Disney and Macy's: A Christmas Tradition

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

A special Sailor Mickey Balloon, about six-stories tall, made its maiden voyage in the 83rd Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in November 2009 and will continue to appear through 2011. It represented the Disney Cruise Line, which had announced the launching of two new ships: the Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy.

Mickey, perched upon an anchor, added to his iconic red shorts, white gloves and yellow shoes, a sailor’s cap and a nautical blazer. It was his first appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since 2000, when he was dressed as Bandleader Mickey.

Jeff Ebersol was a very talented Disney artist working for the Disney Design Group that produces artwork for merchandise like pins. Ebersol came up with the design for the Sailor Mickey balloon

He didn’t want a stuffy-looking captain, so he reviewed early Mickey Mouse shorts and was taken by Boat Builders (1938) and based Mickey’s outfit on that cartoon. He went through a variety of designs from Mickey tied to an anchor to a life preserver around the mouse’s midsection. None of those concepts seemed like a good idea for a cruise ship emphasizing safety. So, it was determined that Mickey would be saluting and riding on an anchor.

Like too many other Walt Disney World cast members in March 2009, Ebersol was surprised to find himself laid off from the Disney Company (along with half the staff of the Disney Design Group, even though the work load was increasing). The responsibility of finishing the Sailor Mickey project fell on the shoulders of another very talented Disney Design Group artist, Brian Blackmore, who would need to go to New York to approve the clay sculpture for character integrity and, later, the color approval.

Of course, Blackmore had a fear of flying and had never been to New York before in his life. However, recent events convinced him to do as he was told without question,and he flew to Macy’s in Manhattan and was awed by the nine floors of merchandise. He was unprepared for the fear he felt in the room as everyone waited for him to approve the sculpted figure.

“I draw Mickey every single day so it becomes second nature," remembered Blackmore recently. "I had to remind myself that I was representing the Disney Company and the heritage of Mickey.” (It is Brian’s Mickey that decorates the Disney Magical Express buses and is on the front of the Disney Dream cruise ship.)

Blackmore was impressed that it was a pretty good job for a first attempt at Mickey. However, there were a few changes that needed to be made.

“The buttons were not as round and the nose was not positioned correctly,” he recalled.

John Piper, who directs the Macy’s studio where the balloons and floats are designed and made, suggested that Blackmore get his hands dirty and make the corrections himself which he did willingly, although occasionally glancing at his watch so that he didn’t miss his returning flight to Orlando. He had taken pictures of the sculpture before and after the changes and e-mailed them to the Disney Design Group in Florida, who discussed them over a conference call before the final approval. Blackmore made his plane, even in rush hour traffic.

Then, there had to be approval of the coloring which was assisted by the Pantone system where colors are assigned numbers.

“I do this so often I know that Mickey’s face is 162, pants 485 and shoes 130. I have nightmares about all this,” Blackmore said with a laugh.

Using that information, a full-sized balloon was created and Blackmore was flown out to the super secret location of Vermillion, S.D., where the Macy’s balloons are built and tested. Inside the Mickey balloon was an intricate mass of ropes to make sure it kept the shape of everything like the head and the nose. Each balloon is hand-painted, as well.

“It takes approximately three hours to blow up the balloon and maybe three minutes to deflate it,” Blackmore said. “When they were maneuvering it in the Dakota Dome, someone had brought along their 4-year-old child who was excitedly yelling ‘Mickey!’ I realized at that moment how powerful this balloon was to send a message of goodwill.”

Unfortunately, Blackmore couldn’t immediately approve the finished product.

“I looked at the eyes and they were stark as if Mickey was in a coma, he said. "After drawing Mickey so often, I knew it could be corrected by putting a little heavier line at the top of eyeballs. Imagine my surprise when I said this that they pulled the balloon down to the ground and got me a stepladder and I climbed up since the eye was about 6 feet high and I marked off the change on one of the eyes so they could make the change on both eyes. They did and I signed off on the balloon.”

