Why the Macy's Balloons Used to Just Fly Away and More Fun Facts About the Big Parade

Learn some surprising facts about the history of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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Photo: Courtesy Rizzoli

The year was 1924; the place was New York City. A group of animals from the Central Park Zoo marched down a street in Harlem accompanied by a very special group of people: a handful of immigrant Macy's employees, who wanted to express how thankful they were for living in the United States that year. And thus, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was born.

While the annual tradition now features A-list stars, Broadway performances and millions of spectators watching in their living rooms, the parade had humble beginnings, as outlined in the book Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: A New York City Holiday Tradition by former PEOPLE editor Stephen M. Silverman.

Want to impress your Thanksgiving guests with some fascinating facts about the parade as this year's edition airs at 9 a.m. ET on NBC? We've got you covered.

The first-ever balloon was Felix the Cat

Felix, the "biggest star of his time," as Silverman told PEOPLE, debuted in 1927. However, he was filled with air and not helium; instead of soaring above the New York City streets, he was held up by stilts. To commemorate the parade's 90th year in 2016, Felix made a triumphant return — again filled only with air and carried on stilts.

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Courtesy Rizzoli

A rubber shortage put the parade on hold

During World War II, Macy's canceled the event for a few years because there wasn't enough rubber or helium to create and inflate the balloons.

Macy's wasn't the first department store to have a Thanksgiving Day parade

The first department store to host a Thanksgiving Day parade was Gimbels, a now-defunct Philadelphia-based chain that launched its own parade in the City of Brotherly Love in 1920. Though Gimbels closed in 1986, the Philadelphia parade has continued with new sponsors.

The balloons used to be released at the end of the route — but there's a good reason that stopped

"In the early years, they would untether them, and they would fly away and invariably end up somewhere on Long Island," Silverman told PEOPLE. "If you found one, you could claim a reward."

The problem? Aside from the environmental toll, people would rip the balloons apart and bring in small pieces in hopes of earning said reward. The tradition ultimately ended when one loose balloon became entangled in the propeller of a small plane, nearly taking it down.

"The pilot said she had something extra-special to be thankful for that Thanksgiving," Silverman said. These days, the balloons are simply deflated, crated and stored in New Jersey once the parade ends.

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Courtesy Rizzoli

Not all balloons are created equal

While square balloons present the biggest challenges, round balloons can be tricky, too, with Silverman adding, "Any pointed parts are difficult to design, inflate and balance."

He continued, "It actually took them a while to get Olive Oyl well balanced."

What finally made it work? "They put Swee'Pea in her arms."

And if a balloon is sporting an accessory, look out! One year, so much rainwater collected in Popeye's cap that it spilled out and drenched the crowd as the balloon made a tight turn.

Bonus: How much do you think the parade costs?

As far as cost, Silverman noted this is something we'll likely never know.

"Macy's won't disclose that," he explained. "As they say, it's a gift to the city, and, as with any gift, you don't leave the price tag on."

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