"The balloons are the best part," 11-year-old Matthew Ragbe said as he watched them leave their launch pads on 77th Street and turn the corner to face the crowds of parade-goers, many of whom waited hours to secure a good viewing spot.
Across the country, millions of Americans celebrated their blessings, gobbled up turkey and pumpkin pie and prepared to kick off the official start to the Christmas shopping season. In Detroit, former Tigers manager Jim Leyland served as grand marshal of the city's parade, while Philadelphia celebrations were subdued slightly by gusting winds that limited the use of balloons.
In New York City, tens of thousands of people lining the parade route were not disheartened by freezing temperatures or the drama over whether Spider-Man, Julius, Snoopy and SpongeBob SquarePants would make their scheduled appearances along with a dozen other puffed-up sky-bound creatures.
"We thought they'd find a way to pull it off," said parade-goer John Mispagel, of San Jose, Calif. "It's really fun seeing so many people having such a great time."
Dozens of balloon handlers kept a tight grip on their inflated characters, keeping them close to the ground to fight winds that reached the mid-20 mph range.
Caution was necessary to prevent a recurrence of the kind of high-wind accident that crashed a Cat in the Hat balloon into a light pole in 1997, seriously injuring a spectator. Balloons were only grounded once in the parade's history, with bad weather to blame in 1971.
The balloons were sprinkled along a parade led by a bright orange Tom Turkey float that gleamed in the sunlight. Also featured were thousands of baton twirlers, clowns, cheerleaders, marching musicians and performers including Brett Eldrege, Joan Jett and the Blankhearts, Jimmy Fallon and the Roots, the Goo Goo Dolls and Kellie Pickler.
"It's amazing," Pickler said, preparing to sing "Little Bit Gypsy." "This is such an honor to be a part of this parade. I grew up watching this."
The parade largely went off without a hitch, though Sonic the Hedgehog got briefly hung up in the branches of a tree and a spinning dreidel balloon became temporarily deflated on a float meant to mark the start of Hanukkah, which fell on Thanksgiving for the first time in centuries.
Farther down the more-than-40-block parade route, 11-year-old Ema Kelly, of Manhasset, was protecting confetti buried 4 inches deep in her knitted hat, waiting for the parade's end: the Santa Claus float.
She shared confetti collection duties with her neighborhood friend, 10-year-old Matthew O'Connor.
"He forgot his hat so he's helping me collect it, and then we're going to split it on the bus ride home," she said.
Nearby, Columbia Law School student Andrew Leff said he had arrived at 5 a.m. to get a front-row spot to watch the parade for the 23rd time in his 24 years.
Greg Packer, of Huntington, said he would still make it to the stores when they open.
"I expect turkey, and I expect shopping," he said. A few blocks away, a line was forming outside a Best Buy store slated to open seven hours later.
In Philadelphia, gusty winds of 28 mph limited use of balloons during its annual parade, with officials citing concern for the safety of participants and spectators. Instead of flying along the entire route, the balloons soared only around Eakins Oval and the broadcast area near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Elsewhere in the country, Thanksgiving traditions were largely unaffected by the weather.
In Detroit, the Tigers' popular former manager served as grand marshal of that city's Thanksgiving Day parade, which is billed as the nation's second largest, behind New York's. Revelers braved snow showers and slick roads to see two dozen floats and a performance by singer Ruben Studdard.
In Washington, President Barack Obama and family celebrated a quiet holiday at the White House. The menu was quintessential Thanksgiving, including turkey, honey-baked ham, cornbread stuffing, greens and six choices of pie.
He also called several members of the armed forces to thank them for their service to the country.
In New York City, volunteers from Citymeals-on-Wheels escorted dozens of elderly residents from neighborhoods affected by Superstorm Sandy to a Manhattan restaurant feast. The organization funded almost 20,500 Thanksgiving meals, including 13,000 delivered in advance to homebound elderly.
On Wednesday, two American astronauts on board the International Space Station, Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio, released a video from 260 miles above Earth showing off their traditional Thanksgiving meal: irradiated smoked turkey, thermostabilized yams, cornbread dressing, potatoes, freeze-dried asparagus, baked beans, bread, cobbler and dehydrated green bean casserole.
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