Santa Claus, Ronald McDonald and a cast of thousands bring you the 78th McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade, marching down State Street on Thanksgiving Day, November 24th.
Whether you're moving your feet to the uplifting melodies of marching bands, gazing skyward at gigantic inflatable helium balloons making their way down the street, or waving at talented entertainers in decorative floats dispensing holiday cheer, there is fun to be had by all at the biggest holiday parade in Chicagoland.
In 1934, the United States had been in the Great Depression for six years. Many leaders in Chicago searched for ways to boost the economy as well as public spirit. Walter Gregory, President of Chicago's State Street Council, proposed a Christmas parade to Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly in the hopes that it would improve the moods of Chicago residents. The Mayor agreed to the parade, being primarily interested in its potential to improve Chicago's economy.
Chicago's first Christmas Parade was on State Street on December 7, 1934. Gregory and a costumed Santa Claus led the caravan, which was filled with toys and various merchandise from State Street businesses. As the city's government officials had hoped, the parade contributed to desirable growth in the local economy and 1934 held the city's largest holiday buying period since 1927. This was both exciting and surprising for the entire city. Not only was it the Depression, but that day held dangerously low temperatures throughout the entire state. Some areas of Illinois were as low as fourteen degrees below zero (fahrenheit).
In 1935, the city was in even worse financial status as a result of the Depression. The city could not afford the expensive floats that were used the year before. However, the event had been so successful in the previous year that The State Street Council and the City of Chicago agreed to use an old trolley to pull the floats, as there were trolley tracks on State Street at the time.
The parade underwent a leadership change in 1968, when the Mayor's Office of Special Events took over the responsibility of producing the holiday parade when the State Street Council determined that it could no longer fund the parade. Mayor Richard J. Daley assues the children of Chicago that Santa Claus will still be coming to town as usual.
In 1969, the Chicago Tribune reported that more than 1.5 million people lined the parade route.
In 1981, Over 100 Santas hand out over 10,000 balloons as hundreds of thousands watch the parade.
The parade saw it's first title sponsor in 1984. The parade was renamed "The Ronald McDonald Children's Charities Parade." The route of the parade was also changed from State Street to Michigan Avenue. McDonald's was the title sponsor until 1989, and has had some sort of sponsorship with the parade to this day.
In 1990, the parade became known as "The Brach's Kid's Holiday Parade." Local confectionier Brach's Confections, Inc. assumed the title sponsorship of the parade until 1998.
In 1998, Marshall Field's took over as title sponsor of the parade. "The Field's Jingle Elf Parade" was created and lasted through the 2001 parade. The Radio City Rockettes began a three-year run of opening the parade's television broadcast with a high-kicking routine. That same year, the parade started focusing on debuting several giant character balloons. Starting with Kermit the Frog and Billy Blazes, Chicago's Thanksgiving Parade has introduced more recognizable character balloons since this time than any other parade in the country.
In 1999, Target joined Marshal Field's as the title sponsor. The parade is moved back to State Street, and for the first time, takes place on Thanksgiving Day.
In 2001, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus became the parade's newest opening act – a position it still holds ot this day. This year, the circus introduces the first elephant to appear in the parade.
The "Target Thanksgiving Parade" was formed in 2002, as Target takes over title sponsorship of the parade. In this year, CFA signed a five-year national syndication deal with ABC 7 Chicago. A partnership with CFA and The League of Chicago Theatres was formed as well, resulting in several local and national touring theatre companies performing vignettes of their current productions for the parade.
In 2003, the parade was renamed to the "State Street Thanksgiving Parade." The parade presented its first-ever unit from Hawaii – E la Ka Hololio Me Ke Kahiau, a traditional equestrian group from Kailua, Hawaii.
In 2004, the City of Zurich (Switzerland) Police Band makes its Chicago debut as the first ever international unit to appear in the parade.
In 2006, the parade assumed the name "McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade," as the McDonald's Owners of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana and the McDonald's Corporation announce a two-year title sponsorship of the parade. Close to a half-million spectators line Chicago's State Street for one of the warmest Thanskgiving mornings in memory.
In 2007, WGN-TV and CFA announce that the station will broadcast the McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade live and in high definition on WGN 9 Chicago. Available in 72 million homes at that time, Superstation WGN will also air the parade live across the nation. This establishes the parade as one of three parades in the country to be covered live, in its entirety, on a national television broadcast.
In 2008, the parade celebrates its 75th step-off with a three hour live broadcast. The first hour of the parade features the best in local theatre and culture, with the rest of the parade featuring the traditional, forward motion parade.
In 2010, the parade announced local-born actress Jennifer Beals as its Grand Marshal. The parade reached a record high 3.75 million viewers across the country. Over 350,000 spectators braved the elements and attended the parade in person on State Street.
