It's 8:30 p.m. Monday and the 57th Street subway platform is inundated with 1,200 teenage girls clad in red sweat pants and Macy's sweatshirts. The cheerleaders and dancers, escorted by 125 chaperones, flood down the stairs, a squealing sea of ponytails and pompoms. Even for jaded New Yorkers, the scene is quite a spectacle. Briefcase-toting commuters and parents gripping strollers scuttle to the backs of the trains as the wave of performers pours into the cars, giggling and chattering excitedly.
"Oh my gosh, this is so cool," said Caitlin Edmondson, 17, captain of Osceola High School's varsity cheerleaders. Caitlin and seven other cheerleaders from the fundamental high school are headed to 34th Street, where they will participate in a four-hour rehearsal with an NBC crew in front of Macy's department store, a final preparation before their performance in Thursday's 84th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
They're not the only, nor even the largest, Pinellas County contingent. The Seminole High marching band also made the trip. The Warhawks are no strangers to big events or holiday shows. They marched in the Rose Parade in Pasadena in 2005 and performed for the Walt Disney World/ABC Christmas show in 2007.
Band director Dan Wood kept applying for more than a decade before Seminole finally made the cut this year.
In addition, two St. Petersburg dancers will be among several hundred members of the Spirit of America dance group doing the parade's opening number. Peyton Lustig, who attends Shorecrest, and Chandler Grace, a student at Northside Christian, are both 17-year-old seniors.
Monday's rehearsal proved to be memorable. While thousands of onlookers crowded around barricades lined by New York police officers, the cheerleaders waited in the staging area and watched performances by the cast of Sesame Street and the New York City Children's Chorus. Fellow performer Kanye West popped by for a quick sound check. West, sporting a long brown fur coat and a collar of gold necklaces, waved enthusiastically at the screaming teenagers before ducking back into his limo.
Both the Seminole and Osceola groups are staying at the Hilton Hotel, a few blocks from Times Square. And both had to spend hundreds of hours working to raise the money for the expensive trip.
The Osceola students asked for donations outside Publix stores, washed cars, babysat, sold coupon books, pizza and cookies. Among the many efforts of the Seminole students and parents was a collection of recipes sold as a cookbook, with proceeds going to the trip.
"There's no money in the budget for stuff like this, but when the girls were chosen to go, I decided to do whatever it took to get them here because I wanted them to have this experience — it's a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Osceola coach Becky Griggs, 48.
"Years from now when they're grandmothers watching the parade on TV with their grandchildren, they can say 'I was there. I did that,' " Griggs said.