NEW YORK - A high-kicking Kung Fu Panda and a diary-toting Wimpy Kid joined the giant balloon lineup as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade unfolded Thursday, drawing tens of thousands of spectators to the annual extravaganza on a chilly, overcast morning.
Emily Rowlinson, a tourist from London, squealed and snapped pictures with her cell phone as the massive Smurf balloon floated by a packed sidewalk along the route.
"We don't have anything like this in England," she exclaimed. "We have parades. We don't have any sort of huge, floating beasts. It's very cool."
As millions more watched the live broadcast on television, revelers gathered nationwide for other parades in cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. The parades headline observances across the nation that also feature football and family dinners with too much food on the table.
In his weekly radio and Internet address, President Barack Obama called on Americans to help each other through tough times.
"This is not the hardest Thanksgiving America has ever faced," Obama said. "But as long as many members of our American family are hurting, we've got to look out for one another."
He later telephoned ten U.S. servicemen and women stationed around the world to thank them for their service and sacrifice. He wished them and their families a happy Thanksgiving, before joining his own for the holiday.
The Macy's parade featured an eclectic lineup of entertainers including Kanye West, Gladys Knight and Colombian rocker Juanes. The Broadway casts of "American Idiot" and "Elf" performed, along with marching bands from across the United States.
Perched on her father's shoulders, 16-month-old Stella Laracque wriggled and danced with excitement as SpongeBob SquarePants, Hello Kitty, Shrek and other beloved figures wafted past her.
"She doesn't really know the characters, but she's loving it," said her father, Mike Laracque of Manhattan.
Another new balloon was Virginia O'Hanlon, the 8-year-old girl whose letter to the editor elicited the response, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
Santa Claus closed the parade as always. A cheer erupted as he passed by on his sleigh, shaking his enormous belly.
Returning balloons included Pillsbury Doughboy and Spider-Man - the last with a new fan in Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He said in a CBS interview that he had traditionally favored Snoopy, but after the Marvel Entertainment character was involved in a recent event promoting city services for job-seekers, "Spidey is my new favorite."
Surveying the scene with four of her relatives, Emily Hine confessed that she'd initially been loath to come from Boyertown, Pa., about 100 miles southwest of Manhattan.
"I was dreading the crowds, but I'm enjoying it more than I anticipated," she said, adding that the balloons are bigger than she'd imagined from watching previous years' parades on TV. "It's more up-close and personal."
Other celebrities at the parade included India Arie, Jessica Simpson, Kylie Minogue, Keri Hilson, Arlo Guthrie and Miranda Cosgrove.
Standing on a stepladder her family had brought from Mamaroneck, a New York City suburb, 9-year-old Melissa Machado was thrilled to spot Victoria Justice, the star of Nickelodeon's "Victorious."
"She's a famous person, and I always see her shows," Melissa explained after the actress-singer passed by on the Build-A-Bear Workshop float.
The Macy's parade started in 1924 when employees from the department store marched in costume from Harlem to Macy's flagship store on 34th Street. The parade was suspended from 1942 to 1944 because rubber and helium were needed for World War II, making Thursday's parade the 84th.
The parade followed the route it inaugurated last year, starting on Central Park West and proceeding down Seventh and Sixth avenues to 34th Street. The route had to be changed when vehicles were banned from parts of Broadway.
Workers had removed street lights and traffic lights to make way for the massive balloons and were standing by to replace the equipment.
"As soon as Santa Claus drives by, the poles go back up," said Tom Carola, a worker with an electrical-contracting company hired by the city.
In Detroit, a morning drizzle and chilly temperatures weren't enough to keep John and Matt Fisher from attending that city's parade.
The father and son from Hamtramck, Mich., had their RV set up a day ahead of time and by Thursday morning had a prime spot for watching it - equipped with coffee, hot cocoa, soup and chili dogs.
"Got to see Santa," said John Fisher, 53. "If we don't see Santa, we're not sure he's gonna bring presents."
A block away, a German exchange student was watching his first Thanksgiving parade.
"This is great," said Jonah Boyd, 16, of Hamburg, who didn't know much about the American holiday before arriving in South Lyon, Mich., where he is staying with a host family. "All I knew was that people ate turkey."
Before the parade, Boyd, his girlfriend and her family watched thousands of runners take part in the annual Turkey Trot race. A similar race in Buffalo, N.Y., attracted more than 12,000 entrants, the most ever in the event's 115-year-history, organizers said.
Many participants in Detroit wore costumes: One ran in a Santa suit, complete with sack. An elf was spotted as well. Others were wearing Halloween-type outfits, including runners dressed as Iron Man and Captain America.
Perhaps the most appropriate attire belonged to the two Turkey Trotters wearing turkey hats.