The last-minute decision allowed the event's famous fliers to be part of the annual New York tradition. Dozens of smaller balloons, floats, marching bands, clowns, performers and celebrities also were featured, as well as a handful of "balloonicles" — balloons that are powered by motorized vehicles on the street.
The weather didn't hamper parade watchers.
Nine-year-old Sarah Barker, waiting for parade to pass her spot at 61st Street and Central Park West, saw the bright side in the parade floats flying a little lower.
"It means a better view," she said.
Encased in parkas and hoods, the four members of the Castellanos family were on the hunt for a good spot near Herald Square. They had traveled from Baltimore just for the parade and weren't going to be put off by the weather.
"We knew it was going to be bad," mom Lisa Castellanos, 35, said as the parade began. "But we're here already."
The parade kicked off at 9 a.m. with blaring horns and flashing lights from the police escort. Clowns on rollerskates met the crowd, followed by the floats. Down at Herald Square, the crowd was entertained with performances from the cast of "A Chorus Line" and "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"
The parade will feature 33 floats with themes as varied as Charlotte's Web and Barbie, almost a dozen marching bands from across the country, and celebrities including singers Barry Manilow, Gloria Estefan and Ciara.
John Piper, who directs the Macy's studio that makes the balloons and floats, said he is most excited for people to see a new hot-air balloon created inspired by the classic novel "Around the World in 80 Days."
"I think it's going to be just amazing," said Piper, who has been a part of the parade for 26 years.
The city's Office of Emergency Management, which had closely monitored the weather conditions, decided right before the parade's start that the big balloons could be used safely, according to spokesman Jarrod Bernstein.
The balloons must be grounded if winds reach 23 mph with gusts stronger than 34 mph, according to city guidelines.
The guidelines were put in place after 45 mph winds at the 1997 parade sent a Cat in the Hat balloon careening into a metal pole. A woman who was hit by falling debris suffered a fractured skull and was in a coma for nearly a month.
During last year's event, a giant M&M's balloon snagged the head of a streetlight and broke it off, sending debris plummeting onto spectators. Two sisters, ages 11 and 26 at the time, were injured. A city task safety task force determined that the accident was a result of discrepancies between parade guidelines and actual conditions along the route.
To protect against accidents, seven wind-measuring devices have been installed along the parade route to allow the city to monitor weather conditions during the event, Bernstein said. Police officers assigned to each balloon will be able to communicate changing conditions to the handlers, who will in turn adjust the flight pattern.
"We are able to check every location, and it will allow us to adjust how high or low to fly the balloons," Bernstein said. "I'm extremely confident that we have done a lot of work to make this parade as safe as it possibly can be."