McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade

McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade

The McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade, "Chicago's Grand Holiday Tradition," is an annual parade produced and presented by the Chicago Festival Association (CFA). It is held on State Street in downtown Chicago, Illinois, every Thanksgiving morning starting at 8 am CST. The parade is telecast live on WGN 9 Chicago (in the Chicago media market) and on WGN America (in the rest of the nation).



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).[1]

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

On State Street from Wacker Drive to Congress Parkway

  • 1935–1983: State Street Christmas Parade
  • 1984: McDonald's Children's Charity Parade

parade route changed as well, now on Michigan Avenue From Balbo Avenue to Wacker Drive

  • 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

parade route and date changed as well, now on Thanksgiving Day and back on State Street, moving north from Congress Parkway to Randolph Street

  • 2002: Target Thanksgiving Parade (Target Corporation)
  • 2003: State Street Thanksgiving Parade
  • 2006: McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade[1]


Every 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 Turkey

Teddy 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.


The 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 school

Every year, the producers of the parade (see below) 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.[2] 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 inflation

The 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.

Featured balloons

2011[3] 2010 2009 2008[4] 2007[5] 2006[6]
Teddy Turkey (cold air) Teddy Turkey (cold air) Pillsbury Doughboy[7] Teddy Turkey (cold air) Teddy Turkey (cold air) Teddy Turkey (cold air)
Garfield Pilgrim Bob the Builder Ronald McDonald[7] Elmo The Cookie Monster Humpty Dumpty
Curious George Bullwinkle J. Moose Sailor Mickey Mouse[7] Bob the Builder Elmo Hickory Dickory Dock
Rockey J. Squirrel Curious George Spider-Man[7] Animal Strawberry Shortcake The Gingerbread Man
The Smurfs Madeline Pikachu[7] Garfield Bear in the Big Blue House Bear in the Big Blue House
Big Bird Kenneth the Blue Elf Kermit[7] Cow Jumped Over the Moon The Nutcracker The Nutcracker
Arthur Fred Flintstone "Supercute" Hello Kitty[7] Arthur Pink Panther Frosty the Snowman
Bullwinkle J. Moose Garfield Pilgrim Cookie Monster Curious George Kermit Kermit
Odie Maisy Mouse Bullwinkle J. Moose Super Grover Big Bird Bert & Ernie
Yogi Bear Scooby Doo Curious George Cookie Monster Popeye T. rex
Fred Flintstone Underdog Maisy Mouse Popeye Animal Veggie Tales' Bob & Larry
Elmo Yogi Bear Rocky J. Squirrel Paddington Bear Rudolph Rudolph

Specialty units

"Specialty units" is a general category and refers to groups with unique skills or routines in the parade, such as international dance groups and sports teams. If they can easily fall into another category first, they will no longer be defined as a specialty unit. For example, if the grouped danced but also featured horses, they would be defined as an Equestrian Unit (see below) instead.

To viewers, specialty units are often considered some of the most anticipated and greatly enjoyed additions to the yearly parade. As such, the search for potential specialty units generally occurs on a year-round basis. Unlike most other parades, the producers of this Chicago parade search for new members in more ways than the standard browsing of electronic and media sources. Representatives from the Chicago Festival Association travel around the country on a regular basis to recruit new acts.

Equestrian units

Equestrian Units are groups, or units, which feature horses as part of their performance. This is a unique addition to various parades, and the Chicago Festival Association pays special attention to potential Equestrian Units to add to the parade every year. In 2007 alone, the producers added three new Equestrian Units to the parade. The new units included the Children's Fantasy Theatre Orchard, Illinois Junior Miss Emily Boker, and Southern Ohio Ladies Aside. Since the Chicago Festival Association was given rights to produce the parade, they have made great efforts to bring in Equestrian Units from some of the most popular theater productions in Chicago. For example, in 2007, the Chicago Festival Association welcomed back the Goodman Theatre and the horses and actors from their world renowned production, A Christmas Carol.[8]

Marching bands

Marching Bands come to the McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade from all over the country every year, and are mainly recruited by Bowl Games of America. Approximately twenty-four of many of the nation's top high school marching bands appear in the parade from year to year, including the 150 member Bartlett High School Marching Band, which made its first appearance in 2004.[9] Altogether, approximately 3000 high school band members play in the parade.


