We all enjoy watching the spectacular Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but do you ever consider what it’s like to be a balloon handler guiding the giant Snoopy and SpongeBob balloons? These seldom-highlighted volunteers are the men and women that (literally) run the parade.
In order to be a qualified balloon handler, you have to be an employee of Macy’s or be sponsored. That’s not all. There are actually strict physical requirements to be considered. Weight and height are taken into account, and you need to be in pretty good shape with no heart problems. There’s good reason for these prerequisites — handlers are responsible for guiding the balloon through the streets, anticipating any high winds and cold weather. Oh, and more than 53 million people are watching from sidelines and at home.
The large balloons have a pull of 300 to 500 pounds, requiring many people to handle them during the 2.5-mile walk through Manhattan. Suzanne Lippe always had balloon handler on her bucket list. “It’s been a lifelong dream since the time I was a kid.” Last year, she was able to make that dream a reality. We were lucky enough to get the scoop on all things balloon from Suzanne.
Balloon Handler Training and Preparation
In order to prepare the balloon handlers, boot camps are held earlier in the year. “There were some people who weren’t able to keep up during the training,” remembers Suzanne. Those who didn’t have the endurance during practice were not able to help on the big day.
Suzanne is really active, and this was a big advantage for the role. “I have a black belt in karate, study Krav Maga and I workout a lot, so I am in pretty good shape.” But even with all that, she says the balloon handling was strenuous.
Besides being responsible for anchoring the balloons, some of the handlers have to be able to do a lot of running. When turning a corner, handlers on the outside have to run while those on the inside stand still—allowing the balloon to pivot on tight New York City street corners. Suzanne opted to be on the outside, explaining that if she was going to do this, she was going to go all out.
Walking the Parade
After finishing the parade, there was still one last task that Suzanne describes as quite strenuous: deflating the balloon. There are Velcro patches that cover nozzles located all over the balloons. You have to throw your body onto the balloon to force the helium out, taking care not to get your face in the path of the exiting air. “A lot of people opted to not take part in that—not me, I think that’s part of the fun,” says Suzanne.
Reflecting back, Suzanne can’t pinpoint one specific instant that was the most exhausting, but thinks it was a culmination things. “The hardest part was coordinating all of it simultaneously. The walking, knowing when to run, navigating the ropes—you have to be aware of everything at once.” And through all of that, handlers are still waving and smiling at the crowds.
“I would love to do it again—but just knowing that I did it, is like accomplishing a childhood dream. It was very surreal.”
Here’s How You Can Prepare
Think you’ve got what it takes to become a balloon handler? We talked to fitness expert Tammy Stokes to learn what type of exercises would be best to prepare someone for the strenuous task of handling these giant balloons on Thanksgiving Day.
Whether it’s your dream to handle balloons or not, get in shape with Tammy’s advice, tips and exercises below.
1. Get Your Arms and Core Ready
Balloon handlers have to carry and guide a really heavy balloon for about an hour. That requires a lot of arm and serious core strength. Pushups can help you prepare. They target your arms, chest and core, serving as one of the most effective bodyweight exercises you can do.
Exercise: Try this awesome version of a compound pushup: start from pushup position and rotate your body opening into a right side plank on one arm, come back to center, do a pushup and rotate to your left side plank. Do as many as you can to build your strength. This hammers your entire upper body strengthening your shoulders, core and rotational power. You may even become a MVP of ballon handlers.
2. Be Sure You Can Manage the Distance
The parade route is 2.5 miles, and while that’s not akin to a marathon, the slow procession and cold weather can make it seem like quite a long time for you to be moving. The right socks and shoes are a must. A good pair of socks will not only keep your feet warm, but also keep them from getting hot spots. Nothing takes the fun out of a parade like aching, blistered feet.
Exercise: Be sure you are trained to physically walk 2.5 miles. If not, start by building up a half mile at a time until you are comfortable with the distance. Don’t forget to incorporate stretching exercises for calves, Achilles tendons and shins.
3. Build Up Endurance for the Sprints
Some handlers have to move quickly and sprint when turning the balloons around corners. Any exercise that mimics running intervals will prepare you, building your cardiovascular endurance.
Exercise: Two good exercises for this would be jump squats and jump jacks. Do as many jump squats as you can handle and then do as many jump jacks as you can handle. Build your conditioning by increasing your number of repetitions in the same amount of time. I recommend starting with sets of 10.
4. Stretch Those Calves
Balloon pilots have to walk backwards for the majority of the parade. This can put a lot of strain on calves. A pulled calf muscle will knock you right out of the parade so be prepared by conditioning yourself, mimicking the movements and actions required to do the job effectively.
Exercise: Calf raises will build the strength of the calf muscles, but it would be best for agility sake too, to spend time walking or jogging backwards in a safe, obstacle-free environment.
5. Prepare for the Cold
Being dressed for success is always part of the program, but definitely spend time outdoors acclimating your body and physically preparing by doing activity in similar weather conditions. By being prepared for the physical requirements of this event, it allows you to fully engage in the fun of the holidays and bring joy to those experiencing the parade.
6. Start with the Right Breakfast
My go-to breakfast in the winter months is a specialty creation, Life Porridge. Full of fiber, this breakfast is truly one of champions. It’s hearty and sustaining. For additional satiety, add nuts or your favorite plant-based milk.
2 cups water
1/4 cup steel cut oats
1/4 cup whole oats
2 tablespoons oat bran
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Bring water to a boil. Add steel cut oats and cook on low heat for 15 minutes. Add whole oats and keep on low for another 5 minutes. Remove the porridge from heat. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Top with fresh or dried berries and nuts. For extra creaminess, stir in your favorite plant-based milk.
Top Photo Courtesy: Anthony Quintano
Author: Allison Klibanoff