NEW YORK – Already a TV and movie star, SpongeBob SquarePants (search) had a leading role Thursday as the 78th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (search) kicked off the holiday season with marching bands, floats and enormous balloons.
The parade, featuring 59 balloons and 27 floats, stepped off just after 9 a.m. and began its procession down Central Park West toward Broadway and Herald Square (search) in Manhattan.
The animated kitchen implement — star of a recently released feature film — was filled with 16,200 cubic feet of helium. SpongeBob joined Chicken Little and red and yellow M&M's as new balloons this year.
Returning characters included Barney, Big Bird, Charlie Brown, Jeeves the Internet butler and Mr. Monopoly.
"This is my first time here. I love it," said Trella Gordon of Baltimore, squealing with delight when a float with Sesame Street's Big Bird went by. "That this many people can come out on Thanksgiving is wonderful."
Gordon was text-messaging her friends to compare what they were seeing on television with what she could see from Central Park West and 64th Street.
Parade organizers had feared high winds could ground the 15 largest balloons. But there was only the gentlest breeze Thursday, and parade-watchers enjoyed temperatures in the low 60s.
Macy's officials have had to be cautious since 1997, when wind gusts blew a Cat in the Hat balloon into a lamppost, severely injuring a spectator. Under current guidelines, the balloons are grounded when winds reach 23 mph or in gust stronger than 34 mph.
While new balloons like SpongeBob grew gasps of admiration, the crowd was also loyal to old favorites, such as Charlie Brown. Parade-watchers chanted his name as he floated by, trying to kick the ever-elusive football.
Thousands of New Yorkers and tourists lined the streets as the parade proceeded from Central Park West down Broadway to Macy's flagship store on 34th Street.
Sean Upton, who lives in New York now but is originally from South Africa, was holding his 11-month-old daughter, Abigail, on his shoulders. She was cooing and laughing with delight at the balloons.
"This is awesome," Upton said. "This is a really unique American holiday. You don't have anything like this anywhere in the world."
Tim O'Connor, from the suburban town of Thiels, risked total exhaustion by holding his 4-year-old grandsons Sean and Declan in his arms.
"The atmosphere of the parade is so friendly," he said. "It makes it a nice event, and it gets them out of the house so that parents can cook dinner."
In Herald Square, Brooke Shields of the Broadway musical "Wonderful Town" and stars of the Elvis Presley-inspired musical "All Shook Up" entertained throngs of onlookers.
The parade started in 1924 and has been an annual tradition, canceled only in the World War II years of 1942 to 1944.