At its start in 1924 (when it celebrated Christmas!), the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade wasn't a high-flying event: It was organized by employees and featured animals from the Central Park Zoo. The balloons—which used to be filled with only air—made their debut in 1927; Felix the Cat was the first character balloon. Now, 85 years later, the inflation of the balloons is an event itself. The parade closes off the streets next to the American Museum of Natural History, pins down its balloons, begins to inflate them, and invites the public to watch. We were there—and here are some of the things we learned.

1. For 43 years, the balloons were designed and made in a former Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken, New Jersey. Last year, the Macy's Design Studio moved to a new 72,000 square foot studio in nearby Moonachie.

2. There will be 56 balloons in the parade this year: 16 giant character balloons and 40 novelty balloons.

3. The characters flying for the first time this year are Hello Kitty, Elf on the Shelf, Papa Smurf, and Companion by KAWS. Here's what they look like on the ground:

Hello Kitty

Papa Smurf

Companion by KAWS

Elf on the Shelf

4. The balloons used to be made of rubber; now they're made of polyurethane fabric.

5. The balloons are filled with a mixture of helium and air. The highest point of a balloon requires 100 percent helium, while something like a smile or a button needs only air.

6. It takes 90 minutes to inflate a giant balloon.

7. The average life of a balloon is eight years. This Kermit has been flying since 2002. He's 78 feet long, 61 feet high, and 36 feet wide.

8. On average, balloons are filled with 12,000 cubic feet of helium—that's enough to lift 746 pounds!

9. Balloons under nets are finished being inflated; the ones not under nets are still inflating. When those balloons are done, they'll be moved under a net.

10. SpongeBob SquarePants took its first flight in 2004, the year The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie came out.

11. The Aflac Duck, which debuted last year, is a "balloonicle." It combines a cold-air balloon and self-propelled vehicle.