CHRISTINE THIEME knew that if she wanted prime seating for Philly's Thanksgiving Day Parade, she'd have to sacrifice a few hours of sleep.

So at 6:30 yesterday morning, she stepped out of her home in Southampton, