RALEIGH — A 45-foot tall Nutcracker balloon is hard to miss under any circumstances, but it stood out more than normal at Saturday’s 68th Annual Raleigh Christmas Parade.
The Nutcracker was the only helium-filled balloon in the entire procession as it soared through downtown Raleigh for a crowd estimated by organizers to be at least 70,000 people. The other balloons, wheeled along by carts, were filled with regular air. Helium has become more precious because of a worldwide shortage that has affected parades and florists across the country.
“The parade was as nice as last year,” said Carol Sturdivant of Raleigh, who attended the parade with her family. “But they did have more balloons last year.”
The United States produces 75 percent of the world’s helium. And roughly 30 percent of that world supply comes from the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, at a huge natural underground reservoir called the Bush Dome.
That supply, according to energy officials, is fast being depleted. Some speculate that the usable life of the reservoir could end in five or six years.
The shortage has caused prices to shoot up and parades around the nation to cut back on the use of helium in balloons.
Jennifer Martin, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, which puts on the parade, said they were fortunate that Praxair, a helium provider, was able to provide enough to inflate one large balloon. The helium went toward the Carolina Ballet’s larger-than-life Nutcracker to promote this year’s performances of the popular show.
A team of volunteers steered the Nutcracker around trees and traffic lights as wind gusts threatened to blow him away.
“The more it looked perilous, the more they cheered,” said Aaron Gerry of Raleigh, one of the Nutcracker balloon volunteers, of the crowd.
The children of Elizabeth Young of Lillington were among those who cheered as the Nutcracker persevered against the elements.
“It was well organized,” said Young. “The only thing you can’t control for is the weather, and that was great too.”
The long-running holiday parade, sponsored by WRAL, had a mix of veterans and newcomers, both in the crowd and among the marchers.
Matthew Brown of Raleigh was marching in what he thought was well past his 20th Raleigh Christmas parade. He and others were dressed in Victorian attire to promote next month’s 41st Annual Historic Oakwood Candlelight Tour, when many of the historic homes will be open for public viewing.
“We just enjoy making people smile,” Brown said.
The Heritage High School marching band from Wake Forest participated in their first Raleigh Christmas Parade, a noticeably larger event than the parades the band has performed at in Wake Forest and Rolesville.
“It’s scary,” said Lizzy Putnam, 15, of Wake Forest, a Heritage High band member. “I hadn’t performed in front of such a large crowd before.”
Parade organizers say Raleigh’s is the largest Christmas parade between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
The enthusiastic crowd response made the 1.4-mile march fly by sooner than expected for the teenagers.
Among those watching in the crowd were Candice Ruffin, 28, of Raleigh, who wanted to share with her children an annual parade experience that’s been part of her life since she was a little girl.
“I love it,” Ruffin said. “It gets me in the Christmas spirit.”
Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.