15 Post-Harry Potter Revelations from Pottermore

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Since J.K. Rowling launched Pottermore in 2012, the Harry Potter author has been steadily revealing secrets of the wizarding world, delving into the histories of beloved (and some not-so-beloved) characters, and discussing her thoughts on the books and characters. Here are a few things we've learned.

1. THE FIRST MEETING BETWEEN THE POTTERS AND THE DURSLEYS WAS A DISASTER.

Petunia had long hated being overshadowed by her witch sister, and her fiance and future husband, Vernon Dursley, hated all things that weren’t perfectly normal—so they were pretty much predisposed to hating all things magical. But it was the first meeting between the couple and Lily and James that really cemented that attitude:

James was amused by Vernon, and made the mistake of showing it. Vernon tried to patronize James, asking what car he drove. James described his racing broom. Vernon supposed out loud that wizards had to live on unemployment benefit. James explained about Gringotts, and the fortune his parents had saved there, in solid gold. Vernon could not tell whether he was being made fun of or not, and grew angry. The evening ended with Vernon and Petunia storming out of the restaurant, while Lily burst into tears and James (a little ashamed of himself) promised to make things up with Vernon at the earliest opportunity.

Of course, no amends were ever made. Petunia didn’t ask Lily to be a bridesmaid in her wedding, and, Rowling writes, “Vernon refused to speak to James at the reception, but described him, within James' earshot, as 'some kind of amateur magician.'” The couple didn’t attend James and Lily’s wedding, and the last letter Petunia received from the magical pair—Harry’s birth announcement—went in the trash.

Fun fact: Rowling reveals that, though many other characters went through name changes, Petunia and Vernon’s names were set from the start. “‘Vernon’ is simply a name I never much cared for,” she writes. “‘Petunia’ is the name that I always gave unpleasant female characters in games of make believe I played with my sister, Di, when we were very young. … The surname ‘Dursley’ was taken from the eponymous town in Gloucestershire, which is not very far from where I was born. I have never visited Dursley, and I expect that it is full of charming people. It was the sound of the word that appealed, rather than any association with the place.”

2. THE IDENTITIES OF ALL THE MINISTERS FOR MAGIC.

The Ministry of Magic was established in 1707 (it took over for the Wizard Council as the governing body of the wizarding community). Rowling has listed out all of the Ministers for Magic since then, along with short descriptions of their time in office. A few of our favorites include Basil Flack (1752), “Shortest serving minister. Lasted two months; resigned after the goblins joined forces with werewolves”; Evangeline Orpington (1849-55), “A good friend of Queen Victoria’s, who never realised she was a witch, let alone Minister for Magic”; and Wilhemina Tuft (1948-59), a “Cheery witch who presided over a period of welcome peace and prosperity. Died in office after discovering, too late, her allergy to Alihotsy-flavoured fudge.”

3. CORNELIUS FUDGE GAVE HIMSELF THE WIZARDING WORLD’S TOP HONOR.

The Order of Merlin First Class is awarded for “‘acts of outstanding bravery or distinction’ in magic.” Dumbledore received the award—a gold medal on a green ribbon—for defeating the Dark Wizard Grindlewald, a decision everyone agreed with. But when Cornelius Fudge, Minister for Magic, awarded it to himself for “a career that many considered less than distinguished,” there was “a good deal of muttering in the wizarding community.”

4. UMBRIDGE HAD A SQUIB BROTHER—AND A MUGGLE MOM!

You'd never guess from the books that the Mud Blood hating, all-around toad Dolores Umbridge was anything but a pure blood. But Umbridge was a half-blood, the eldest child and only daughter of wizard Orford Umbridge and muggle Ellen Cracknell. Her brother was a Squib. Her parents weren't happy, and, Rowling writes, “Dolores secretly despised both of them”:

Orford for his lack of ambition (he had never been promoted, and worked in the Department of Magical Maintenance at the Ministry of Magic), and her mother, Ellen, for her flightiness, untidiness, and Muggle lineage. Both Orford and his daughter blamed Ellen for Dolores's brother's lack of magical ability, with the result that when Dolores was fifteen, the family split down the middle, Orford and Dolores remaining together, and Ellen vanishing back into the Muggle world with her son. Dolores never saw her mother or brother again, never spoke of either of them, and henceforth pretended to all she met that she was a pure-blood.

The essay explains Umbridge’s rocket ascent through the Ministry of Magic, covers her failure to find a husband, and explains how she came to be on Voldemort’s side during his takeover. You can read the whole thing here.