"The Candy Train" presented by Bortz Entertainment Group

Floats are decorated platforms, which are either built on a vehicle or towed behind one. These creations give groups and organizations a unique opportunity to present themselves to the viewers of the parade. In the 2007 McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade, nineteen organizations and groups created floats to present to those watching.

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.[10] Before that time, the parade had been produced for several years by the Chicago Christmas Parade Association.[11] In 1999 the Chicago Christmas Parade Association's last year brought a significant change, as they reverted the parade route back to State Street.[12] The parade had previously been on Michigan Avenue (see above).

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.


In 2007, the Chicago Festival Association signed a contract with Chicago's WGN-TV. Although the parade was in its 74th consecutive year, it was the first to feature a live national broadcast. With WGN-TV partnership, the 2007 McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade became available in approximately 72 million homes across the United States through WGN's superstation simulcast, Superstation WGN (now known as WGN America).[15] WGN airs the parade in conjunction with its annual retrospective special, Bozo, Gar and Ray: WGN TV Classics.

In 2008, WGN and WGN America aired the parade for three hours. This was a first for Chicago's Thanksgiving Parade. Leading off with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the first hour showcased some of the area's top theatre and ethnic performance groups. The following two hours showcased the parade, including the official McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade marching band from Proviso East High School.

Movie Coverage

In the movie The Weather Man, Nicolas Cage plays the role of David Spritz, a middle-age Chicago weather man who finds that he is losing confidence in various aspects of his life. He is also greatly troubled by the low level of respect he is given by residents of Chicago. However, the end of the movie brings a different story, and Spritz (Cage) finally gains a new sense of confidence and stability. The culmination of this positive change is when he is shown on top of a float in the State Street Thanksgiving Parade, waiving at all of the excited spectators. This acts as a symbol of his confidence and success. By being on this float, Spritz is shown as a prized public icon.

To achieve this scene, Paramount Pictures was granted permission by the Chicago Festival Association to film the float as it went down State Street in the 2004 parade. Using Visual Effects, Cage was then digitally added to the picture.


  1. ^ Ledermann, Robert (2004). Chicago’s State Street Christmas Parade (IL) (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing. p. 12. ISBN 07-38-53273-8. 
  2. ^ "Parade Balloon School Is in Session". Miller-Pear Public Relations. November 18, 2005. Retrieved February 27, 2008. 
  3. ^ CNH presents the 2011 McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade Balloon Program
  4. ^ "Case New Holland Soars into 2nd Year as Inflatable Program Sponsor" (PDF). Chicago Festival Association / Margie Korshak. Retrieved February 27, 2008. [dead link]
  5. ^ "McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade Drums up Excitment (sic)" (PDF). Miller-Pear Public Relations. Retrieved February 27, 2008. [dead link]
  6. ^ "Balloons for the 2006 McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade". Chicago Festival Association. [dead link]
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Map Of The Day: Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Balloon Inflation!". gothamist. November 24, 2009. Retrieved November 3, 2011. 
  8. ^ "2007 McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade" (PDF). Chicago Festival Association. Retrieved February 28, 2008. [dead link]
  9. ^ Malone, Tara (November 24, 2004). "Bartlett High band to join Chicago parade". Chicago Daily Herald. pp. 6 – News. 
  10. ^ Busk, Celeste (November 18, 2000). "Miles of Smiles". Chicago Sun-Times: pp. 3 – Weekend Plan. 
  11. ^ "MARSHALL FIELD'S HOSTS CHICAGO'S ANNUAL HOLIDAY PARADE" (Press release). Global News Wire. October 19, 1998. 
  12. ^ Busk, Celeste (November 24, 1999). "Turkey Day Treat". Chicago Sun-Times: pp. 39 – Features. 
  13. ^ Granger, Bill (November 23, 1999). "Leave the city how you found it". Chicago Daily Herald. pp. 11 – Chicago Diary. 
  14. ^ "Downtown stores out of step with Christmas Parade". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. November 3, 2000. pp. 01D – Business. 
  15. ^ "Parade Info". Phil Purevich. Archived from the original on January 31, 2008. Retrieved February 26, 2008. 

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