November 21, 2023
Article & Photos by Guest Contributor Brian Wisniewski
Fifty years ago, I met Lenny Drenski when we attended kindergarten together in the basement of our teacher’s home. It was a vastly different world in rural NE Ohio during the early 1970s than it is today. Our friendship grew throughout school, with Lenny serving as the best man at my wedding. Apart from a brief period where we lost contact during the pre-cell phone era, we have remained in touch and close friends ever since.
Lenny possesses remarkable artistic talents and creativity. After high school, he worked in construction doing creative gold-leaf lettering and wood carvings for various businesses. A turning point came when Lenny’s nephew invited him to join him in building floats for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New Jersey. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Lenny holds the position of Director of Studio Operations for Macy’s in Moonachie, New Jersey. Leading a team of 25 full-time and approximately 10 seasonal employees, he oversees the design, engineering, and construction of floats and balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
During a recent trip to New Jersey/New York with the Pickerington Bands for the Veteran’s Day parade, Lenny generously treated my family to a private tour of the 72,000-square-foot design studio. It offered us a firsthand look at the intricate work behind the scenes in crafting the floats and balloons each year.
The process of creating a new float spans 12-18 months. It commences with the design team collaborating with the float partners on concept sketches. Through numerous iterations involving design changes, color palettes, and concepts, a final drawing and design emerge for the float’s construction. This year, the parade will feature four new floats: Brach’s Candy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Mutant Mayhem, Willy Wonka, and Solo Stove.
Following the completion of the design drawing, a 3D model is built using 3D printers, marking a recent shift from the previous method of in-house, hand-sculpted clay models. The engineering phase kicks off, with the 3D model and design serving as a blueprint for the builders to appropriately scale and begin construction of the floats.
Each float stands as an engineering marvel, requiring meticulous planning. For instance, the Brach’s 30-foot Christmas tree requires an internal structure to support its weight and yet remain flexible enough to allow it to spin as it travels the streets of New York City. Moreover, many floats must safely accommodate singers, performers, or extras during the parade.
The design studio is equipped with every imaginable tool required for constructing these masterpieces. Wood and metal shops house lathes, saws, wood and metal CNC machines, an array of wrenches and clamps in every conceivable size, vises, and even anvils. There are tools for cutting, welding, bending metal tubing into intricate shapes, joiners, and in the balloon shop, they have specialized machines built exclusively for Macy’s.
Each float is a combination of predominantly wood, metal and Styrofoam. Large rectangular blocks of Styrofoam are purchased and skillfully sculpted to meet the design requirements of the float, whether serving as the foundation for Wonka’s tree, a colossal candy mushroom, or a “stone” arch for the Solo stove float. The Styrofoam is then coated with a two-part polyurethane foam to harden and weatherproof the surface which is then meticulously painted. Sustainability and recycling are very important to Macy’s so Styrofoam, metal and parts from old floats will be recycled, repurposed and used on new floats whenever possible.
A striking example is the Willy Wonka float, adorned with 500,000 individually crafted and painted “candy” pieces, all produced at the studio. This float is a representation of Willy Wonka’s Candy shop being used to promote the new movie Wonka being released Dec. 2023. Everything on the floats is painted in-house in the paint shop and Macy’s estimates over 2000 gallons of paint were used this year for new floats and balloons.
Many people don’t understand the scale and size of these floats. The Mutant Mayhem float stands roughly 28-feet tall and the Brach’s Candy Gingerbread house and spinning Christmas tree are approximately 30 feet. Floats are traditionally 15-25-feet wide and boast varying lengths. The Lincoln tunnel connecting Weehawken New Jersey to Midtown Manhattan accommodates vehicles no larger than that of a traditional city bus which is roughly 12-feet tall by 9-feet wide.
These constraints require meticulous engineering and construction in a manner to allow the floats to fold up and to be disassembled for transport through the tunnel but then to be reassembled quickly in New York City. Each float is disassembled by a permanent crane in the design studio and then reassembled by cranes along Central Park prior to the parade.
The balloon studio is impressively spacious as expected given the size of balloons. Nylon-based fabric that is air and helium proof is used as the base material. Intricate designs and shapes are cut from the fabric and then melted together using a specialized machine built exclusively for Macy’s. Once fully assembled the balloon is inflated and hand painted in the studio.
Seven new balloons were created for this year’s parade, of which two were inflated during our visit. The two balloons were Po from Kung Fu Panda 4 standing at 39-feet tall, 49-feet long and 36-feet wide required over 1,000 yards of fabric and Leo, from Netflix’s upcoming animated film LEO was the other balloon in the studio. Leo is 41-feet tall, 73-feet long and 27-feet wide. Both balloons underwent test flights in the MetLife stadium in New Jersey and were inspected by the balloon partners to ensure the coloring and design match what was expected.
Each balloon is divided into multiple compartments which are independently inflated to allow that compartment to deflate versus the entire balloon in case a balloon encounters a tree or light post along the parade route.
During the parade approximately 50 balloon handlers are assigned to each balloon. Roughly half of them are dedicated to directing the balloon while the remaining half wave and interact with the crowd.
A few blocks away from the design studio lies the Macy’s parade warehouse, housing a blend of historical and current items. Balloons and floats from previous years, which are traditionally used for three consecutive years, share space with the latest additions as well as balloons and floats from years ago.
For the parade, seventy-five 2024 Dodge Ram Trucks are donated to tow the floats during the parade and to form a convoy that arrives in New York City two days before the event for staging along Central Park. Once in the city, the meticulous reassembly process begins, bringing together the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work for one of the nation’s most eagerly awaited parades.
The balloons are inflated and tethered under large nets until moments before the parade starts. At the conclusion of the 2.5-mile parade route and after passing TV corner in front of Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street, the balloons continue down 34th Street, where, after their grand appearance, they are deflated by handlers, folded up, and stored in large fabric crates.
Each balloon, weighing between 300 and 400 pounds, requires careful handling. The floats turn right onto 7th Avenue where cranes stand ready to begin the disassembly process by Lenny and his team. Precision is crucial as they cannot delay the parade and they certainly cannot prevent Santa from making his grand appearance on the last float of the parade just before noon.
Despite the millions lining the streets of New York and the millions more tuning in on TV, the majority remains unaware of the incredible hard work invested by Lenny and his exceptionally talented team of artists, designers, and builders behind the scenes, ensuring the success of parade year after year.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade kicks off at 8:30 am Thanksgiving morning on NBC/Peacock.
Click the arrows to see more slides: