Keeping the massive, floating character balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade under control is no easy task. Since the first balloons were introduced to the parade in 1927, they’ve been at the mercy of wind, light poles, and in some cases, the parade’s own poor judgment. Macy’s parade accidents have gotten rarer since the Great Balloon Massacre of 1997 (see entries five and six), but they'll always be a part of the event’s history. Here are some of the most infamous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon-related incidents.
1. The Felix the Cat Balloon Catches Fire.
Macy's didn't have a plan for deflating balloons when it introduced them to the parade in 1927—so for several years, balloons were simply released into the air at the end of the show, where they would stay until they deflated naturally. This method didn't always go as smoothly as intended. In 1931, a balloon modeled after the classic cartoon Felix the Cat got caught in a high-tension wire after its handlers let it go. It burst into flames shortly after becoming ensnared.
2. A Plane Hits the Tom Cat Balloon.
The practice of freeing balloons at the end of the parade continued until 1932, when it nearly led to disaster. During these early years, Macy’s offered reward money to whoever retrieved and returned their loose balloons. Some people went so far as risking their lives to claim the reward. When a 22-year-old woman flying a plane over Queens spotted the 60-foot Tom Cat balloon floating nearby, she flew into it hoping to send it back to Earth. The New York Times reported her saying, "I think I'll have a piece of the neck" to her flight instructor as she made the risky maneuver. The balloon snagged the wing and nearly brought the plane down with it; at one point, the woman came close to falling from the plane when the cabin door flew open. Luckily, her flight instructor was able to regain control of the aircraft. Macy’s decided to officially end its tradition of releasing balloons after that.
3. The Popeye Balloon Rains on Spectators.
Bad weather has led to many parade mishaps. A balloon of Popeye the Sailor debuted on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in 1957, and his cap acted as a reservoir for rainwater. At one point, the balloon’s handlers took a sharp turn that caused water to splash out and soak the crowd below.
4. The Sonic the Hedgehog Balloon Pops.
The balloons for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the streetlights lining the route have been enemies for decades. In 1993, high winds pushed the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon into a pole on West 58th street, leaving a large tear in its eye. Debris from the accident caused minor injuries for a 10-year-old girl and a broken shoulder for an off-duty police officer. Sonic was patched up in time for next year's parade.
5. The Barney Balloon Meets a Violent End.
The 1997 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was plagued with high winds that led to the most notorious accidents of the event’s history. One of the more memorable incidents (especially for any kids in attendance) was the violent destruction of Barney the Dinosaur. After handlers spent several minutes struggling to maintain control of the balloon, the wind knocked it into a streetlight, tearing it open and causing it to deflate. In case that wasn’t traumatic enough, police officers swarmed the balloon with knives and began stabbing new holes in it to release the remaining helium. (The Pink Panther balloon also had to be tamed that year—an officer stabbed a hole in its tail to stabilize it.) You can watch the harrowing scene in its entirety above.
6. The Cat in the Hat Balloon Puts a Woman in a Coma.
You know your parade went poorly when a balloon’s total destruction isn’t the worst incident of the morning. The most infamous balloon accident of 1997—and the parade’s history—happened when the giant Cat in the Hat balloon knocked into a streetlight, causing part of it to fall into the crowd below. The debris injured four people and sent two women to the hospital, one of whom was in a coma for a month. (She later sued Macy’s and New York City and walked away with a multi-million dollar settlement.) The number of accidents the parade saw that year earned it the nickname “The Great Balloon Massacre.” Regulations on the types of balloons allowed in the parade and how they would be handled were tightened the following year to prevent similar disasters in the future.
7. The M&Ms Balloon Showers Glass.
The worst Macy’s accident of the new millennium occurred in 2005. That year, the M&Ms balloon was knocked off course by a sudden gust of wind in Times Square and ended up damaging a light pole. The accident showered broken glass onto spectators and sent two sisters to the hospital for cuts and bruises. They were released hours later without any serious injuries, and their father told The New York Times, "we plan to go back to the parade next year."
8. The Keith Haring Balloon Spooks News Anchors.
In 2008 parade, Macy’s debuted a balloon inspired by the art of Keith Haring, and the 48-foot-tall balloon definitely made an impression. At one point, the massive figure knocked into the booth where Al Roker, Meredith Viera, and Matt Lauer were covering the parade, startling the three Today show anchors and briefly disrupting the program.