The parade that serves as the kick-off to the holiday season is back. Wesley Whatley is the creative director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and has been doing the job flawlessly for the past 13 years. Although he is a veteran, it’s a mixture of excitement and anticipation in every possible way for Whatley.
“It’s probably one of the longest running variety shows still on television, and there’s something special about live events. The unexpected can happen,” he said. “We don’t get a dress rehearsal on the streets of New York. We want it to be beautiful and no matter how many years I do this, it’s fresh and new every year.”
As creative director, crafting a musical performance comes down to creating moments that tell different stories throughout the parade from the first clown to Santa’s final appearance.
“The balloons are tied to relationships with partners, so some balloons will come and go to make room for new ones,” said Whatley, who added that one of the most difficult challenges is balancing tradition with innovation. “We’ve had 90 parades and there’s expectations, so we want to deliver new surprises around every corner. There’s a lot of characters that want to be on our parade, and we want the balloons to be instantly recognizable and celebrities in their own right.”
Flying down the parade route for this year’s 90th celebration, Whatley said the team wanted to do something special in recreating the iconic balloon Felix the Cat. The first licensed character that debuted in the 1920s is being recreated in the same manner he was back then (filled with air, not helium), and held up by sticks. This year, there is a total of 16 giant character balloons and 27 novelty or “heritage” balloons in the parade, including a new Charlie Brown balloon where Charlie is entangled in his kite strings, a new version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and the new Dreamworks’ Trolls balloon full of vibrant color.
Preparation for everyone’s favorite holiday parade begins 18 months in advance. Marching bands are selected early so that they can raise funds to travel to New York. The creative team sifts through hundreds of applications before selecting around 10-12 high school and college bands.
“I was a marching band kid…watching those kids perform on stage for 50 million people, it’s a remarkable experience,” said Whatley.
Three to four months out begins the booking of celebrities and performances are crafted. The team looks to pop culture, the current Broadway season and celebrities to determine who the audience wants to see.
“We’re very proud of the 90th anniversary. The first three minutes will be a special tribute to the 90th anniversary with our friends the Muppets. It’s going to be a hilarious and super fun production number,” he said. “Our talent is great, and there’s a special moment at the end where someone who just celebrated a 90th birthday will be performing.”
Parade attendees and viewers can share their experience with a special Snapchat filter. Another unique feature is the Macy’s Parade app that serves as a time traveling, virtual reality experience where people stand in front of Macy’s with their phone and can see the parades in the 1930s and ‘40s as if it was happening live.
“It’s a way for us to celebrate our heritage in a virtual way,” said Whatley.
The 90th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade airs live at 9 a.m. on NBC.