HYDE PARK — On a blustery day that saw wind speeds as high as 30 mph, John Hipolito was tasked with proving a team of 28 handlers could keep a 40-foot-tall inflatable bird from flying away.
Hipolito, balloon chairman for the 80th McDonald's Thanksgiving Day Parade, was training hundreds of volunteers who took turns wrestling strings, fighting the wind and sometimes each other to keep the massive Tweety Bird balloon from floating off.
"We get a balloon that is hopefully a little more difficult to handle, this one has multiple big chambers with the big Tweety head and we hope for wind, which we got," said Hipolito, describing why the Loony Tunes character was chosen for training. "Basically, we just try to expose first-time volunteers and repeat volunteers."
As Hipolito spoke a gust of wind struck the west lawn of the Museum of Science and Industry giving volunteers an opportunity to wrestle their strings.
"We expose them to what they might see during the parade," Hipolito said. "How to handle strings and little safety precautions. Things that might seem basic, but people get caught up and stop paying attention."
Hipolito has been working with the parade for more than 10 years and said the annual parade training was "really to get the hands on the strings, so they have some sort of idea before they hit the street."
For Ball State University student Claire Baldwin, Saturday's training gave her and her parents a glimpse of what may come when they march down State Street on Nov. 28 with beloved characters including Curious George, Pac-Man and Garfield.
"I was a little nervous at first but I feel a lot better. I'm thankful it was windy so I feel a little more confident," said the Portage, Ind., resident, whose parents corralled balloons for the first time last year. "It's a tradition we can all have and look back on, and every year we can bring back more people."
Hipolito said he has seen people make mental mistakes like wrapping the strings around their fingers. Often volunteers struggle with maneuvering the balloons and the difficult task of laying them flat to walk underneath "L" tracks, which is part of the parade route, he said.
"There’s a lot of strings and a lot of communication between the people handling the strings. There has to be some kind of symmetry between the strings otherwise it's just going to be slanted and crooked, so really the challenge is keeping these guys straight for the most part," he said.
The volunteers walk with the balloons, ranging in height between 25 and 40 feet, for about 30 minutes down the route. Hipolito said the volunteers get a unique experience compared to those watching.
"You’re surrounded by the parade, " he said. "Watching the parade is fun enough, but when you're in the parade you have the parade in front of you, behind you, side to side and above you. You’re surrounded; you’re fully submerged in the parade. It’s almost surreal at times especially if you’ve grown up watching these things."
"First timers always seem to be in awe when they actually hit the parade," Hipolito said.
Liz Cademas and her friend Jasmine Hernandez are both 18-year-old students at George Washington High School, and were looking for a fun way to earn some community service hours.
"It's a little hard, but at the same time it's really easy," said Cademas, as she fought to keep control of the giant bird.
The two said the hardest part of the practice run was turning the balloon around.
"It's a lot of tugging. A lot of us needed a little help because it was pretty tough," Cademas said. "I'm still a little nervous...for the tugging. I don't want it to rip my arms off."
The two struggled at first holding on to their strings because the bird's feet kept hitting them, they said.
"I really want to do it again. It was really fun," said Cademas. "Participating in Chicago events is really fun especially knowing that you're active in the community is really rewarding."