of the Biggest Parades in the U.S.
Who doesn’t love a parade? With marching bands, baton twirlers, elaborately decorated floats, and costumed revelers, a parade is a joyous way to celebrate a holiday or special occasion. While just about every town in the United States has reason for at least one parade a year, some have grown into massive events that attract crowds of thousands or even millions of spectators. Check out 15 of the biggest parades in the nation.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (New York, New York)
Billed as the world’s largest parade — with an estimated 2 to 3 million spectators — the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York marks the unofficial start of the holiday season. The world-famous event originated as a Christmas parade in 1924, when a group of Macy’s employees dressed up and walked through the streets of Manhattan accompanied by jazz bands and zoo animals to drum up excitement for the holiday shopping season. Three years later, the parade was renamed for Thanksgiving, and the first balloons were introduced in 1928 to replace the live animals. Today, the giant inflated depictions of popular cartoon characters are a highlight of the event. Cheerleaders and high-school marching bands from around the country perform, as do the Rockettes and the casts of various Broadway musicals. The parade lasts approximately three hours and follows a 2.5-mile route along the edge of Central Park and then along Sixth Avenue to its final stop at Macy’s Herald Square. The concluding highlight is the arrival of Santa Claus.
Rose Parade (Pasadena, California)
The first Tournament of Roses was held in Pasadena in 1890 to show off the Southern California city’s abundance of flowers in bloom even in the middle of winter. It is now the way to celebrate the New Year, with viewers around the country tuning in to watch the 5.5-mile-long parade, which takes place on the morning of New Year’s Day and features elaborate floral-decorated mechanical floats. Many of them take the entire preceding year to design and build. Parade rules dictate that every inch of each float must be covered with natural material, be it flowers, bark, or leaves. Particularly delicate flowers such as roses are held in individual vials of water before carefully placed on the floats.
Mardi Gras (New Orleans, Louisiana)
New Orleans has never been the kind of city to do anything by halves, so it should come as no surprise that the Big Easy’s Mardi Gras parade is one of the most over-the-top celebrations in the country. Mardi Gras was originally celebrated in the city with elegant society balls. By the mid-19th century, groups called krewes began to form and organize parades and parties. The modern festivities last for about two weeks with at least one parade each day (and usually more). Each parade is hosted by a different krewe and features its own theme, some kept secret until the very last minute. Purple, green, and gold are the traditional colors, with crowds decked in costumes filling the streets of the French Quarter. Even for a city like New Orleans that has parades year-round, Mardi Gras is the ultimate party.
Disney Main Street Electrical (Anaheim, California)
Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade is guaranteed to bring out the inner child in even the most cynical adult. It is a truly magical event that has been held at different Disney parks over the years. The parade first opened at Disneyland California in 1972 and ran there until 1996, with occasional repeat performances since then. Fortunately, the light-filled spectacle filled with the music and characters that Disney fans know and love is set to make a comeback at the park in 2022. There’s also a parade currently running at Disneyland Tokyo, and another version of the parade ran at Florida’s Magic Kingdom from 1977 to 2016.
Gasparilla (Tampa, Florida)
Channel your inner pirate each January at Tampa’s Gasparilla Pirate Festival. A local tradition since 1904, the event promises “Pirates, Parades, and Piratechnics.”A family-friendly alcohol-free parade is held the first weekend and features bands, dance teams, and community groups. One week later, Tampa’s pirates make their way along a 4.5-mile route in the Parade of Pirates, sharing beads and treasures with spectators. More than 100 floats take part, along with five marching bands and more than 50 krewes (similar to those in New Orleans). The event draws hundreds of thousands of spectators and is said to be the third-largest parade in the country, though some have cast doubt on that claim.
St. Patrick’s Day (Chicago, Illinois)
Chicago and New York both claim to host the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, with each city’s event attracting as many as 2 million spectators. The Chicago event is known as much for its parade as for the Kelly green waters of the Chicago River — thanks to the 100 pounds of dye that is poured into the river hours before the festivities start. It seems as if the entire city claims Irish roots and dons green for the day. The parade itself lasts for more than three hours and is a jamboree of Irish dancers, bagpipers, and floats. Afterward, revelers continue the celebrations with corned beef, cabbage, and green beer at one of the many Chicago Irish pubs and restaurants.
Chinese New Year (San Francisco, California)
San Francisco’s annual parade to celebrate Chinese New Year is the oldest and largest of its kind outside of China — thanks to a large influx of Chinese immigrants to the city starting around the 1850s. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce has organized this celebration since 1958, and by the mid-1970s, the event had become so popular that the fire department asked that it be moved out of the Chinatown neighborhood and onto larger city streets. San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade was first broadcast on TV in 1987 and now an estimated 3 million people tune in, either in-person or via broadcast. The celebration has also expanded into a two-week festival with markets, fairs, and the Miss Chinatown beauty contest.
National Cherry Blossom Festival (Washington, D.C.)
In 1912, Japan gifted over 3,000 cherry trees to the nation’s capital as a symbol of international friendship. Today, the trees draw thousands of tourists to Washington, D.C. each spring, all eager to enjoy the delicate pink blossoms that line Constitution Avenue. The National Cherry Blossom Festival runs for almost a month during March and April, the peak blossom season. The festival features parties, kites, and other events, but the highlight is the annual parade, one of the District’s largest spectator events. Floats, balloons, bands, and entertainers follow the route, which extends for 10 blocks. An estimated 1.5 million people attend the festival each year.
Pride (New York, New York)
New York City’s Pride Parade is a civil rights demonstration, remembrance, and celebration all rolled into one huge colorful march. Held on the last Sunday each June, the event started in 1970 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Since then, it has grown to become one of the world’s largest LGBTQ+ events. The 2019 parade, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, attracted an estimated 5 million spectators and featured thousands of participants from around the world decked in rainbow colors, as well as local community and professional organizations. The route has changed over the years but typically proceeds south along Fifth Avenue and ends in Greenwich Village. The parade is the culmination of a month of fundraising activities.
Philadelphia Mummers (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Every New Year’s Day, the streets of Philadelphia are packed with spectators, who are there to see more than 10,000 musicians and performers take part in the annual Mummers Parade. Although the parade has been sanctioned by the city since 1901, the tradition is centuries old and originated in Europe. The word “mummer” comes from the German word for “masquerade” and refers to entertainers who would disguise themselves as they went from house to house singing, dancing, and playing pranks. Swedish immigrants are thought to have helped popularize the practice in Philadelphia. Each year’s parade has a different theme, and participating mummers spend much of the year preparing and creating costumes.
Fourth of July (Alameda, California)
Hot dogs, fireworks, and red, white, and blue take over the streets of Alameda, California, every year for one of the nation’s biggest Independence Day parades. More than 170 floats and 2,500 participants follow the 3.3-mile route, cheered on by around 20,000 spectators. Dance teams, floats, marching bands, antique cars, and historic reenactors all take part in the festivities. The more energetic might also want to take part in the early morning 5K run, but others will be quick to claim their favorite viewing spot. Many families stake out the same spots year after year to wave the stars and stripes.
St. Paul Winter Carnival (St. Paul, Minnesota)
It takes a certain breed to make it through Minnesota’s long, frigid winters. In 1885, several journalists returned to the East Coast complaining that Minnesota was unlivable in the colder months. Determined to prove them wrong, local business owners decided to showcase everything wonderful about a Minnesota winter. The following year, they organized the first Winter Carnival, a tradition that has continued ever since. The event features giant sculptures carved from ice and snow, a scavenger hunt, an ice fishing tournament, a snow park, and a fun run. Kicking things off is the King Boreas Grande Day Parade, featuring all of the usual parade participants — bands, dancers, floats, carnival queens — albeit wrapped up in warm clothing.
Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)
The Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Parade is a departure from the usual floats and marching bands. That’s because this parade takes place on the water, with dozens of boats of all sizes beautifully decked out in lights. The Winterfest Boat Parade kicks off the holiday season in Fort Lauderdale, attracting an estimated 1 million spectators along the 12-mile aquatic route. The festive event usually takes place on the second Saturday of December.
Bud Billiken Parade (Chicago, Illinois)
The Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic is the largest African American parade in the nation, attracting more than 1.2 million attendees each year. The brainchild of local newspaperman Robert S. Abbott, who created a social club for local youth in the 1920s, the event began in 1929 and is held on the second Saturday each August. The parade route stretches for two miles along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive through Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. After the parade, there is a picnic with children’s activities, vendors, entertainment, and competitions. The parade and picnic are fundraisers to support local children by providing school supplies and scholarships. More than 200 drill teams and bands come from around the U.S. to participate, and previous Grand Marshals have included celebrities such as T.I., Chance the Rapper, and Chaka Khan.
Armed Forces Day Parade (Bremerton, Washington)
Billed as the largest Armed Forces parade in the U.S., the Armed Forces Day Parade in Bremerton, Washington, is also the longest-running such event. In 1948, the town’s Chamber of Commerce organized a parade to honor townsperson John Hawk, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II. The following year, Memorial Day was made a national holiday to honor those who have served, and the Bremerton Armed Forces Day Parade continued the tradition. An estimated 20,000 people come to watch the parade. Among the marchers are local military and first responder groups, veterans, and other community groups.