Join the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

My 9-month-old son was going to live out his mother's long-held Thanksgiving Day fantasy and I wouldn't be talked out of it -- not by the bone-chilling cold or even my mother's disapproval. We would watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from the streets of New York, I announced the moment we'd arrived to visit from Chicago.

I didn't care that Matt wouldn't remember the experience. We bundled him in his snowsuit, took along a couple of grade school-aged cousins, and headed off to brave the crowds and the wind before the turkey went into the oven.

But like a lot of long-held travel fantasies, the experience didn't turn out to be anything like the warm-and-fuzzy holiday time I'd had in mind. The crowds were so dense, we couldn't see anything. We got stuck in traffic. We were freezing. We paid a ridiculous amount for a couple of hot chocolates. There was one unexpected plus: Matt is a teenager now, and that story still evokes a laugh or two before the cranberry sauce is passed around the Thanksgiving table.

Whether it's on TV, from a high-rise window or amid the crowds, viewing Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade has become nearly as much a holiday tradition as eating too much pie or watching ``Miracle on 34th Street,'' which, of course, revolves around the parade's Santa Claus. The parade boasts marching bands (14 chosen from more than 300 around the country), 1,100 cheerleaders and dancers, celebrities -- including the Muppets and, of course, the giant balloons (17 are six-to-seven stories high)

``I grew up watching the parade on TV, but I never got to go. That's why I wanted to bring my daughter,'' explained Aileen Bohn, a government analyst who spent Thanksgiving in New York last year so her daughter Jessica could fulfill her mom's fantasy.

The Lizzas, on the other hand, used to walk out of their apartment building to watch the parade. They would wake up Thanksgiving morning to the strains of the marching bands tuning up. Now Charlie and Sandy Lizza bring their two preschoolers from New Jersey to see it. ``It's my favorite parade,'' he says. ``Literally, it's larger than life.''

Lizza's parade strategy: Get into the city at least 90 minutes before the parade kicks off at 9 a.m. and position yourself at the top of the parade route.

``That way, the parade is over for you first and you can beat the traffic out of the city,'' explains Lizza.

For Aileen Bohn, her daughter Jessica and their friends, the parade was over before Santa Claus even made his appearance: It was too cold to stay outside any longer.

``My daughter and I spent half the parade in a coffee shop with a lot of other freezing kids and their parents,'' said Graeme Browning, who had come with Bohn from Maryland for the experience. ``Being in New York for Thanksgiving was delightful. From the parade standpoint, it was a bust.''

(Call the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau at 212-484-1200 and ask about special holiday packages and attractions. Visit New York's Web site at New York Convention and Visitors Bureau or, for specific parade information, Macy*s )

We'd just moved to Connecticut two years ago when I decided it was time to give the parade another try. But this time I was smarter: Instead of the parade, the night before Thanksgiving we took our kids and out-of-town guests to the Upper West Side at the route's start to watch the 35-foot-high balloons get inflated.

I realized I had blown it again as soon as we arrived after dinner. The crowds were even worse than at the parade, people jamming 77th Street. The kids couldn't see anything. We were freezing. Even worse, we were worried we'd lose the kids. We didn't, but our group got separated: We didn't see them again until we got home.

``You've got to have one adult for each child,'' says David Robbins, a New Yorker who takes his kids every year. ``Make a place to meet if you get lost.''

Despite the crowds and the chaos, the night before has become as much a tradition as the parade. A million people are drawn to Central Park West, says Jean McFaddin, the senior Macy's executive who has been overseeing the parade for the past 21 years.

Other parade-lovers head to Herald Square earlier Thanksgiving week to watch the rehearsals for the mega-event that has become one of the highest-rated TV shows of the year, drawing more than 60 million viewers. More than 4,000 Macy's employees volunteer to be clowns, balloon handlers and work behind the scenes. (Stop by Macy's during the holiday season to see Santa and take part in the new interactive Santa Claus Adventure complete with talking trees, musical stones and a train ride to the North Pole. The best part: Instead of waiting for two hours with whining kids, after Nov. 23, you can pick up your free ticket hours or even days ahead of your visit.)

The handful of Macy's workers who put together the first parade 71 years ago -- without balloons -- would be amazed by the hoopla. Many were first-generation Americans who simply wanted to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season.

The key to the parade's continued success, Macy's executives say: Adding new ever-bigger attractions (watch for the Rugrats triple-character balloon), while keeping the traditional ones alive (Snoopy, Tom Turkey and Spiderman) that adults remember from their childhoods.

Charlie Lizza, for one, wouldn't let Thanksgiving Dinner in Washington, D.C. keep his family from the parade. They'll hit the road as soon as the parade is over. ``We'll get there in plenty of time for dinner,'' he said.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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