Val Bonner planned for a decade to attend the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on her 50th birthday, and this year she got her wish, joining throngs of holiday revelers in Manhattan Thursday cheering the giant balloons and thousands of marchers.
"It's just fabulous — I cried when I saw it," said Bonner, of Steilacoom, Wash. "This is my gift to myself. I've been saving for years for it. It's a dream come true."
Bonner, her husband Frank, and son Jack stood with shrieking, delighted children throwing confetti as the 82nd annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade wound its way through Manhattan streets under sunny skies.
Quincy Kersbergen of Wyckoff, N.J., found a prime viewing spot — perched on a police barricade near the beginning of the parade — and proclaimed herself a big fan of a giant dog balloon.
"This is just fantastic!" the 11-year-old Kersbergen said. "So amazing to be here in person! I'm just so excited about today!"
New to the revelry this year were Buzz Lightyear, the square-jawed, action-figure astronaut from the 1995 film "Toy Story;" Horton, the compassionate elephant of Dr. Seuss books; and a five-story Smurf, a blue, gnome-like creature popularized by a TV show that began in 1981. Old favorites like Kermit and the Energizer Bunny also were back.
Organizers said more than a million spectators viewed the 82nd annual parade in person, with another 50 million watching on television. The 2.5-mile route winds from Central Park West and West 77th Street to Herald Square, in front of Macy's flagship store.
Crews on Wednesday inflated the 13 giant balloons and 31 smaller ones. Each giant balloon requires more than 5,000 cubic feet of helium, much of which supplier Linde North America intended to recover and recycle, said Nick Haines, the company's helium director for the Americas. Linde tested the process of sucking the gas out of the balloons, compressing it and later purifying it for resale last year.
Among the smaller balloons was a newcomer that pays tribute to graffiti artist Keith Haring, who died in 1990. The parade also featured 28 floats, 10 marching bands and performances by Miley Cyrus, Trace Adkins, James Taylor and the Radio City Rockettes.
"She's just the coolest!" 6-year-old Isabella Muccio said of Cyrus.
The parade, which began in 1924 and was canceled for two years during World War II, also provided a coveted yearly spotlight for Broadway productions. This year, cast members of "Hair," "In the Heights," "The Little Mermaid," "South Pacific" and "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" were featured.
"I'm so excited! ... The crowds, just seeing it in person!" said parade-goer Phyllis Grodnicki of Plainsboro, N.J.
The atmosphere along the route was upbeat and jovial despite the nation's economic downturn. "It's something you can do with your kids for free," said Martha Muccio of Manalapan, N.J. "And it makes them happy, takes our minds off everything."
Giving thanks elsewhere
In Detroit, thousands braved near-freezing temperatures in hats, mittens and scarves to stake prime spots to view the city's parade, which has been held for more than 80 years.
Harry Vanuden, a 45-year-old Chrysler LLC worker, said he was grateful to still have his job this Thanksgiving. He's among 200 remaining employees at Chrysler's Mack engine plant in Detroit. Two years ago, Vanuden said they numbered 1,500.
"I've been a toolmaker for 26 years," said Vanuden, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Warren. "You hope for the best. I'm just thankful I'm still there."
His 13-year-old daughter Kelsey was excited at the prospect of seeing the Warren Cousino High School marching band, which she hopes to join when she starts at the school next fall.
Kelly Smith, 44, and her husband Tom, 46, brought their 4-year-old daughter Annalise to her first Thanksgiving Day parade.
"We're just happy with what we have, and we're hopeful the economy will rebound," Smith said.
Football and family
For many Americans, the day promised football games and family dinners with too much food on the table.
The seven Endeavour astronauts and three space station crew members also planned a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but unlike families on Earth, they were poised to float — not sit down — for their feast at the joined space shuttle-international space station complex.
On the menu were smoked turkey that's ready to be heated and freeze-dried green beans and cornbread dressing in need of water injections before they're served.
Some 220 miles below, President George W. Bush was spending Thanksgiving at his Camp David retreat, thankful for his almost-expired "privilege of serving as the president." President-elect Barack Obama was staying in Chicago to "have a whole bunch of people over to the house" and squeeze in some Christmas shopping.