Going to New York City for the Thanksgiving Day parade was one of our bucket list items, and it might be yours as well. It’s a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience, but is made much more enjoyable if you follow a few simple tips. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a “one and done” type of trip for us, because we were concerned about the crowds and being able to actually see anything. We all enjoyed it so much I’m fairly certain we will be back.
Pick a hotel as close to the parade route as possible. We chose to stay in midtown right on the parade route. If we wanted we could've watched the parade from our hotel room - which would have been easy and warm, but we didn't come this far to see it but not hear it or truly experience it. This came in handy for a number of reasons. It pays to get a spot early and if you’re on the route you can spend more time sleeping and less time schlepping. We also did the divide and conquer to get a spot. My wife went down first, held her ground for as long as she could, and then called me in for reinforcements (which was still about 6 in the morning). Because some of our children were “older”, we let them sleep in the room as long as they wanted and then they just came down after they woke up and one of us met them in the hotel lobby. This meant they weren’t melting down from exhaustion and requiring us to entertain them for 3-4 hours before the parade actually reached our spot.
The Balloon Inflation
As the week progresses closer to Thanksgiving morning, you can feel the buzz (and crowds) begin to grow in the city. To really get in the spirit we highly recommend attending the balloon inflation the night before the parade. All along the Upper West Side and in Center Park you can watch the balloons slowly begin to inflate for tomorrow’s parade. It’s cool to watch but don’t get there too early, or you’re just going to see empty, flat balloons on the ground. But get there between 8-9 pm and you’ll see all your favorite balloons taking shape. The crowds can get very thick, which is just a dress rehearsal for your crowd tolerance the next day. Best bet: take the subway and exit right at the Natural History Museum at 79th and you can see enough of the balloons on that entire block, and then head back down into the subway and vacate the premises. This is not the night to explore the immediate area. We tried to venture around and see more balloons and spent what felt like hours in a slow movement just to make progress and get fresh air.
Getting a Prime Spot
Remember, it’s a long parade. If you watch it uptown, the parade will start and earlier so you can get on with the rest of your day. If you watch in midtown like we did, the parade has already been going on uptown for a good hour+ before the first marching band or balloon makes its way past you.
There is nothing like being in the front row on the street. The view is great, you’re not smushed or getting squeezed from people in the front or back of you. We even spent most of the time we waited sitting on the curb, which was far better than standing for all those hours! But if you’re going to get there early to be in the front row, you’ll need to dress in layers. Because it will most likely be quite cold when you first arrive (hats and gloves are very beneficial!), and while hot beverages seem like a good idea, they’re not when suddenly they have the adverse affect of needing to find a bathroom but the sidewalks are so full of people you can’t move anywhere. (Yet another reason that hotel location matters – we were able to sneak to the back of our spot and enter our hotel lobby to use their facilities, which would have been far more inconvenient had we not been staying right there, especially considering most stores and restaurants were closed for the holiday!) By the time the parade made it’s way to us the sun was shining and we were down to our vests. But having the layers made the early morning chill bearable and the warmer part of the parade delightful.
The wait will be long and people in your group will get thirsty and hungry, and buying anything will become very difficult and inconvenient as the crowds pack the streets. And by bringing a big bag with you with your food and drink, you’ll have a spot to put all your hats, gloves, mittens, and coats as you begin to shed those clothes when the (hopeful) warm sun comes out!
Managing the Exodus
There’s no way around this, there are millions of people moving around in, out, and through the city. Nothing moves quickly and if you choose to watch from midtown by the end of the parade route, all those people whose viewing has already finished have a head start on the next potential obstacle: getting to your Thanksgiving dinner destination. If you’re staying in the city for Thanksgiving dinner and you stayed at a hotel close to or on your parade watching route, you’ve got it made: go back into the comfy confines of your hotel and wait out the pending madness.
If you have to leave (gulp) to get to grandma’s house or to a departing flight, buckle up because it has the making of a long ride. (And don’t even begin to calculate those Uber surge rate for holidays and traffic!) The amount of cars leaving the area (it is Times Square so it’s naturally just a traffic beast under normal circumstances) is nothing to the cars leaving the island for NJ, Queens, or Staten Island, so get ready for hours of little to no movement on all bridges and tunnels. As with parade preparations, if you have to drive any of these routes, pack snacks and make sure no one is overly hydrated, because the need for a rest stop will not be a fun – or easy – adventure.