burden.

For locals, the parade can pose a special kind of frustration, too: streets and sidewalks are cordoned off along the entire parade route, and heightened security measures include closing off central subway stations around the parade route. For a slice of Manhattan, traversing the island on Thanksgiving may just seem impossible. The city’s tourism office cautions parade-goers to rely on public transit—private parking might cost you hundreds of dollars, if you can find any—and suggests attendees arrive at 6 a.m. to beat some of the biggest crowds.

Such a huge, prominent gathering of people also requires a security presence to match. The parade is the New York Police Department’s biggest security event of the year—including 1,000 officers, rooftop snipers, bomb sniffing dogs, sandbag-filled trucks blocking intersections, and more, according to CBS New York.

Though NYPD doesn’t release specific costs associated with the event, it runs in the millions. In fact, police costs can be so high that in 2010, the city ordered the parade to cut its route by 25 percent and limit itself to five hours. At the time, the department claimed these cuts would save them $3.1 million.

The whole endeavor, of course, is justified by tradition and the amount of economic activity it brings to the city. Attracting 3.5 million revelers, and reaching 50 million more on TV, the parade is a beautiful opening salvo to commercial Christmas, as the throngs descend on Macy’s eponymous trip down corporate lane in advance of Black Friday. Still, not all the shops see the benefits. “Every time there’s a parade, we hope to have more business, but it always turns out to be slow,” Easy Sprit Shoes manager Catidia Santiagoshe told the New York Times in 2009. “Everyone just comes in here to use the bathroom, or they walk in and walk out.”

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