Organizers said more than a million people watched the parade in person Thursday, with 50 million more watching on television, as handlers lead traditional giant balloons up the 2.5-mile route from Central Park to Herald Square, in front of Macy's flagship department store.
New balloons this year are Buzz Lightyear, the square-jawed, action-figure astronaut from the 1995 film "Toy Story," Horton, the compassionate elephant of Dr. Seuss books, and a Smurf, a blue, gnome-like creature.
"Where else can you find a five-story Smurf? Pumpkins the size of" a recreational vehicle, said John Piper, who directs the Macy's studio where the balloons and floats are made. "I mean, this is Wonderland come to life," he told NY1-TV while standing in front of a giant balloon Wednesday as it was filled with helium.
Among the newcomers was a smaller balloon paying tribute to graffiti artist Keith Haring, who died in 1990. The parade also was to feature 28 floats, 10 marching bands and performances by Miley Cyrus, Trace Adkins, James Taylor and the Radio City Rockettes.
"We see the parade as a huge pageant of American culture," executive producer Robin Hall said.
At a staging area near Macy's, people milled around in costumes: clowns, cowboys, pirates, chefs - someone carrying a fake pie the size of a Christmas wreath.
"I'm so excited! ... The crowds, just seeing it in person!" said parade-goer Phyllis Grodnicki of Plainsboro, New Jersey.
The parade, which began in 1924 and was canceled for two years during World War II, also provides a coveted yearly spotlight for Broadway productions. This year, cast members of "Hair," "In the Heights," "The Little Mermaid," "South Pacific" and "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" were slated to perform.
In Detroit, thousands bundled up in hats, mittens and scarves to stake prime viewing spots along the city's parade route. The parade has been held for more than 80 years, and this year's version features more than 60 floats, balloons and marching bands.
Harry Vanuden, a 45-year-old Chrysler LLC worker, said he was grateful to still have his job this Thanksgiving. He is among 200 remaining employees at Chrysler's Mack engine plant in Detroit. Two years ago, Vanuden said they numbered 1,500.
"I've been a toolmaker for 26 years," said Vanuden, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Warren. "You hope for the best. I'm just thankful I'm still there."
Besides watching parades, millions of Americans prepared for a day featuring football and family dinners with too much food on the table.
The seven Endeavour astronauts and three space station crew members also planned a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but unlike families on Earth, they were poised to float - not sit down - for their feast at the joined space shuttle-international space station complex.
Before their meal, astronaut Don Pettit used a makeshift plastic cup his fellow astronauts and those on Earth, "a good Thanksgiving."
On the menu were smoked turkey that's ready to be heated and freeze-dried green beans and cornbread dressing in need of water injections before they're served.
Some 220 miles below, President George W. Bush was spending Thanksgiving at his Camp David retreat in Maryland, thankful for his almost-expired "privilege of serving as the president." President-elect Barack Obama was staying in Chicago to "have a whole bunch of people over to the house" and squeeze in some Christmas shopping.