Tips for seeing the 2021 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC

Nov 18, 2021

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There’s not much like seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City in person on a brisk November morning.  Watching massive balloons like Snoopy and even modern favorites such as ‘Baby Yoda’ fly down the street is an iconic experience on many families’ travel wish lists that truly ushers in the holiday season.

Assuming you don’t live in NYC or the immediate area, seeing the parade does require forgoing (or delaying) a traditional Thanksgiving meal at home. But when your kid sees massive cartoon character balloons fly high down Sixth Avenue, skipping a home-cooked turkey one year is likely well worth it.

(Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Macy’s, Inc.)

More than 3.5 million people go to see the Macy’s parade in person during normal times each year. Naturally, 2020 was unusual, but the parade is back in earnest in 2021. So to make sure you aren’t 10 or more people back from the curb, struggling to get a glimpse of the street, you need some strategy and planning.

Having attended the parade ourselves, here are a few tips for families attending this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Related: How to get cheap holiday airfare

Photo courtesy of Macy's
Fanciful floats like this one delight kids and adults. (Photo courtesy of Macy’s)

See the Macy’s balloon inflation the night before

A great way to get an up-close view of the balloons (and get into the parade spirit) is to see the balloons as they are inflated and come to life the night before Thanksgiving.

The inflation starts at noon on the Upper West Side at 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue near the American Museum of Natural History and runs until 6 p.m.

In normal years, there is a very busy but organized trail you can walk to see all the balloons. The earlier you arrive, the less crowded it will be, but know that more balloons will be inflated by say 3 or 4 p.m. than at 1 or 2 p.m. Note that this year, you’ll need a mask and proof of full vaccination unless you are under 12, in which case those kiddos can enter with a fully vaccinated adult.

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Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - spiderman
Spiderman gets ready for his parade adventures. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Be aware that the subway station at 77th may be very crowded, so plan accordingly. Traditionally, getting a cab or rideshare out of the area is pretty easy if you go a block or two north of the gated-off section.

Line up early on the route

When we saw the parade, we did it from roughly 55th Street and 6th Avenue, a few blocks after the parade made its turn from the West Side to head down toward Macy’s. The parade starts at 9 a.m., but we got to our spot a little before 7 a.m., which was too late to get a spot directly on the curb.

However, we were the second row from the curb, which was sufficient, especially since the people in the front were happy to let all the little kids line up in the front to get good views.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The crowd at 7 a.m. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If you want to be sure to have a front-row spot on the curb, you will certainly have to get there even earlier than 7 a.m., as the streets were already lined as far as the eye could see by that time. Based on conversations with some parade pros around us, 6 a.m. is the magic time to get a curb spot on this part of the route. Some portions of the route may require even a little earlier wake-up call than that.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
We got a spot in the second row arriving at 7 a.m. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

For example, we’re told the prime seats in the covered bus stops are full by around 4 a.m.

Prime Macy's Parade seats!
Prime Macy’s parade seats! (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bring something to keep you occupied — and warm

The parade itself starts on 77th Street at Central Park West on the Upper West Side at 9 a.m., which means the lead marchers don’t make their way all the way down the parade route to Macy’s until closer to 9:40 a.m. That results in several hours of waiting around before the parade shows up, so be sure to bring some stuff to keep your kids occupied before the events get going.

We had breakfast on the street, colored and watched some Netflix on our iPhones. The whole Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade event lasts for a couple of hours, so I recommend the little ones stay seated in the hours leading up to the parade to preserve their standing ability for the actual parade.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The crowd behind us by the time the parade started. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bring seats

You can bring camping chairs, buckets or anything else you want to sit on to the parade.

This won’t really be helpful during the parade itself since everyone seems to stand, but it will help make the hours leading up the parade a bit more comfortable. At the very least, I would recommend bringing some hotel towels or blankets to sit on instead of the hard, cold, gum-covered NYC sidewalks.

Save your energy for the parade by sitting during the hours leading up to the event. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Naturally, everyone gets very excited as the parade start time nears. The first thing we spotted were clowns roller skating with bundles of balloons. Soon after came the NYPD motorcycles, horses, marching bands, cheerleaders, floats and, of course, the huge character balloons.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The parade is getting started. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Being so close to the front row meant that our daughter got to interact with the parade. This included high-fives from clowns, confetti thrown and even a face-to-face with a Harlem Globetrotter!

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Harlem Globetrotter (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If you are going to go through the effort to go to the parade with your kids, my advice is to wait until they are at least 4 or 5 years old, especially if only want to go once.

We took our first daughter when she was 4.5 and that was about the youngest I would recommend unless you are local and it’s OK if it doesn’t work out the way you planned. And remember to get up early enough to be close to the front, as otherwise, they might miss some of the magic the parade has to offer.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Kids love a parade. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Know that the parade performances you see on TV, such as the Radio City Rockettes and some dancing and singing groups, don’t happen on the parade route.

A few of the performers ride the floats through the parade and wave at the crowds, but the performances themselves are just done in front of Macy’s Herald Square for the TV cameras. Come to see the floats and balloons, not to see someone (pretend to) sing.

Book a hotel near the parade route

The parade covers so much of the city that there is no one best hotel to stay at for the event. Obviously, there are hotels that are physically on the parade route. But don’t think you can simply book a room at one of the hotels on the route and watch from your window.

While there are some windows at those hotels that will offer good views, hotels are savvy, and those rooms are often sold as part of pricier parade packages with increased rates and minimum stay requirements. In other words, be ready to pony up more cash if you want to confirm a parade route view from your actual hotel room. Also note that the parade route does change some years, so be sure you are looking at the current year’s map.

While you may not get a parade-view room, hotels on the parade route do sometimes have some space outside for guests, or may have partnered with services that hold your spot on the curb for you in the morning for a fee — and yes, that’s a real thing in NYC.

Here are some family-friendly hotels you can book in NYC with points, as well as some tips for navigating the city with kids. On our trip a few years ago, we stayed one avenue off the parade route at the St. Regis New York and loved it. It was a very short walk to and from the parade, which was very much appreciated when the parade ended and we were ready to warm up.

Here are a few points-friendly hotel ideas on or near the parade route:

(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
The St. Regis New York was our home base. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade itself was wonderful. The floats flew high, the weather that year was decent for late November, the people around us were fantastic. And it even started to snow right before Santa arrived at the end of the parade. It was perfect.

Santa at the parade. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

I wouldn’t want to travel from Texas to the parade every year, but I’m so glad we did it with our oldest daughter when she was almost a 5-year-old and I hope to do it again now that my second daughter is in that age range.

As an added bonus, being in NYC for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade means you have perfect timing to go see Santa in person at Santaland on the 8th floor of Macy’s on 34th Street in the following days, though reservations are required so hope on that planning, too.

Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy

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