Island photographer fills out fairy float crew at Macy’s Day parade

Ray Pfortner, center, and Dale Wing, wave. The pair were part of the 50-person crew handling the Abby Caddaby balloon. - Nancy Wing Photo
Ray Pfortner, center, and Dale Wing, wave. The pair were part of the 50-person crew handling the Abby Caddaby balloon.
— image credit: Nancy Wing Photo

A childhood dream has finally come true for Ray Pfortner.

Pfortner, 59, recently returned from a trip to New York City, where he marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Better still, he did so as part of a 50-person team controlling a giant, helium-filled balloon.

The well-known Island photographer was part of the crew handling the Abby Cadabby ballon, which made its debut in the parade in 2007. Abby Cadabby is a Sesame Street character who is a fairy in training.

Phortner said it was thrilling to march along the parade route, which runs two and a half miles from the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 77th Street to the Macy’s main store at 34th street.

“Most of the children knew Abby Cadabby and cheered us on the entire way, shouting ‘Abby, Abby, Abby!’” he said.

More than three million people watched the parade along its route, and another 44 million viewed the parade on television.

For Pfortner, the memories of the day are golden.

“Marching in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving parade — the world’s largest parade — is the essence of New York City,” he said. “As a native New Yorker, I have wanted to do this since being a child.”

Pfortner spent the first seven years of his life in New York City. The rest of his childhood was spent in suburban New Jersey, and he recalled that he either attended or watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television every year.

“I always yearned to see it,” he said.

After graduating from college, Pfortner moved back to Manhattan and never missed going to the parade in the 20 years he lived in the city. Even after moving to Vashon in 1992, he made frequent trips — every other year or so — back to New York for the annual event.

Three years ago, Pfortner decided it was time to stop watching the parade and start being in it.

He wanted to be part of the elite cadre of approximately 3,000 volunteer balloon handlers, but he wasn’t sure how to go about applying for the job.

“At first I made cold calls,” he said, explaining that he soon found out that he needed a sponsor who worked at the flagship Macy’s store.

Pfortner spent a couple of years working his East Coast connections to find his sponsor.

“I finally succeeded this year,” he said.

Pfortner said the rest of the application process was simple. He had to sign a liability release form, provide his medical history and verify that he weighed more than 125 pounds.

The remainder of the application, he said, dealt with measurements for his costume — which in Pfortner’s case turned out to be a bright pink jumpsuit.

Once the application was approved, Pfortner received a DVD in the mail that provided instructions about how to help pilot the balloon.

On the day of the parade, he joined his brother-in-law, Dale Wing, who had also secured a slot as an Abby Caddaby wrangler, and the two reported to the New Yorker Hotel at 6 a.m. to get into costume and meet the rest of their team.

“We had a pilot with 24 years of experience, two co-pilots, a captain with 18 years experience and two co-captains,” he said.

According the Macy’s Web site, the parade balloons’ dimensions vary, but most are five to six stories high and about 60 feet long and 30 feet wide.

They are constructed of polyurethane, and held in place not only by the team of balloon handlers, but also tethered to 800-pound utility vehicles.

Pfortner described the balloon as “huge and heavy” and added that the team had to obey every signal the pilot gave as the balloon moved along the parade route.

“I’ve never seen anything that required this type of teamwork,” he said.

Now that Pfortner is an experienced balloon wrangler, he’ll be invited back to march in the parade again next year, and he said he plans to go.

“It’s not the easiest thing to do,” he said, “but it is the most prestigious. The floats, the celebrities and the clowns are great, but the balloons are considered the heart of the parade. I felt quite a bit of pride.”


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