5. MINERVA MCGONAGALL HAD A SAD CHILDHOOD.

Minerva McGonagall, future Hogwarts Transfiguration teacher and headmistress, was the first child of Reverend Robert McGonagall, a Muggle, and Isobel Ross, a witch. There was just one problem: Isobel didn’t tell Robert that she was a witch until after Minerva was born, a choice that broke the trust between the young witch’s parents. “Minerva, a clever and observant child, saw this with sadness,” Rowling writes:

Minerva was very close to her Muggle father, whom in temperament she resembled more than her mother. She saw with pain how much he struggled with the family's strange situation. She sensed too, how much of a strain it was on her mother to fit in with the all-Muggle village, and how much she missed the freedom of being with her own kind, and of not exercising her considerable talents. Minerva never forgot how much her mother cried, when the letter of admittance into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry arrived on Minerva's eleventh birthday; she knew that Isobel was sobbing, not only out of pride, but also of envy.

This knowledge directly affected McGonagall’s life after Hogwarts, when she met a Muggle named Dougal McGregor, “the handsome, clever and funny son of a local farmer.” They fell in love, and when he proposed, McGonagall accepted. But that very night, she realized their love could never be, because “Dougal did not know what she, Minerva, truly was ... Minerva had witnessed at close quarters the kind of marriage she might have if she wed Dougal. It would be the end of all her ambitions; it would mean a wand locked away, and children taught to lie, perhaps even to their own father. She did not fool herself that Dougal McGregor would accompany her to London, while she went to work every day at the Ministry. He was looking forward to inheriting his father’s farm.”

She broke off their engagement without telling him why—if she violated the International Statute of Secrecy, she would have lost her job at the Ministry, “for which she was giving him up,” Rowling writes. “She left him devastated, and set out for London three days later.”

6. WHY HARRY COULDN’T ALWAYS SEE THESTRALS.

This is something that has bothered many a Harry Potter fan: If thestrals are “invisible to all who have never been truly touched by death,” and if anyone who has seen someone die can see the thestrals, why couldn’t Harry see them after his parents died, or after witnessing Cedric’s murder in the graveyard?

Though she’s touched on it in interviews, Rowling is now making this part of canon, explaining that a person not only needs to witness death to see thestrals, but must also have gained an emotional understanding of what death means ... the precise moment when such knowledge dawns varies greatly from person to person.” Harry was just a baby when his parents died, and therefore couldn’t comprehend it. And after Cedric died, it took weeks “before the full import of death’s finality was borne upon [Harry].” Only after that had happened could he see the creepy (but “kindly and gentle”) thestrals.

7. SYBILL TRELAWNEY WAS MARRIED!

Unfortunately, it ended “in unforeseen rupture when she refused to adopt the surname ‘Higginbottom.’” Also fun: One of her hobbies is “sherry.”

8. ICE CREAM PARLOR OWNER FLOREAN FORTESCUE WAS KIDNAPPED AS PART OF A PLOT ROWLING DECIDED NOT TO USE.

Many a book reader has been puzzled by the Death Eaters’ abduction and killing of Florean Fortescue, the wizard, magical history buff, and ice cream parlor owner Harry meets in Prisoner of Azkaban. In one Pottermore extra, Rowling revealed that she had “originally planned Florean to be the conduit for clues that I needed to give Harry during his quest for the Hallows, which is why I established an acquaintance fairly early on … I imagined the historically-minded Florean might have a smattering of information on matters as diverse as the Elder Wand and the diadem of Ravenclaw, the information having been passed down in the Fortescue family from their august ancestor,” former Hogwarts Headmaster Dexter Florean:

As I worked my way nearer to the point where such information would become necessary, I caused Florean to be kidnapped, intending him to be found or rescued by Harry and his friends.

The problem was that when I came to write the key parts of Deathly Hallows I decided that Phineas Nigellus Black was a much more satisfactory means of conveying clues. Florean's information on the diadem also felt redundant, as I could give the reader everything he or she needed by interviewing the Grey Lady.

So, unfortunately, Rowling had the character meet his untimely end for no real reason at all. “He is not the first wizard whom Voldemort murdered because he knew too much (or too little),” Rowling writes, “but he is the only one I feel guilty about, because it was all my fault.”

9. DRACO MALFOY WAS RAISED TO BELIEVE HARRY WAS A GREAT DARK WIZARD.

One of many theories that went around after Harry survived Voldemort’s curse was that The Boy Who Lived was actually a great Dark wizard—and it was this theory that Lucius Malfoy, Draco’s father, clung to. “It was comforting to think that he, Lucius, might be in for a second chance of world domination, should this Potter boy prove to be another, and greater, pure-blood champion,” Rowling writes. Which is why Draco went out of his way to befriend Harry on the Hogwarts Express:

Harry’s refusal of Draco’s friendly overtures, and the fact that he had already formed allegiance to Ron Weasley, whose family is anathema to the Malfoys, turns Malfoy against him at once. Draco realised, correctly, that the wild hopes of the ex-Death Eaters – that Harry Potter was another, and better, Voldemort – are completely unfounded, and their mutual enmity is assured from that point.

Rowling also reveals that Draco could have had a very different last name; Smart, Spinks, or Spungen were all options.