Blackmore got a chance to hold the rope and walk the balloon, which was an eye-opening experience for him. One of the reasons he did that was because he knew his brother Chuck and his wife would be part of the 100 people who would walk the balloon in the parade and wanted to do it before his brother.

“When I saw the parade, people were cheering for Mickey. My brother even steered toward the crowd and allowed quietly for a few kids to touch the end of the rope,” Blackmore said.

The balloon will appear in the parade for at least the next three years, and there is a video about the making of the Sailor Mickey balloon (link).

In the video, Kevin Banks, promotions director for the Disney Cruise Line, claims that the whole process took about two years, but Blackmore says that his involvement from sculpture to finished balloon was less than seven months.

On November 27, 1924, the first Macy's Christmas Parade (as it was originally called) stepped into the streets of New York with more than 400 Macy employees (dressed as clowns, cowboys, knights and sheiks) accompanied by animals from camels to elephants (borrowed from the Central Park Zoo) and bands and floats. There was an audience of more than a quarter-million people!

Conceived by Macy's employees (many of whom were first-generation immigrants who wanted to celebrate the American holiday with a similar traditional festival popular in their homelands), the parade ended with Santa Claus unveiling Macy's Christmas windows on 34th Street and attracted children and their parents to Macy's newly expanded toy department.

The famous balloons did not make their appearance until 1927 (to replace the real animals which were frightening young children) and they were in fact not the balloons we are familiar with today. They were air-filled bags of rubber that were held upright with sticks. The first cartoon superstar in that 1927 parade was Felix the Cat.

Those first balloons which for a while were called "balloniacs" (and the later helium filled airborne ones) were the designs of Tony Sarg. Most histories of the parade refer to Sarg as "the artist behind Macy's fabulous window displays" but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Sarg was one of America's premiere puppeteers, as well as an illustrator. Disney had also licensed Sarg to produce Disney character marionettes during the 1930s, including Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Donald and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In 1934, Sarg teamed with Walt Disney to produce the first Disney balloons to appear in the Macy Parade.

The advertisement for the 1934 parade proclaimed “See Gigantic Balloons designed by none other than Walt Disney creator of Mickey Mouse Himself. Mammoth Mickey Mouse a Colossus 40 feet high!!!! Pluto the Pup!! The Happy howling canine. Horace Horsecollar filled with fun and helium. 12 ½ feet high. The Big Bad Wolf!!! Held down by thirty marchers!!!!! See the Big Bad Wolf 34 feet high. See the Pig 31 feet high”

That pig balloon was a very bad version of the Fifer pig from the popular cartoon The Three Little Pigs (1933). The press laughed at the portly pig’s difficulty at the elevated train line at 65th Street and again at 53rd Street. Canvas was quickly placed on the street to protect it from the rough pavement. He was slowly glided under the structures on his back to successfully rise again and finish his parade trek. Following the pig was the Big Bad Wolf with a white star on its chest.

Why was Horace only 12 1/2-feet high? Because six Horaces pulled Santa’s sleigh!

The star balloon debuting in 1935 was Donald Duck. Returning was Mickey, Horace, the Big Bad Wolf and Pluto. Mickey was in a "Superman-style" pose with his hands on his hips and elbows out in the air while more than a dozen balloon handlers, who were dressed in black sweaters, baggy shorts, black tights and Mickey Mouse masks, held on to ropes and guided the helium-filled mouse down the street. Mickey's face had been painted in Akron but the rest of his body was painted in a huge warehouse in New York.

For two consecutive years, Whitman Publishing Company (responsible for producing Big Little Books featuring the Disney characters) printed two special Mickey Mouse premiums for Macy's Department Stores. Macy's Santa handed out copies of Mickey Mouse and Minnie at Macy's to children during the 1934 Christmas season. The following Christmas season in 1935 saw Macy's Santa handing out Mickey Mouse and Minnie March to Macy's. Both of these special Big Little Books (3 7/16" x 3 9/16" and 144 pages long) told the story of Mickey and Minnie attending the Macy parade. Like other Big Little Books, one page had text while the facing page had a black and white drawing. Kay Kamen, the genius behind Disney marketing beginning in the 1930s, was the instigator behind these unique promotional books.

