Charles Sykes, file, Associated Press
NEW YORK — One man's Elf on the Shelf is another's Kermit the Frog, but at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there is room for both.
The parade has to be a multigenerational crowd-pleaser for the more than 3 million people who typically attend the event and the TV audience of 50 million. There are 86 years of history to honor while making a pitch to first-time fans.
For many families, the parade characters are like the cousins that float around grandma's house: They're familiar, but not everyone at the table knows the backstory.
Giant balloons this year, for example, will add Papa Smurf and the Elf on a Shelf, while Buzz Lightyear, Sailor Mickey Mouse and the Pillsbury Doughboy keep their place in the lineup. A new version of Hello Kitty is also to be included.
"A great thing about the parade balloons is that they are the most recognizable characters in the world. Betty Boop or Felix the Cat — we might not all have been around when they were really popular, but we understand the pop culture significance of them," parade spokesman Orlando Veras says.
Every time a character is added to the family of balloons — which quite literally overshadows everything else — they are guaranteed a run of three years.
"After that," says Veras, "you never know. Sometimes the character owners have other things they want to do with the characters, sometimes we want to retire them, or sometimes we have to retire them because they can't fly anymore."
There have been six versions of Snoopy for a total of 36 parade appearances over the years, making him the most frequent participant. He's sitting out this year so his buddy Charlie Brown can have another turn.
The Muppet Kermit is the longest balloon at 78 feet, and Paul Frank's Julius sock money has the widest smile, measuring 19 feet. This year's Kermit is the one that debuted in 2002, although there was another version born in the 1960s.
—This crawling Spider-Man was created in 2009, more than 20 years after the initial appearance of Peter Parker's alter ego.
—Rex the Happy Dragon is returning as a mid-size balloon. He claims the longest run since he was part of the first parade to include balloons in 1927. That year, he was joined by Felix the Cat and Toy Solider.
—The Elf on the Shelf's name is Chippy. He's part of a newer but popular family tradition that features a doll version of the elf playing hide-and-seek in homes in the run-up to Christmas.
—The claim to fame for Pokemon character Pikachu is being the first special-effect balloon: His cheeks light up. He started flying in 2006. SpongeBob Squarepants, who leaves his Nickelodeon pineapple under the sea, first visited the parade route two years earlier as the first square balloon, which takes more than 600 internal tie lines to pull him into shape. The squishy Pillsbury Doughboy, famous from his TV ads, makes his signature giggle noise as he passes by crowds.
—Blue, bearded Papa Smurf and his 23-foot cane are new, but Clumsy Smurf came ahead of him. His first flight was 2008, and he retired after last year's parade. Smurfs have that multigenerational recognition Macy's is looking for, as today's parents remember them fondly from a 1980s cartoon, but their kids know them as big-screen stars getting a movie sequel next year.
The Macy's parade started in 1924 with mostly the retailer's employees and their families doing most of the work. That's a tradition it upholds today. The only break only during World War II.
The only requirements to be a balloon handler? To be at least 18 years old and weigh 125 pounds or more.
The parade steps off Thanksgiving morning at 9 a.m. and will be shown on NBC. A new app is also being introduced this year that will allow real-time interaction, including the Elf-o-matic feature that can transform users' photos into an Elf balloon.
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