Image: Balloons pass through Times Square during the 84th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York
Shannon Stapleton  /  Reuters
Balloons pass through Times Square during the 84th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York on Thursday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 11/25/2010 4:01:38 PM ET 2010-11-25T21:01:38

A high-kicking Kung Fu Panda and a diary-toting Wimpy Kid joined the giant balloon lineup as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade unfolded Thursday, drawing tens of thousands of spectators to the annual extravaganza on a chilly, overcast morning.

Emily Rowlinson, a tourist from London, squealed and snapped pictures with her cell phone as the massive Smurf balloon floated by a packed sidewalk along the route.

"We don't have anything like this in England," she exclaimed. "We have parades. We don't have any sort of huge, floating beasts. It's very cool."

As millions more watched the live broadcast on television, revelers gathered nationwide for other parades in cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia.

The parades headline observances across the nation that also feature football and family dinners with too much food on the table.

This year's parade features 8,000 participants, WNBC-TV reported, including more than 1,600 cheerleaders and dancers, 850 clowns and 12 marching bands — in addition to the iconic balloons and floats.

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It featured an eclectic lineup of entertainers including Kanye West, Gladys Knight and Colombian rocker Juanes.

The Broadway casts of "American Idiot" and "Elf" performed, along with marching bands from across the United States.

Delight at Shrek and friends
Perched on her father's shoulders, 16-month-old Stella Laracque wriggled and danced with excitement as SpongeBob SquarePants, Hello Kitty, Shrek and other beloved figures wafted past her.

"She doesn't really know the characters, but she's loving it," said her father, Mike Laracque of Manhattan.

Another new balloon was Virginia O'Hanlon, the 8-year-old girl whose letter to the editor elicited the response, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

Santa Claus closed the parade as always. A cheer erupted as he passed by on his sleigh, shaking his enormous belly.

Returning balloons included Pillsbury Doughboy and Spider-Man — the last with a new fan in Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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He said in a CBS interview that he had traditionally favored Snoopy, but after the Marvel Entertainment character was involved in a recent event promoting city services for job-seekers, "Spidey is my new favorite."

Surveying the scene with four of her relatives, Emily Hine confessed that she'd initially been loath to come from Boyertown, Pa., about 100 miles southwest of Manhattan.

"I was dreading the crowds, but I'm enjoying it more than I anticipated," she said, adding that the balloons are bigger than she'd imagined from watching previous years' parades on TV. "It's more up-close and personal."

Other celebrities at the parade included India Arie, Jessica Simpson, Kylie Minogue, Keri Hilson, Arlo Guthrie and Miranda Cosgrove.

'She's a famous person'
Standing on a stepladder her family had brought from Mamaroneck, a New York City suburb, 9-year-old Melissa Machado was thrilled to spot Victoria Justice, the star of Nickelodeon's "Victorious."

Video: Macy's parade balloons get pumped up (on this page)

"She's a famous person, and I always see her shows," Melissa explained after the actress-singer passed by on the Build-A-Bear Workshop float.

The Macy's parade started in 1924 when employees from the department store marched in costume from Harlem to Macy's flagship store on 34th Street. The parade was suspended from 1942 to 1944 because rubber and helium were needed for World War II, making Thursday's parade the 84th.

The parade followed the route it inaugurated last year, starting on Central Park West and proceeding down Seventh and Sixth avenues to 34th Street. The route had to be changed when vehicles were banned from parts of Broadway.

Workers had removed street lights and traffic lights to make way for the massive balloons and were standing by to replace the equipment.

"As soon as Santa Claus drives by, the poles go back up," said Tom Carola, a worker with an electrical-contracting company hired by the city.

Detroit celebrates
In Detroit, a morning drizzle and chilly temperatures weren't enough to keep John and Matt Fisher from attending that city's parade.

The father and son from Hamtramck, Mich., had their RV set up a day ahead of time and by Thursday morning had a prime spot for watching it — equipped with coffee, hot cocoa, soup and chili dogs.

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"Got to see Santa," said John Fisher, 53. "If we don't see Santa, we're not sure he's gonna bring presents."

A block away, a German exchange student was watching his first Thanksgiving parade.

"This is great," said Jonah Boyd, 16, of Hamburg, who didn't know much about the American holiday before arriving in South Lyon, Mich., where he is staying with a host family. "All I knew was that people ate turkey."

Before the parade, Boyd, his girlfriend and her family watched thousands of runners take part in the annual Turkey Trot race. A similar race in Buffalo, N.Y., attracted more than 12,000 entrants, the most ever in the event's 115-year-history, organizers said.

Many participants in Detroit wore costumes: One ran in a Santa suit, complete with sack. An elf was spotted as well. Others were wearing Halloween-type outfits, including runners dressed as Iron Man and Captain America.

Perhaps the most appropriate attire belonged to the two Turkey Trotters wearing turkey hats.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Macy's parade balloons get pumped up

  1. Transcript of: Macy's parade balloons get pumped up

    LESTER HOLT, anchor (Kabul, Afghanistan): It is a Thanksgiving tradition the night before the Macy's Thanksgiving Day

    Parade: New Yorkers and holiday visitors to the city gather to watch the famous giant helium balloons get pumped up. This will be the 84th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade . You can see it right here on NBC with Matt and Meredith and Al , from 9 AM

Photos: Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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  1. Kermit the Frog and Diary of a Wimpy Kid balloons float in the air before the start of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York Thursday. The 84th annual celebration featured approximately 8,000 participants including more 1,600 cheerleaders and dancers, twelve marching bands, and an assortment of celebrities in addition to 15 giant character balloons. (Craig Ruttle / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Members of the Purdue University All American Marching Band do a cheer before the start of the parade. (Craig Ruttle / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Snoopy and other giant balloons pass through Times Square. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A boy and others watch in awe at the spectacle. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Members of the New York Police Department stand by as the Shrek balloon makes it's way across 42nd Street. (Tina Fineberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Children call out to actress and singer Miranda Cosgrove as she rides by on a float. (Craig Ruttle / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The Ronald McDonald balloon floats through Columbus Circle. (Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Kanye West on the New York Daily News Big Apple float rides down Broadway in Times Square. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. SpongeBob Squarepants floats down Broadway in Times Square. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cheerleaders wave in formation on Central Park South near the beginning of the parade. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Children watch a float go by from an apartment on Central Park South. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The Tom Turkey float moves through Times Square. (Jeff Christensen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. New York City police officer Wally Melvin holds his five-year-old daughter Carlee as they watch Santa Claus pass by. (Craig Ruttle / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Kaikai and Kiki balloons designed by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami make their way across 42nd Street. (Tina Fineberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A performer shakes hands with children along the route of the parade. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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