The different names of "Chicago's Grand Holiday Tradition"
- 1934: Christmas Caravan
- 1935–1983: State Street Christmas Parade
- 1984: McDonald's Children's Charity Parade
- 1990: The Brach's Kids Holiday Parade (Brach's Confections)
- 1998: The Field's Jingle Elf Parade (sponsored by Marshall Field's)
- 1999: The Field's Jingle Elf Parade Presented by Target & Marshall Field's
- 2002: Target Thanksgiving Parade (Target Corporation)
- 2003: State Street Thanksgiving Parade
- 2006: McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade
GroupsEvery year, more than 100 different groups, otherwise known as units, walk down the parade route. These units are made up of Giant Inflatables, Specialty Units, Equestrian Units, Marching Bands, and Floats.
Teddy TurkeyTeddy Turkey is the fun-loving, plump mascot of the McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade. Teddy Turkey made his first live appearance in the 2009 parade. Teddy also is known to make appearances throughout the city, helping to spread the holiday spirit – year round – to everyone he meets.
BalloonsThe McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade uses primarily helium balloons, which have the benefit of floating in the air. In recent years, a helium shortage has caused several parades to cut down or cease their helium use altogether. However, The producers of this parade have yet to express any plans to move to cold air balloons; only one or two cold air balloons are used every year. Chicago's Thanksgiving Parade is the city's only event that features inflatable balloons every year.
Parade schoolEvery year, the producers of the parade hold a parade training school to ensure sufficient preparation in several of the volunteers. For many years the Chicago Festival Association, the parade's producers, have been partnered with the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, and hold the day's proceedings there. The main attraction and section of the school is for the balloon handlers, a name given to the volunteers who balance the giant inflatables as they go down the parade route. All volunteers are treated to a sneak preview of the parade. 2010's parade school included performances from Miss Illinois and the 501st Midwest Garrison. Honorary Grand Marshal Ronald McDonald also gave a motivational speech and emceed the event.
Although the producers of the parade organize and run the Parade School primarily as a means to train the volunteers so they're ready on the day of the parade, they have started to see a consistent and alternative pattern. A great number of veteran volunteers return to the training every year because of their enjoyment of the Parade School itself, forcing the parade organizers to have more preparations at the ready.
Balloon inflationThe balloons for the parade begin the inflation process before sunrise to the south of the beginning of the parade route. It takes several people to fill each balloon with helium or cold air.
The Parade Today
In 2000, the Chicago Festival Association was given the rights to produce the Field's Jingle Elf Parade by the City of Chicago. Before that time, the parade had been produced for several years by the Chicago Christmas Parade Association. In 1999 the Chicago Christmas Parade Association's last year brought a significant change, as they reverted the parade route back to State Street. The parade had previously been on Michigan Avenue.
Many followers took a great deal of pride that the parade had returned to State Street. However, because of the positive effect that the Michigan Avenue parade route had on the city's economy—bringing many potential holiday shoppers into the many world-famous stores on Michigan Avenue--many individuals voiced great criticism. After all, the Greater State Street Council had made it very clear that no State Street businesses would be open for business on Thanksgiving Day. The Chicago Festival Association responded that although the parade was originally created to stimulate economic growth, the parade now primarily exists as a community celebration. In any case, as the parade has made powerful and surprising growth in only a few short years, Chicago's economy is continuing to see the parade's growing benefits. Hence, criticism about its location change has long-since passed.
Since that time, the organization has made many more significant changes, and today the parade is capturing much more attention. In 2002, the Chicago Festival Association changed the parade format from a Christmas or often broadly-labeled holiday parade to the Thanksgiving parade that it is today. In only a few years, the number of spectators on the streets have increased by hundreds of thousands. The parade is also given a live national broadcast. This is generally considered expedient growth, as the parade was available in no more than a handful of cities only two years ago.
Since 2006, McDonald's has been partnered with the Chicago Festival Association as the parade's title sponsor. Although it isn't publicly known how long McDonald's plans to be the parade's title sponsor, they have frequently and publicly expressed great excitement to sponsor such a quickly growing and greatly loved event.
In 2007, the Chicago Festival Association recruited the pop rock group Plain White T's to perform in the parade. In the last couple of years, the band had reached great success and their single Hey There Delilah had been number one on the Billboard Charts for two weeks. Despite the unseasonably cold temperatures, the Plain White T's agreed to do a free performance in the parade, which was no doubt greatly because of the parade's quickly growing ratings along with the event's first ever national broadcast.
In 2008, the parade was on its 75th year. That year's parade was broadcasted for three hours, from 8 am to 11 am CST on WGN-TV9 and WGN-DT9.1 in Chicago, and WGN America nationwide. This makes the McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade one of only two parades (the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade being the other) to be broadcast in its entirety to a nationwide audience. 2008 also featured Grand Marshal Jennie Finch, WWE Superstar CM Punk and the Harlem Globetrotters.
In 2010, Grand Marshal Jennifer Beals, Honorary Grand Marshal Ronald McDonald, and Santa Claus were featured in a three-hour entertainment extravaganza. The parade featured the top marching bands in the country, including powerhouses Marist High School, Proviso East High School, Houston County High School and more. The parade featured the debut of several giant balloons as well, including Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone, and Scooby Doo.