The scene around him in a vast industrial space looks like Santa's Workshop, but John Piper, the man behind Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, compares organizing the annual extravaganza to planning a huge holiday meal _ with a lot of trimmings.
He needs to serve up something for the traditionalists as well as those seeking a little variety; he needs to include old friends and invite new ones to the party. This year Santa Claus gets his first new float in 40 years and the new balloons are Sailor Mickey, the parade's fourth incarnation of Mickey Mouse, Spider-Man, Ronald McDonald and the Pillsbury Doughboy.
It's the second version of Spider-Man that will fly through the streets of New York on Thanksgiving Day and the third Ronald, this one with enormous feet on speed skates that posed Piper with more than a few technical challenges.
Sometimes Piper invites for a return engagement a balloon character or a float theme that had taken a break but might click with a new audience, he explains. Snoopy has been the most popular character over the years, boasting six different versions.
Personally, Piper would like to bring back Underdog but there hasn't been an occasion for that _ at least not yet. Still, he can't pick a favorite even if it seems like everyone else can. "I love them all. If I had my way, we'd have a parade every week and fly them all."
He adds: "The thing that surprises me about all of them (the balloons) is that everyone has their own favorite. Back to the meal, everyone likes the whole dinner but everyone has a favorite dish."
Popularity isn't the only factor in keeping or losing a balloon, says Piper, as some are retired because they're no longer fit to fly and there are corporate partnerships to be considered.
There also are the parade's old standbys, like the clowns and the marching bands, that Piper compares to the brown-and-serve rolls on the table that everyone loves _ and the meal wouldn't be complete without _ but aren't the headline-grabbers.
The only litmus test for any of the elements is that it can bring a smile to someone's face, says Piper. "We talk about the parade as being fun for children, but we're not talking children by stature. There's a child in everyone and we want them to have a good time."
"We've taken on the role of gatekeeper to the holiday," he says.
The Macy's parade tradition started in 1924 and took a break only during World War II. (The balloons actually were dismantled and the materials used in the war effort as the light aircraft called dirigibles.)
Then and now, it's the retailer's employees and their friends and family members that put on the bulk of the show, including the balloon handlers who, in the offseason, practice special training flights. The only requirements are that handlers are at least 18 years old and weigh 125 pounds or more.
The balloons start as a pencil sketch and then are turned into a full-color rendering. Those are turned into three-dimensional designs built on a 1:24 scale using a steel frame covered with clay. That's the last chance to make any changes, Piper explains.
Approved designs are then poured into silicon molds, hardened and then those molds are emptied to become negative-space models; there are always two _ one kept white with all the technical drawings marked with inflation and deflation points, and weight and balance notes, and the other is a color version so everyone will know what the balloon will actually look like. It's a nine-month process, according to Piper, who boasts that in his 29 years working on the parade, he's never not had one fly although the square SpongeBob Squarepants and gangly Kermit the Frog were touch-and-go for a while.
After the parade each year, the balloons, floats and assorted accessories head back through the Lincoln Tunnel to the former Tootsie Roll factory that acts as parade central. Deflated balloons are stowed in colorful bags, ranging in size from a jumbo load of laundry to a king bed.
Piper and his team gather the day after Thanksgiving at the studio for their own feast. He'll watch a recorded version of the parade on TV _ and then start thinking about the next year.
"It's always on its way to Thanksgiving for me. It's the first and last day of the year," Piper says.