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Macy's Holiday Parade at Universal Studios: A little New York, big time

Dewayne Bevil on Attractions

Theme Park Ranger

9:11 AM EST, December 15, 2011

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While visiting Universal Studios two years ago, for a microsecond, I thought I spied Mr. Snuffleupagus from "Sesame Street."

It was a gentle, lumbering being, not as big as a mammoth, alright, but it wasn't Snuffy. Instead, it was an elephant — or a puppety, inflatatible version of one — that was somehow promoting the Macy's Holiday Parade that winds through the streets of the theme park this time of year.

I didn't make the connection exactly, but now I know that today's faux elephants represent a part of the history of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. In the early days, before its famous balloons dominated the parade, live animals from the Central Park Zoo were included in the processional.

It's part of the "authenticity" mantra that Universal Orlando officials use when it comes to the holiday parade, not to mention its New Orleans-inspired Mardi Gras events and (in a fiction-meets-fact way), the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. They strive to keep it real.

"Being the only place outside New York City that you can see the Macy's Parade is kind of a very cool thing to us and to Macy's and park guests," says Jim Timon, Universal Orlando's senior vice president of entertainment. "I think the elephants, even though they're not part of the parade itself, they're kind of this special hidden piece of the Macy's experience."

Pieces of the Big Apple are scattered among the floats and balloons of the Macy's Holiday Parade at Universal, now in its 10th year at the theme park. Some props are transported from Manhattan after their Thanksgiving duties are done.

"When the parade runs in New York City, actually that night, after the parade, after the balloons and floats are deflated and dismantled, they are loaded into trucks," Timon says. "The balloons and floats that are assigned to Universal head off into trucks heading south and the others go back to their warehouse in New Jersey.

"Then it's a mad race, and we pray for good weather on I-95," he says.

Universal and Macy's have a positive give-and-take relationship, Timon says.

"Some floats are created specifically for Universal Orlando and then will go into the Macy's Parade [in New York] in the following year," he says.

A new creation for Universal this year is the polar bear balloon/float hybrid near the beginning of the parade. And the ice-rink float designed for the theme park has been used in the Thanksgiving parade for the past two years.

"They'll take ideas that we have and put them in their parade and, of course, vice versa," Timon says. "They're the pros. They're the Macy's Parade, and we're thrilled to be able to replicate it for people. Not many people get to go to New York on Thanksgiving Day."

After the balloons arrive in Orlando, they are filled with helium and housed in a Universal soundstage. They will be kept constantly inflated throughout the park's holiday celebration, which runs through Jan. 1.

"We preserve helium that way, because you don't want to waste helium," Timon says. "It's a precious gas."

Universal's nightly parade features balloons, floats, dancers, stilt walkers, marching bands and Santa Claus — but not an elephant. Guests must seek the elephant and its ringmaster during pre-parade activities near the park's Music Plaza.

"For lack of a better word, they're cute, and people just love them," Timon says. "People just go crazy having their picture made with the Macy's elephants. They do that and make a Christmas card out of it."

DBevil@Tribune.com or 407-420-5477



Macy's Holiday Parade



Where: Universal Studios, near intersection of Interstate 4 and Kirkman Road, Orlando

When: Parade runs at 5 p.m. on Dec. 16, 19-25 and Jan. 1; at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 17 and 18; and at 8 p.m. on Dec. 26-31.

Cost: Included in regular park admission. A one-day, one-park ticket is $85 general, $79 ages 3-9.

Phone: 407-363-8000

Online: UniversalOrlando.com/holidays