Among the parade's signature features are its pageant sized puppets — giant rod puppets "articulated" by teams of puppeteers — and its open participation to anyone in a costume who wishes to march. It is the largest public Halloween event in the United States, and the country's only major night parade. It has been called "New York's Carnival."
It has been featured in many national magazines and travel guides, and has been a subject of study by leading cultural anthropologists. According to The New York Times, "the Halloween Parade is the best entertainment the people of this City ever give the people of this City." "Absolutely anything goes," says USA Today. "Be prepared to drop your jaw."
Another distinct feature of the Village Halloween Parade is its costumes, which are limitless in their variety, "bizarre but brilliant" (Fodor's), well-crafted, and highly entertaining.
The audience is likely to see old women in a Kazoo band, a puppet ship with a full set of sails, a Statue of Liberty stabbed in the chest, a group of bulldogs on leashes all dressed as Batman, skeletons playing the tuba, skeletons dressed as Krispy Kreme employees, brides and grooms, brides and brides, grooms and grooms, politicians, and madrigal drum corps. Onlookers have been entertained by walking Scrabble tiles that rearrange themselves to spell various words; decks of playing cards shuffling up the avenue; and armies of chess pieces marching in regiments of black and white, with small children as pawns.
Although the parade is billed as family friendly, costumes depicting sexual organs, paraphernalia, and related themes are common. Walking penises, condoms, faux- bare-chested and bare-bottomed women, and flashers exposing prop privates do not faze the New York audience, and it is rare that anything is banned.
Each year, a parade theme is selected by organizers to tie together the designs commissioned from the six puppet makers, and as a suggestion to inspire individual marchers. Jeanne Fleming, the parade's Artistic and Producing Director applies her research to illustrate the holiday's historic origins, and its psychic, spiritual, and mythical meanings, focusing on selected aspects from year to year. She also incorporates ideas behind seasonal traditions, such as Celtic and harvest festivals, into the parade. The notion of Halloween as a night of transformation is often reflected in the themes, as well as ideas of self-expression and community.
At 7:00 p.m., the first enormous puppet enters the parade route to lead the march straight up Sixth (officially known as The Avenue of the Americas). After the puppets safely pass, the waiting throngs of costumed participants join behind the puppets, and throughout the evening more puppets, floats, bands and other performers are introduced into the stream. It can take two to three hours to enter the parade, so the staging area becomes its own party. Masqueraders continue to show up for hours, stake out a position in the line-up, and gather around their favorite live bands.
The distinction between participant and spectator is blurry. Many in the audience are themselves in costume — some show up to watch and end up joining — and attention-seeking revelers zigzag across the avenue to interact with the audience, receive applause and cheers, pose for snapshots, throw candy to the children, and mug for the hungry international media. Organizers specifically encourage the marchers to play to the crowd.
The parade crosses the intersections of legendary Houston Street, Bleecker Street, Christopher Street, and Greenwich Avenue, then ends at 21st Street. This is not the end of the evening, however; after participants are directed off the route to the east on 21st Street, they disperse to the many costume parties planned at area bars, nightclubs, and restaurants.