A tall order

Handlers take a newly-inflated Sega’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” helium balloon on a test flight inside the DakotaDome on the University of South Dakota campus Oct. 27. Earlier, the helium-filled balloon depicting a jetpack sporting monkey, Paul Frank’s “Julius,” was led around for a few laps inside the Dome’s wind-free interior. (Photo by David Lias)

Before sitting down to eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, millions of Americans will likely begin Nov. 24 by watching the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as it is televised in New York.

Many Vermillion citizens may not know is that a tiny bit of the parade – specifically, some of its many character helium balloons, have already gotten off the ground at least once.

Right here. In Vermillion. In the perfect place to fly a giant balloon without having to worry about that pesky South Dakota wind – the DakotaDome.

Many of the balloons that appear in the annual Macy's parade are constructed at Aerostar International, a division of Raven Industries in Sioux Falls. Upon completion, the new balloons are taken to the DakotaDome in a clandestine move to give the balloons a test flight with hopefully no one seeing them.

Macy's painstakingly guards the identity of each new balloon until it begins the promotional events leading up to the annual parade.

In a day and age when just about everyone owns a cell phone with a camera, the people at Macy's have discovered that trying to fly a giant helium balloon in a public university's athletic facility without attracting attention is a pretty tall order.

The test flights of two new balloons – a jetpack sporting monkey, Paul Frank's "Julius," and Sega's "Sonic the Hedgehog," took place in the DakotaDome the morning of Oct. 27.

Photos of the new balloons soon spread throughout the community on Facebook. USD even posted snapshots of the balloons taking flight on its official Facebook page.

Macy's officials on hand to watch the balloons' flights in the DakotaDome would not answer questions, and noted that the "national unveiling" of the new balloons would take place earlier this week.

Video of Sonic and Julius undergoing outdoor test flights have been posted by Macy's as part of an electronic press kit at http://magicbulletmedia.com/MNR/MacysParade. The video also includes brief statements from John Piper, vice president, creative director of the Macy's Parade Studio, and Amy Kule, executive producer of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

One of the goals of the outdoor flights featured on the video is to see how the balloons fare outdoors in an environment that's much more realistic than the earlier flight they took in the DakotaDome.

 "This is our celebration of our brand new balloons; it's their day to come out and join the party," Piper said. "It's also our chance to give them one last check. Every step in the process of designing a balloon … we check and double-check every last detail. This is our last chance to put them up in the air, outside, in a wide open area so that they are going to be subject to the weather and the wind so that we can see how they will react and make any last minute adjustments that we need before parade day."

Julius, Piper noted, is over 60 feet long. "Sonic is in a very fast, sort of running pose, so he's taller but not as long," he said in the video. "Julius' arm-span is 39 feet wide; he's going to have this wonderful glide as he comes down the parade route."

It takes a lot of manpower not only to design and build the balloons, but also to get them off the ground on parade day and help them safely glide high over the streets of New York City on Nov. 24.

"All of the giant balloons will have about 50 lines – maybe a little less, maybe a little more," Piper said. "But we'll recruit over 70 handlers so that we make sure that we have extras and can double-up if need be. You've got the 70 people as handlers, you've got a pilot, two co-pilots, a captain, two assistant captains, and three people each with the two vehicles.

"That's a group of 14, plus you have the inflation team and the de-netting team of about another 30 people surrounding the balloon to take everything off to get it prepped and get the balloon up in the air," he said. "Our folks at command that are up at the corner telling them when they get in. It takes a lot of folks to get one balloon up in the air and marching down the parade route."

"It's the 85th anniversary of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the parade itself is a cultural icon," said Kule. "Every year, people look forward to seeing this parade make its way down the streets of New York, bringing the best of America's high school and college marching bands, the biggest floats, and the most wonderful balloons. It is the kick off of the holiday season."

Kule said she and others involved with the parade get to see the various pieces of the event as they are put together each year. Her favorite part of the entire process is seeing the reaction of people when they view all of those separate pieces put together as part of the parade.

"There is nothing like parade day when you see a fan look up in the sky and marvel at one of the magnificent giants taking to the sky during the parade," she said.

The parade will kick off at 9 a.m. Nov. 24, and will feature 15 giant character balloons; 44 novelty/ornament balloons, balloonicles and balloonheads; 27 floats; 1,600 cheerleaders, dancers and performance group members; 800 clowns; 11 marching bands; a host of celebrity performers, and Santa Claus.

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