10. SOME WIZARDS USE “NAMING SEERS.”

In the Harry Potter world, this “ancient wizarding practice”—in which a witch or wizard gifted with the sight “will predict the child’s future and suggest an accurate moniker”—will cost parents a lot of gold. But Rowling writes that it’s going out of vogue.

11. THERE’S ONLY ONE LICENSED MAKER OF FLOO POWDER IN BRITAIN.

This substance, invented by Ignatia Wildsmith in the 13th century, is made in Britain by Floo-Pow, “a company whose headquarters are in Diagon Alley, and who never answer their front door.” The price, 100 sickles for a scoop, has remained a constant for 100 years. Much like the recipes for Coke and Bush’s Baked Beans, the precise composition of Floo Powder, Rowling writes, is “a closely guarded secret”:

Those who have tried to “make their own” have been universally unsuccessful. At least once a year, St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries reports what they call a ‘Faux Floo’ injury— in other words, somebody has thrown a homemade powder onto a fire and suffered the consequences. As irate Healer and St Mungo’s spokeswizard, Rutherford Poke, said in 2010: “It’s two Sickles a scoop, people, so stop being cheap, stop throwing powdered Runespoor fangs on the fire and stop blowing yourselves out of the chimney! If one more wizard comes in here with a burned backside, I swear I won’t treat him. It’s two Sickles a scoop!”

12. THE MALFOYS WEREN'T ALWAYS SO HATEFUL OF MUGGLES.

Rowling reveals in the Malfoy family history that, at one point, they were quite close to Muggles they deemed worthy. “In spite of their espousal of pure-blood values and their undoubtedly genuine belief in wizards' superiority over Muggles, the Malfoys have never been above ingratiating themselves with the non-magical community when it suits them,” Rowling writes. This includes—according to rumor, anyway—trading in Muggle money and assets, annexing Muggle land, and procuring Muggle art and other treasures for the family collection.

They often hung out in Muggle social circles as well—but only wealthy Muggles, of course. “Historically, the Malfoys drew a sharp distinction between poor Muggles and those with wealth and authority,” Rowling writes. “Until the imposition of the Statute of Secrecy in 1692, the Malfoy family was active within high-born Muggle circles, and it is said that their fervent opposition to the imposition of the Statute was due, in part, to the fact that they would have to withdraw from this enjoyable sphere of social life.”

Once the Ministry of Magic—“the new heart of power”—was founded, the Malfoys “performed an abrupt volte-face, and became as vocally supportive of the Statute as any of those who had championed it from the beginning, hastening to deny that they had ever been on speaking (or marrying) terms with Muggles.”

13. LUCIUS MALFOY I WANTED TO MARRY A QUEEN.

It's not that surprising that a member of this ambitious and power-hungry would want to be royalty. “There is ample evidence to suggest that the first Lucius Malfoy was an unsuccessful aspirant to the hand of Elizabeth I, and some wizarding historians allege that the Queen's subsequent opposition to marriage was due to a jinx placed upon her by the thwarted Malfoy,” Rowling writes. This, of course, happened long before the Malfoys changed their tune on Muggles, and later, the scandalous story was “hotly denied by subsequent generations.”

14. FENRIR GREYBACK ATTACKED REMUS LUPIN BECAUSE OF SOMETHING LUPIN’S FATHER SAID.

During Voldemort’s initial rise to power, Lyall Lupin, Remus’s father, joined the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, where he encountered Fenrir Greyback, “who had been brought in for questioning about the death of two Muggle children.” Because the Werewolf Registry was poorly maintained, and Lupin’s colleagues didn’t see the signs, they believed Greyback’s claim that he was a Muggle tramp. “Lyall Lupin was not so easily fooled,” Rowling wrote. “He ... told the committee that Greyback ought to be kept in detention until the next full moon, a mere twenty-four hours later.” When his colleagues laughed at him, Lupin grew angry, calling werewolves “soulless, evil, deserving nothing but death.” After Greyback was released, he told his fellow werewolves how Lupin had described them, and vowed to get his revenge—which he did, shortly before Remus turned 5:

As [Remus Lupin] slept peacefully in his bed, Fenrir Greyback forced open the boy's window and attacked him. Lyall reached the bedroom in time to save his son's life, driving Greyback out of the house with a number of powerful curses. However, henceforth, Remus would be a full-fledged werewolf.

Lyall Lupin never forgave himself for the words he had spoken in front of Greyback at the inquiry ... He had parroted what was the common view of werewolves in his community, but his son was what he had always been—loveable and clever—except for that terrible period at the full moon when he suffered an excruciating transformation and became a danger to everyone around him. For many years, Lyall kept the truth about the attack, including the identity of the attacker, from his son, fearing Remus's recriminations.

