We’ve started talking about holiday traditions at GeekMom, and more than any December tradition this Thanksgiving treat stands out as my favorite from childhood.
As kids growing up in New Jersey my mom brought us into Manhattan almost every year on Thanksgiving eve to watch the parade balloons get inflated. It was much different when I was little. Not everyone knew about this hidden city gem, and there was no 10 p.m. curfew like there is now. You could wander leisurely around the balloons all night undisturbed, with very few crowds. We would buy roasted chestnuts and hot chocolate from the street vendors and take in the new balloons before the chaos of the parade the next day. I felt like we were up at all hours of the night, throwing out our usual bedtimes to take in a secret of the city. My mom tells me now that we were rarely out past 6 p.m. It was still an adventure, and those visits are my earliest memories of the magic of New York City.
The smell of roasted nuts in New York still takes me back to those Thanksgiving memories, and after a few typical teenage years of being too cool for such things I took up the tradition again after college. But in those missed years the balloon inflation had become A Thing. The first time I went back the crowds were totally insane, and my friends (and future husband) stood in line for hours in the cold (and the dark) to crane our necks for a peek at a balloon. I had a lot of friends who went once and never went again. They wrote it off as one of those New York things you have to do once but won’t necessarily enjoy. I thought that was sad since I had loved the experience so much growing up.
So on and off I’ve spent the years since trying to figure out a better plan of action to make the balloon inflation the awesome experience I remembered. Some years I’ve even gone alone. We haven’t made it every year, but assuming the weather holds up this Wednesday it will be my fourth year in a row. And my daughter’s third visit (if you count the year I was pregnant, which I absolutely do).
Here’s the lay of the land:
The balloon inflation is open to the public this Wednesday, November 27th from 3-10 p.m. The balloons line West 77th Street and West 81st Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. Basically, the north and south ends of the American Museum of Natural History. Police barricades are put up so that everyone entering the area is funneled through one spot at 77th Street and Columbus (and you’re not allowed north at the entrance — you have to walk all the way around the south end of the museum and up Central Park West). This is the only way in or out if you arrive on foot or by cab, and the lines get intense as the evening progresses. But here are some tricks to help beat the crowds and really enjoy the experience.
Go early. The closer to 3 p.m. you arrive, the better. Even by 4 p.m. the lines are very long. There will still be a crowd, but a small enough crowd that your kids can wiggle in close to the fences to see the action. And everyone is in a better mood because they’re not wedged in like sardines yet, so they are very kid friendly. You can even talk to the crews and ask them about what they’re doing.
I’ve heard people say that going early is a waste because the balloons aren’t inflated yet. This isn’t really the case, there are plenty of balloons to see early on. Here was Spongebob last year when we arrived at 3:30.
There is a lot to see, and plenty of daylight to see it. I have seen and heard recommendations to go much later, even as late as 9:00pm, and to not take children younger than preschool age. I don’t know how crowded it is by that time of night, but early on it is perfectly doable with a stroller (I did it last year with no problems). And since everyone is forced to follow the same route, once you’re inside that perimeter—as long as you stay ahead of the gathering herd at 77th Street—you’ll have time and space to enjoy it with children of all ages before the crowd catches up to you. Whatever you do, do not arrive during rush hour. Unless you don’t mind crowds, cold, dark, and not seeing much.
Go to the American Museum of Natural History first. When I was teaching I always had to make a mad dash into the city after early dismissal the day before Thanksgiving. This year, though, I plan on arriving with my toddler right after lunch and spending some time at the museum before we head outside to the balloons. One of the big benefits of this is that the museum’s entrance on 81st Street opens up right inside the perimeter of the balloons, so if you’re already at the museum before the police set up the barricades you can completely skip any lines.
Another benefit to this is that the museum stays open until 5:45 p.m. (and, again, this is another reason to get there early). If you have small children and are already inside the museum, it is easier to get back in for bathroom breaks and diaper changes. The guards tend to try and keep out the crowds who are only there for the balloons. I didn’t do that last year, and thank goodness it was a fairly mild Thanksgiving. I had to speed-change an 8-month-old’s diaper out front in the open November air. (My mother will die when she reads that.)
Take the subway. If you take the B or C train to the 81st Street stop, you’re right at the museum. But when you get off the train, make sure you take the 79th Street exit. This exit comes up right inside the perimeter, and you can just start your balloon tour. The 81st Street exit takes you outside the perimeter of the balloons — this happened to my husband last year, and there were so many police directing traffic by the time he got there that he couldn’t get back down into the station to try another exit. He walked all the way around to 77th Street and Columbus Avenue, and it took us an hour to meet up with him. (Also, just agree to meet your friends and family somewhere else and arrive at the balloons together. It can be stressful trying to find people on the inside.)
There is also an underground entrance to the museum from this subway station, so you can use it if you decide to visit the museum first.
You can walk up to the balloons, but cabs don’t get very close. And if you drive in (I will fully admit that I did this last year with the baby), parking is a few blocks west—the museum’s lot isn’t very accessible that day. If you take a cab, just make sure it drops you near 77th Street and Columbus Avenue.
Don’t try to eat near the museum. Unless you grab something in the museum itself, I would recommend visiting the balloons and then getting away to an entirely different neighborhood for dinner. This plan has always worked well for us, and it saves literally hours of waiting for a table. A friend told me she once waited three hours to be seated at a restaurant across the street when she went to the inflation. Pack snacks if your family will need them, spend an hour or two seeing the balloons, and then head out before the crowds swallow you up. It really is the most pleasant way to do it.
Enjoy it. I love this event so much and look forward to it every year (and then I look forward to watching the parade itself at home in my pajamas). It can be crowded, and I’ve been out there in rain, freezing wind, snow flurries, and gorgeous mild days. But it is such a great thing to experience behind the scenes.