Happy Thanksgiving! Local news reported that a record one million visitors turned out for Inflation Night in NYC this year, thanks to mild weather and the Broadway stagehands' strike. Here's my one in a million experience.
The helium balloons for the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade were inflated on the side streets surrounding the Museum of Natural History campus. Y'know, the really, really big museum with the statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front. It's easy to get to (the museum has its own subway stop) and for visitors unfamiliar with NYC, there's lots of helpful signs.
Not to mention it's pretty hard to miss all the balloons. There's balloons advertising the parade's sponsor, Macy's department store; a bazillion small balloons for the kiddies; and assorted seasonal balloons like these big pumpkins. There's other free swag, too – balloon animals, headbands with Shrek ears on them, fleece headbands, new Terra Crinkle chips, chances to win Macy's gift cards, etc.
But the unabashed stars of Inflation Night are the giant helium balloons, each of which has a namecard showing what it looks like inflated (because it's hard to tell when they're flat) and its debut year. I decided to watch Supercute Hello Kitty, making her debut this year. She's face down, with netting and ropes already in place, but no sandbags yet.
I knew it was the right choice when first NYPD came by to get the rundown (it was obvious this officer has young daughters), then local media. Lou Young from WCBS-TV Channel 2 did a good job interviewing the young'uns and charming the old'uns.
The inflation crew, volunteers from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, worked slowly and deliberately. Much time was spent making certain the ropes didn't foul anything and the freezing cold helium went precisely where directed.
The balloon was inflated in parts. At first, crew members had to lift a section of netting and balloon to let one person wriggle underneath to reach the inflation ports.
The only time I saw the crew moving fast was when the balloon first showed signs of buoyancy, at about half inflated. Then they quickly clipped a multitude of 25-pound (11-kg) sandbags onto the netting.
Eventually the crew needed tall ladders to reach the inflation ports. The whole process, from flat to pretty much done, took about an hour.
There was 'way more to see than is shown here. The, um, most high concept balloon has gotta be Rabbit by Jeff Koons. It's balloon art, a giant balloon with authorship, a version of his inflatable Easter bunny cast in stainless steel. It has a fake inflation nipple on the back of its head and would seem to have passed out.
My favorite giant balloon in this year's bunch has gotta be Scooby-Doo, easily the most expressive. Even in an obstructed view, it looks dynamic, just raring to go.
Overall, I enjoyed Inflation Night. I wouldn't say it's better than the parade itself, not by a long shot, but it's worthwhile. The crowd was in a festive mood and considerate of children, shutterbugs, and people in wheelchairs (the event is fully handicapped accessible). Some people make it an annual tradition.