How They Make Those Thanksgiving Day Floats

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The new ZhuZhu Pet float for the 2011 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

With 27 floats set to roll down the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade route in New York City, getting the festive contraptions ready for the big day proves a yearlong job for a team of sculptors, woodworkers, painters and designers.

Each year, the Macy’s parade sends 27 to 29 floats down the parade route, each with an entertainment theme of some sort. But these floats don’t get tossed together mere weeks ahead of the big day by a smattering of volunteers. For a three-hour telecast highlighted by big-name entertainment contracts, Macy’s does things a bit different. They have a team of 24 working year-round on floats that take between three and six months to complete.

Each float can stretch as long as 60 feet, reach up to four stories tall and get as wide as 30 feet when in full splendor. But before they reach mammoth proportions, the float starts as a pencil sketch and then a little two-foot model.

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Orlando Veras, Macy’s spokesperson, says that while the company builds for durability so it can reuse floats for a number of years, this year Macy’s created five new float attractions. The idea starts as just that, a marketing idea between a company and Macy’s. Then, once a contract gets signed—usually for a three-year term—the Macy’s studio design team starts researching everything from colors to character personalities and builds a float theme based on that information. From there, a pencil sketch turns into a tabletop model. “It is not your traditional way,” Veras says. “It is not like a flatbed with some fringe on it.”

This year, for example, Macy’s created a new float for ZhuZhu Pets, taking four characters and dumping them in a Zhu-Niverse. Those colors start to come alive when transferred from paper to model. Plus, the requirement that all floats must fit through the Lincoln Tunnel (actually, the toll booth is the trickiest part) requires the float to fold and bend in ways otherwise not thought of by typical float creators. The model helps designers understand where the give and take in tunnel-accessing space can come from. “How does everything need to be built?” Veras says about the process. “We see what needs to be craned over, what pieces need to fold and where everything can be stored. Can the head of the turkey fit between the leg of something else, for example?”

This year, Macy’s tackled everything from the colorful world of the Zhu Zhu Pets toys, which includes life-size hamster holes for the kids on the float to slide through to a Discover-themed float that tells the story of kids turning an abandoned boathouse into a clubhouse for their backyard ice hockey game (expect a giant turkey to play the role of goalie). The float with two giant hats—a cowboy hat and a top hat—serves as a nod to two past parade directors in this, the 85th anniversary of the parade.

Once all the designs, colors and schematics get approved, crews start making the real noise, building characters with metal frames and foam bodies and constructing sets with wood. Sculptors actually whittle the foam away into the shape of each character and then painters seal it with a chemical that turns it into a fiberglass-like product, providing durability and the ability to hold paint colors all while retaining the lightweight of foam. Animators create movement in the characters that dance, spin and bob on a float pulled by a truck.

In the end, everything gets created from scratch. Just like your turkey dinner.

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