After 1939, Mickey Mouse as a balloon disappeared from the parade for several decades, until 1970, when an updated Mickey appeared just in time to help promote the upcoming opening of Walt Disney World. (In 1971, gale-force winds grounded all the Macy balloons and television viewers had to settle for watching clips of the balloons from the 1970 parade. Mickey was back flying high in 1972.) This was a colorful Mickey wearing an opened collared, short sleeved yellow shirt, his famous red shorts, yellow shoes and white gloves and pupils that were so close together that Mickey looked cross-eyed.

The 1973 parade celebrated the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney cartoons (since the Alice Comedies premiered in 1923) with the Mickey Mouse balloon and costumed Mickey, Pluto, Goofy and Pinocchio near the Disney Circus wagon float. Other Disney floats were devoted to Alice in Wonderland and Captain Hook’s ship, as well as the Walt Disney World Castle showcasing that year’s animated release, Robin Hood.

Manfred Bass, who was the designer of the parade for 41 years beginning in 1960, remembered about the castle float: “That was really a lot of fun, working with the Disney people. They wanted us to reproduce the castle and celebrate it in the parade. We were in a sweat about the whole thing, but it was an exciting project."

After being given some general information and “a little thin sketch,” Bass and his crew began to develop the castle float design not only from a creative perspective, but also for its technical needs.

“Our goal was to make the castle look as big and grand as possible," he said. "And yet, all parade units have to be transported from Hoboken, N.J., into Manhattan on the night before the parade. That means no unit can be more than 12 1/2-feet high or 8-feet wide in order to fit through the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River. So how do you capture the majesty of the actual Disney World Castle given these physical restrictions? You have to create a ‘magical box’!”

So various parts of the float were designed to fold up, fold down or telescope into position. The sides of the castle were folded out, and various elements were put in place, including the three telescoping turrets.

This famous image of the Mickey balloon became the object of controversy when artist Melanie Taylor Kent released her serigraph in 1983 titled "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade." Taylor is a well-known artist whose work has dealt with many celebrations, including a limited-edition print used to commemorate Walt Disney World's 15th Anniversary. The image of the yellow shirt Mickey Mouse balloon floating at the head of the parade, followed by a Scooby Doo balloon as well as Snoopy wearing his Flying Ace helmet and goggles did not amuse the Disney Company. Disney sued and Kent had to cease making those prints.

Mickey Mouse again disappeared from the parade for a period of time but was re-invented for the 74th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2000, as Bandleader Mickey Mouse led the parade into the new millenium. The red and gold outfit was inspired by Mickey's bandleader outfit from the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club television show (although the balloon Mickey's baton in his right hand was significantly different).

Macy's window displays that faced Broadway featured Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto as three-dimensional moving sculptures in various outdoor and indoor activities. Inside Macy's, thousands of Bandleader Mickey plush dolls sat on gift boxes. Customers could purchase a limited-edition Mickey doll for $16.95 with any $35 purchase (or for $35 if they didn't want to purchase anything else).

Today it takes from six to nine months to create a new Macy's parade balloon like Bandleader Mickey. After several sketches of possible designs, designers build two models of the new balloon. One model has numbers over it to help figure out how to cut the pieces of fabric and where to attach the ropes. The second model shows what colors to paint the balloon. Disney makes sure those colors are accurate.

The balloons are made in many sections and each section is inflated separately, so, if there is a leak, the entire balloon won't deflate. Today, there are 45-70 trained rope handlers (usually all Macy's employees) for each balloon like Bandleader Mickey.

Let's not forget Macy's 1992 Tap-O-Mania, where more than 6,000 children and adults (wearing Mickey Mouse ears) tapped their way down 34th Street to keep their place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Largest Assembly of Tap Dancers to dance in a single routine.

More than 75 years after the first parade, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade continues to be a magical Thanksgiving morning experience for both children and adults. (By the way, the Sailor Mickey plush doll sold out quickly last year.)