15. AZKABAN HAS A REALLY DARK HISTORY.

Rowling writes that the North Sea island on which the prison is built has never appeared on any map, wizard or muggle. An early resident, a sorcerer named Ekrizdis who practiced the worst kinds of dark magic, lured Muggle sailors there and tortured and killed them. When he died, the concealment charms faded, and the Ministry became aware of the island’s existence. “Those who entered to investigate refused afterwards to talk of what they had found inside,” Rowling writes, “but the least frightening part of it was that the place was infested with dementors.”

See Also: 12 Post-Potter Revelations J.K. Rowling Has Shared

47 Fun Facts About the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

A turkey float near the start of the 92th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC
A turkey float near the start of the 92th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC
webpay/iStock via Getty Images

On Thursday, November 28, Macy's will send its 93rd Thanksgiving Day Parade down the streets of Manhattan—a spectacle that millions of people tune in to watch from the comfort of their homes. Here are a few things you might not have known about the iconic holiday event.

1. The Macy's parade was initially Christmas-themed.

A black-and-white photo from an early Macy's Thanksgiving parade
Macy's

The “Macy’s Christmas Parade” debuted in 1924 as a way to celebrate the expansion of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store, which covered an entire city block and became the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Store.” According to The New York Times, “the majority of participants were employees of the stores. There were, however, many professional entertainers who kept the spectators amused as they passed by. Beautiful floats showed the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet, and Red Riding Hood. There were also bears, elephants, donkeys and bands, making the procession resemble a circus parade.” (The animals came from the Central Park Zoo.)

2. The parade originally ended with the unveiling of Macy's Christmas window displays.

The parade began at 145th Street and Convent Avenue and continued down to Macy’s huge store on 34th Street. All along the route, according to the Times, the parade “was welcomed by such crowds that a large force of policemen had its hands full maintaining the police lines.” Some 10,000 people watched Santa—who rode on a float designed to look like a sled being pulled by reindeer—be crowned “King of the Kiddies,” then enjoyed the unveiling of the store’s Christmas windows. The parade was such a success that Macy’s decided to make it an annual event; it would become the Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927.

3. There were objections to the parade early on.

Advertising from an early Macy's parade
Macy's

Two years after the first parade, the Allied Patriotic Societies protested, telling Macy’s that it shouldn’t hold the event on Thanksgiving because “it would interfere with Thanksgiving Day worship,” according to The New York Times, and because it wasn’t appropriate for a commercial company to hold a parade on the holiday. If the company didn’t acknowledge its protest, the association declared that it would go to the police commissioner and ask him to revoke the parade permit.

Percy Straus, who worked for Macy’s, attended the association's meeting. He pointed out that there was no blatant advertising in the parade, and that the word "Macy's" was used just once. “He also said that Thanksgiving morning was the only time when children would be free to watch and traffic would be light enough to permit the parade’s passing,” the Times wrote. “It would be over, he thought, in ample time to permit churchgoing.” Straus’s justifications didn’t make a difference; the association voted to protest the parade, but its efforts to get the event canceled were unsuccessful—the parade went on as usual.

4. It wasn't new york city's first thanksgiving parade.

Before the Macy’s Parade, there was the "Thanksgiving Ragamuffin Parade," an event where local children dressed up as beggars and asked adults on the street for pennies, candy, and apples. The Macy’s Parade was such a success that it quickly drove the now-obscure Ragamuffin Parade out of business.

5. The parade's character balloons were inspired by a float.

A sepia-toned photo of an early Macy's float
Macy's

The Balloonatics float—which, as the name would suggest, was festooned with balloons—inspired the creation of the character balloons. These days, the people who design the balloons are called “Balloonatics.”

6. The character balloons in the parade debuted in 1927.

Three years after the first annual parade, balloons made their debut. According to The New York Times, the parade included “a ‘human behemoth’ 21 feet tall … [that] had to crawl under the elevated structure at 66th and Broadway,” “a ‘dinosaur’ 60 feet long attended by a bodyguard of prehistoric cavemen,” and “a 25-foot dachshund [that] swayed along in the company of gigantic turkeys and chickens and ducks of heroic size.” Also in the parade that year, but not mentioned in the Times, was the first character balloon, Felix the Cat.

7. For a few years, there were “balloon races.”

A black-and-white photo of a dog balloon at an early Macy's parade
Macy's

The first year, Macy’s had no plans for deflating its balloons, so they were released into the air, where they quickly popped. But that all changed with the 1928 parade.

That year, Macy’s released five huge figures—an elephant, a 60-foot tiger, a plumed bird, an “early bird” trailing worms, and a 25-foot-high ghost—into the sky. While the majority of the balloons in the parade used regular air to stay afloat, these figures were built around helium balloon bodies, which were designed to slowly leak the gas. As The New York Times explained, “The figures are expected to rise to 2000 to 3000 feet and are timed by a slow leak to stay aloft for a week to 10 days. By then it is expected they will have alighted in various parts of the country.” Whoever returned the balloons would receive a $100 reward.

The first balloon to land was the Tiger, which the Times reported landed on the roof of a Long Island home: “A tug of war ensued for its possession … neighbors and motorists rushed up from all directions. The rubberized silk skin burst into dozens of fragments.”

By December 1, four of the balloons had landed (one in the East River, where it broke in two and was pursued by tugboats). The ghost, however, was “reported as having been sighted moving out to sea over the Rockaways with a flock of gulls in pursuit,” according to the Times.

8. The parade's last balloon race was held in 1932.

The parade held its last balloon race in 1932 after two incidents involving airplanes. In 1931, aviator Colonel Clarence Duncan Chamberlin snagged a balloon in mid-air and towed it back to his home and received $25 as a reward. In 1932, according to some sources, a 22-year-old woman taking flying lessons purposefully flew the plane she was piloting into one of the released balloons. It was only the quick action of her instructor that kept the plane from crashing.

9. The parade was broadcast for the first time in 1932.

These broadcasts were radio-only, so listeners had to use their imaginations. The first televised parade took place in 1946 and was limited to the New York area only.

10. Mickey Mouse made his parade debut in 1934.

A black-and-white photo of Micky Mouse at an early Macy's Thanksgiving parade
Macy's

Macy’s designers collaborated with Walt Disney to create the 40-foot-high, 23-foot-wide balloon, which was “held down to Earth by 25 husky attendants,” according to The New York Times. The parade that year also featured the first balloon based on a real person: comedian and vaudeville star Eddie Cantor.

11. The parade floats used to be pulled by horses.

The Thanksgiving Day parade floats were pulled by horses until 1939. You can see footage of the first horse-free event above.

12. The parade was halted during World War II.

There were rubber and helium shortages, so Macy’s canceled the parade from 1942 to 1944. The company deflated its rubber balloons—which weighed 650 pounds total—and donated them to the government. (These days, the balloons are made of polyurethane fabric.) The parade returned in 1945, and in 1946 got a new route, which started at 77th Street and Central Park West and ended at 34th Street—half the length of the previous route.

13. A 1958 helium shortage almost grounded the parade’s balloons.

A row of helium tanks
scanrail/iStock via Getty Images

Initially, it looked like a helium shortage would keep Macy’s parade balloons from flying in 1958. But the company collaborated with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and the rigging specialists Traynor & Hansen Corporation to come up with a creative solution: According to The New York Times, the balloons were filled with air and dangled from “large, mobile construction derricks.” The paper also described a test of the method:

“A motorized derrick with a 70-foot boom had a specially built wood-and-steel hanger attached to the end of the wire hoisting cable. The Toy Soldier, weighing more than 200 pounds deflated, was stretched full-length on a canvas carpet. Limp and sickly looking, it was not the robust figure children and adults are used to seeing. Lines from the body of the balloon were attached to the hanger while two vacuum cleaners, working in reverse, blew in air. An hour of blowing filled the figure out nicely and the boom hoisted it into the air.”

14. Strong winds caused the balloons to be grounded in 1971.

The balloons have only been grounded once since 1927, when winds during the 1971 parade were too strong for them to fly.

15. One especially long-lasting dinosaur balloon got a sendoff at the American Museum of Natural History.

The exterior of New York City's American Museum of Natural History
diegograndi/iStock via Getty Images

A 1976, a green balloon modeled on an Apatosaurus dinosaur that had appeared in 13 parades was displayed inside the AMNH’s Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda for five days before being retired. Instead of helium, it was filled with air, and visitors got a chance to see it up close. The historic balloon also appeared in the parades in 2015 and 2017.

16. Macy's is a major world consumer of helium, thanks to the parade.

Thanks to the parade, Macy's is reportedly the second-largest consumer of helium in the world. Only the U.S. government consumes more, with NASA and the Department of Defense leading the charge.

17. The parade floats fold down small.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Balloon Inflation on the night before Thanksgiving. Next to the Museum of Natural History in New York City
SergeYatunin/iStock via Getty Images

Since 1968, the floats have been designed by artists at Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey. The floats can be up to 40 feet tall and 28 feet wide—but they fold down into a 12-foot-by-8-foot box to make the journey through the Lincoln Tunnel.

18. The parade features float-based balloons.

the parade features float-based balloons called falloons—a combination of float and balloon—which were introduced sometime around 1990. There are also balloon vehicles called balloonicles (a portmanteau of balloon and vehicle), which made their debut in 2004. Trycaloons—balloons on tricycles—hit the parade in 2011.

19. All of the balloons are designed in-house by Macy’s artists—and it's a long process.

Macy’s balloon designers—dubbed “balloonatics”—begin their work up to a year before the parade with pencil sketches of each character, analyzing not just aesthetics but also aerodynamics and engineering. The sketches are followed by scaled-down clay models that are used to create casts of the balloons. Two miniature replicas are created: One that’s marked with technical details, and one that’s painted in the balloon’s colors. The models are immersed in water to figure out how much helium they’ll need to float. Finally, the schematics are scanned by computer, and the fabric pieces are cut and heat-sealed to create the various air chambers of the balloon.

20. The parade's balloons are painted only after they're inflated.

Once the balloon is created, it's painted while inflated (otherwise, the paint will crack), then undergoes leak testing and indoor and outdoor flight tests. No wonder it costs at least $190,000 for a first-time balloon (after a first appearance, it costs $90,000 a year after that). The balloons are completed by Halloween and stored along a wall in the design studio's balloon warehouse.

21. The balloons are directed by “balloon pilots.”

The 87th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators. Turkey with Pilgrim riders
ALEXIUZ/iStock via Getty Images

They’re the people walking backwards in front of the balloon, directing a crew of volunteers holding guide ropes (called “bones”) and two Toro utility vehicles. Macy’s offers training three times a year for pilots. “We offer the pilots and captains the chance to go around the field a couple times with the balloon a couple of times and practice the instruction and guidance,” Kelly Kramer, a longtime Macy’s employee and balloon pilot, told Vanity Fair in 2014. “We also have classroom training.”

22. Being a balloon pilot takes some physical training, too.

It’s also important for balloon pilots to train physically; if not, “The next morning you wake up and you almost cannot get out of bed because your calves seize up,” according to Kramer. “I walked backwards in my neighborhood at night.”

23. People who want to volunteer to walk with the balloons have to meet certain requirements.

Balloon handlers float Olaf down Central Park South during the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
TD Dolci/iStock via Getty Images

It takes 90 minutes to inflate the big balloons, which, on average, contain 12,000 cubic feet of helium, which is capable of lifting nearly 750 pounds (or filling 2500 bathtubs). Each balloon requires up to 90 handlers, who have to weigh at least 120 pounds and be in good health.

24. The balloons are inflated the day before the parade—which is an event in its own right.

The balloons are inflated the day before the parade outside the American Museum of Natural History, then topped off the day of. Because helium expands in the sun, the balloons are typically left slightly under-inflated.

25. One character has appeared in the parade more than any other.

A vintage photo of a Snoopy balloon at a Macy's Thanksgiving parade
Macy's

That honor goes to Snoopy, who debuted in the 1968 parade and has had a grand total of seven balloons. The beloved character has made 39 appearances on and off through 2015, but in 2016, he was replaced by Charlie Brown. Fortunately, Snoopy will be returning for the 2019 parade.

26. There was one year when Santa Claus wasn't the parade's finale.

In 1933, Santa led the parade instead of closing it. It was the only year where the jolly red guy wasn't the grand finale.

27. Some of the parade's balloons get their start in South Dakota.

Many of the parade balloons are made by Raven Industries, a rubber firm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Since 1984, Raven has made nearly 100 balloons. Beginning in April, it takes 25 employees to work on the year’s balloons.

28. Some weird balloons have been featured in the Thanksgiving Day parade.

Among them were the Nantucket Sea Monster (1937), the wrestler The Terrible Turk (which memorably hit a traffic pole and split in half in 1931), a Pinocchio with a 44-foot-long nose (1937), a couple of two-headed balloons (1936), an ice cream cone and a jack ‘o lantern (1945), a space man (1952), Smokey Bear (1969), cereal spokes-animal Linus the Lion (1973), and more.

29. Those giant balloons face a lot of threats.

There are many things that pose threats to the parade balloons: electric wires (which caused the Felix the Cat balloon to burst into flames when it hit them in 1931), rain (which filled the Popeye balloon’s hat with water, which got dumped on spectators along the parade route in 1957), tree branches (which once tore off Superman’s hand). But a balloon’s greatest enemy is wind: In 1993, wind caused the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon to hit a lamppost; the light fell and injured one. In 1997, police stabbed a Pink Panther balloon when wind sent it careening; that same year, the wind made an oversized Cat in the Hat balloon hit a streetlight, sending two people to the hospital with head injuries (after the incident, the parade instituted new size rules). In 2005, an M&M balloon got tangled on a streetlamp, causing the lamp to fall and injuring two, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Each balloon flies at a height determined by its size and weather conditions, and the wind poses such a threat that if sustained wind speeds or gusts are too strong, the balloons won’t fly.

30. Deflating the Thanksgiving Day parade balloons takes just 15 minutes.

Spongebob Squarepants float, with view of skyscrapers on Sixth Ave and cell phones and marchers, at the Macy's Parade Nov 2016
Christine Wolf Gagne/iStock via Getty Images

After the parade is over, the balloons are deflated behind Macy’s on Seventh Avenue. First, the volunteers open up zippers on the sides of the balloons; when most of the helium has escaped, they lie on the balloon to get all the helium out, then roll the character up from front to back. The balloon is then put in storage until the next parade.

31. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade was led by the same woman for 24 years.

Jean McFaddin served as the senior vice president for Macy’s special productions from 1977 to 2001, which meant she was responsible not only for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, but also Macy’s famous Santaland, among other things.

32. Some parades have been held in especially frigid temperatures.

The first snowstorm on parade day was in 1989, and dumped 4.7 inches on the city. But at just 19°F, the coldest parade was in 2018.

33. The former Macy's parade studio had a sweet beginning.

A Tootsie Roll candy bar
memoriesarecaptured/iStock via Getty Images

For four decades, the parade's studio was located in a former Tootsie Roll Factory in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 2011, the studio moved to a 71,000-square-foot warehouse in Moonachie.

34. Some big celebrities have served as commentators.

In addition to the Today show hosts that host the parade now, past parade commentators have included Betty White, Ed McMahon, Shari Lewis, Helen Reddy, Della Reese, and Phylicia Rashād.

35. Beavis and Butt-head were parade commentators during one memorable year.

In 1997, Beavis and Butthead commentated on the parade along with host Kurt Loder. They called the special Beavis and Butt-head Do Thanksgiving, and they even got their own balloon featuring their likenesses sitting on a couch. The balloon wasn’t on the parade route, but rather tethered to a building on the route.

36. Musicals have been part of the Macy's parade for decades.

Broadway musicals have been featured in the parade since at least 1980, when The Pirates of Penzance performed atop a pirate ship.

37. The bleacher seats are reserved for special guests.

The bleacher seats that line key sections of the parade may seem like the perfect seats, but unless you know someone, you probably won’t find yourself sitting there: They’re reserved for Macy’s guests only, and no tickets are sold for those seats.

38. You can’t get married or engaged at the Thanksgiving Day parade, so don’t even try.

General atmosphere at the 86th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 22, 2012 in New York City.
scarletsails/iStock via Getty Images

The question is raised enough that it’s addressed in the FAQ section of the Macy’s Parade website: “Though it would be an honor to share in this special moment, this is not something that we can take part in or approve. At this time, we’re devoted to producing the nation’s most beloved holiday event and coordinating more than 8000 participants, dozens of floats, balloons and vehicles, security and other major logistics.”

39. It’s not the oldest Thanksgiving Parade in the U.S.

That distinction belongs to Philadelphia, where Gimbel’s, a department store, held a modest affair in 1920. It got less modest as time went on.

40. When 9/11 happened, parade organizers added patriotic and New York-centric floats and balloons.

Additions included a Statue of Liberty float with the flags of all 50 states, floats for the fire and police departments, and a Big Apple float that featured the city’s emergency services workers and other officials.

41. Contemporary artists have created balloons for the parade too.

The “Blue Sky Gallery” is a special part of the parade that invites contemporary artists to transform their work into balloons. Beginning in 2005, artists have included Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Tim Burton, Takashi Murakami, KAWS, and, for 2019, Yayoi Kusama.

42. Yes, the singers on the parade floats all lip-sync.

That's true even if they’re amazing live performers. Why? Because the floats aren’t equipped to deliver the proper sound quality, as John Legend pointed out in 2018.

43. Some of the parade balloons get a second life in Florida.

For several years, select balloons from the parade were sent down to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, to make special appearances in the park during the holiday season. The event has since been rebranded “Universal’s Holiday Parade Featuring Macy’s,” with Macy’s designing 13 balloons exclusively for Universal.

44. The Rockettes have been involved for decades.

The dance troupe and their signature high kicks have been a parade staple since their first appearance in 1957.

45. Marching bands have to apply months ahead of time for the parade.

Bands across the U.S. have to apply well in advance to be considered for a spot in the parade. After submitting an application and a video of the band’s field marching performance, approved bands are notified roughly 18 months in advance.

46. In 2012, shredded documents from the Nassau County Police Department ended up as confetti in the parade.

A pile of shredded papers
Aschen/iStock via Getty Images

Sensitive information that was clearly visible included Social Security numbers, license plate numbers, and banking data. Macy’s only uses multi-colored confetti, a spokesperson said, and authorities were investigating how the private documents ended up in the parade.

47. We might get a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade movie one day.

A Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade movie was once in the works, with a premise that included the oversized balloons coming to life. Presumably it’s still floating around in development.

10 Facts About the Aberfan Disaster of 1966

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In season 3 of The Crown, viewers witness a harrowing re-creation of the 1966 Aberfan disaster—a catastrophic landslide that killed 144 residents (most of whom were children) in a small village in South Wales. Though it seemed at first to have been an unforeseeable geological accident, the world soon discovered that there was much more to the story.

From the illuminating inquiry that took place in the aftermath to Queen Elizabeth II’s somber visit to the disaster scene, here is some additional history about the tragic event.

1. Aberfan residents had complained about the danger of coal tips.

The village of Aberfan, South Wales, was established around the Merthyr Vale coal mine, which had been depositing its waste materials into giant heaps known as coal tips since 1869.

Coal Tip 7, which was started in 1958, was especially worrying to the people of Aberfan for two reasons: It was built on top of porous sandstone and underwater springs, and it was located right behind a school.

“I regard it as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain,” a waterworks engineer wrote to the district’s public works superintendent in 1963 before escalating the matter to the National Coal Board, which failed to halt operations.

2. On October 21, 1966, coal tip 7 finally collapsed.

On a Friday morning around 9:15 a.m., after days of heavy rain, the 111-foot-tall coal tip 7—which was comprised of about 300,000 cubic yards of waste—became a landslide that crashed into Pantglas Junior School and its surrounding buildings at speeds of up to 50 mph.

3. The landslide wasn’t silent.

Though they didn’t know the source of the deafening rumble at the time, survivors of the disaster compared the sound of the avalanche to the roar of a low-flying jet or loose trams hurtling downhill.

4. Of the 144 casualties, 116 were children.

Pantglas Junior School was the main building affected by the catastrophic collapse. Of the school's 240 students, most of whom were between 7 and 11 years old, 116 died in the landslide, along with five teachers and 28 residents of nearby farm cottages and terrace houses. The youngest victim was 3 months old and the oldest was 82 years old. The official causes of death were primarily classified as "suffocation," "multiple injuries," or "skull fractures," but one man—who lost both his wife and two sons in the accident—very publicly urged authorities to change the death certificates to read "buried alive by the National Coal Board."

5. Disaster responders flooded the town to help organize rescue efforts.

As firefighters, police, medical personnel, and other disaster responders worked tirelessly around the clock to clear debris and rescue survivors from the decimated buildings, the rest of the town helped manage the chaos. Bodies were taken to Bethania Chapel (which was destroyed by an arsonist in 2015), where volunteers cleaned the coal from them and escorted parents around to identify them. A local chip shop became the distribution center for death certificates.

"There were no council offices nearby and someone must have said ‘the chip shop—everyone knows that,'" Detective Inspector Charles Nunn, who helped organize the chapel mortuary, told the BBC. "It was the most efficient way. It seems so incongruous now."

6. Princess Margaret encouraged people to send toys to the surviving children.

After the landslide, Princess Margaret asked people to "think of the loneliness of the brothers, sisters, and young relatives who survived" and send toys to them. The response was so overwhelming that the post office in Cardiff—Wales's capital city, which is located about 20 miles south of Aberfan—had to store them in four empty buildings.

7. Queen Elizabeth II visited Aberfan eight days after the landslide.

Prince Philip and then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson both visited Aberfan within 24 hours of the disaster, but the Queen herself didn’t make an appearance until eight days later—a delay that she reportedly told her private secretary, Lord Martin Charteris, was her “biggest regret.” During her visit, she toured the town with her husband, spoke with bereaved families, and had tea with town Councillor Jim Williams, who had lost seven family members in the landslide. Before she left, 3-year-old Karen Jones gave the Queen a small bouquet with a card that read: "From the remaining children of Aberfan."

8. Queen Elizabeth has made several more trips to Aberfan since the disaster.

queen elizabeth II's tree at aberfan memorial garden
The tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II in the memorial garden.

While the Queen may have felt that she made a mistake in waiting so long to visit Aberfan the first time, the townspeople have expressed gratitude over the years for her continued efforts to commemorate the disaster and support the community. She returned in 1973 to open a community center, visited again in 1997 to plant a tree in the Garden of Remembrance, and most recently returned in 2012 to open a new school.

9. Villagers petitioned to have the remaining coal tips removed.

Even after the disaster, officials assured the public that the mountains of coal waste weren’t dangerous—but Aberfan residents were (understandably) adamant about their removal, and even went so far as to dump heaps of slurry in the Welsh Office’s reception area in protest. After that, Wales’s secretary of state George Thomas agreed to get rid of them.

However, Thomas was hardly the hero of this story: Removing the coal tips was a costly process, and Thomas ultimately decided that the bill could and should be footed by the residents of Aberfan. His decision to present the grieving townspeople with a bill for £250,000 (which would be just under $6 million in today's dollars) was met with a universally negative backlash. Especially since the money, which Thomas dubbed a "local contribution," was to be paid out of a charitable fund that had been established to help rebuild the town.

10. A tribunal found the National Coal Board guilty of “bungling ineptitude.”

On October 26, 1966, the Welsh government launched an inquiry, headed by barrister Sir Herbert Edmund Davies, to determine the cause of the landslide and decide if anyone should be held responsible. Though, for most of the 76-day tribunal, the National Coal Board (NCB) maintained that only the weather was to blame, NCB chairman Lord Robens finally conceded that his organization was at fault.

The tribunal’s report, published on August 3, 1967, called the disaster “a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above.” The National Coal Board paid £500—a little over $640 then, or $10,000 now—to each victim’s family, but no individual employee from the Coal Board was ever fired, demoted, or even fined.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER