Louis Lanzano / AP
See images of the giant balloons and festivities at the 86th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Updated at 12:55 p.m. ET: NEW YORK — Millions of people lined the streets of New York on Thursday to watch the 86th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the largest event held in the city since Superstorm Sandy caused widespread damage throughout the region.
Giant helium balloons hovering over the parade lifted spirits in the wake of the deadly storm that flooded homes and businesses in New York and New Jersey last month.
Crowds along the parade route cheered a host of giant character balloons, including a 60-foot-tall Kermit the Frog balloon and an enormous Charlie Brown. The parade, which typically draws 3.5 million spectators and 50 million television viewers, also featured 28 floats, 11 marchine bands, thousands of cheerleaders and dancers and Santa Claus. Celebrity performers included Whoopi Goldberg, Carly Rae Jepsen and the Muppets.
On Thanksgiving Day, a parade lifts holiday spirits, charities fill empty stomachs, and soldiers find a little bit of home in a faraway land. NBC's Katy Tur reports.
The parade was the largest public event held in the city since the storm, which killed 132 people in the United States and Canada.
"As it has during turbulent times in our history, we hope the Macy's Parade serves as a beacon of hope for all who tune in and gather with friends and family to give thanks this season, as they continue to heal from the devastating aftermath of Superstorm Sandy," Amy Kule, the parade's executive producer, said in a statement.
Macy's said it would provide seats for some 5,000 people affected by Sandy, which inundated lower Manhattan with seawater, damaged shorelines and destroyed homes in New Jersey and New York.
Thousands of area residents are coping with the loss of homes, businesses and loved ones on Thanksgiving. Some are marking the occasion in homeless shelters.
Watching the balloons being inflated on Wednesday night was Chris Tamis, his wife and two teenagers, whose home on hard-hit Long Island only recently had its power restored.
"Coming here is a good distraction," said Tamis, who lives in Smithtown, New York. "A lot of people are coming to get away from it."
On Wednesday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city, in partnership with local community organizations and businesses, was providing 26,500 Thanksgiving meals for people hardest hit by the storm.
From poor weather conditions in the Midwest to a worker protest at LAX, travel slowdowns and higher rental car costs have made Thanksgiving travel anything but smooth sailing. NBC's Ron Mott reports.
Other cities planned to have showy marching bands, cartoon character balloons and musical extravaganzas as well. Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit were among the big cities hosting parades.
TODAY's Al Roker chats with a few of the musical acts who will perform during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside "dancing baked goods" and the Ninja Turtles.
For some, the once-sacrosanct harvest feast now starts the holiday shopping season — and store openings keep getting earlier. Black Friday now starts on Thanksgiving day itself at many national stores and some shoppers eagerly race from their dinner tables to line up for bargains, delaying their second helpings until they've purchased the latest toys or electronic devices.
Yana Paskova / Getty Images
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.