Toni McKay has friends in high places. They have names everyone knows well, and include the cartoon characters Curious George, Arthur, Dick Tracy and Garfield. During holidays and special celebrations, they float between skyscrapers and more modest rooftops, entertaining parade spectators around the world.
McKay, 48, is the owner of StarBound Entertainment, a company that creates larger-than-life balloons in a 2,000-square-foot building in New Castle, Pa. (pop. 26,309).
“I believe I’m the only woman in the world who does this for a living,” says McKay, who started her parade balloon business 20 years ago. She’s certainly the only woman who does it in the United States; StarBound is one of two major U.S.-based balloon firms, and the only one owned and operated by a female.
As a little girl growing up in nearby Ellwood City, Pa. (pop. 8,688), McKay remembers putting on backyard shows for her neighbors. “As an adult, it dawned on me that parade balloons could be my way to become a successful businesswoman and still entertain people,” she says.
Her idea was to manufacture balloons not only for major city parades, but also for celebrations in smaller cities that had never had large balloons before. Today, StarBound balloons fly at major events, including Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., as well as at smaller ones, such as the annual Festival of Trees Parade in Davenport, Iowa.
McKay’s seven full-time and 50 seasonal employees create and provide balloons for some 150 events each year, including parades in Europe and South America.
The process of making a balloon starts with a StarBound engineer creating an aerodynamically sound scale model of the intended design in clay, which is then scored into separate sectional areas. Vinyl sections are created based on the model and heat-sealed together. Production takes about 45 days.
StarBound has an inventory of about 350 different balloons, which are shipped to events and then returned to New Castle for storage.
Ray Pulver, 47, owns Upbeat Parade Productions of San Jose, Calif., and has used StarBound balloons for 15 years for events in San Jose and Oakland, Calif., and other cities. “Toni always keeps parades fresh by adding new balloons each year,” Pulver says.
John Best, 43, produces Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the National Independence Day and National Cherry Blossom Festival parades in the nation’s capital. “I’ve been working with Toni for 10 years,” says Best, who won a daytime Emmy for his production of the 2005 Walt Disney World Christmas Day Parade. “Every time I see those kids and families look up enthralled at those balloons, I know Toni and I have done the parade right.”
Some of StarBound’s balloons are custom-designed specifically for her clients. “One is a giant golf ball,” McKay says. “It was made for the World Golf Hall of Fame Parade. We’ve also made balloons of giant persimmons, a star, a Cleveland Browns football helmet, and even an airplane.” McKay is especially proud of a parade balloon her company made for the annual Festival of Lights Parade in Gatlinburg, Tenn. (pop. 3,382). “They wanted a balloon in tribute to the American soldier,” she says. “I used a photograph of my late father in his World War II uniform as the model.”
Looking back on the last two decades, McKay is delighted to have built a career that allows her to fulfill her dream. “I also wanted my work to make the world a brighter, happier place,” she says. With StarBound’s colorful balloons floating over delighted faces around the world, she’s done exactly that.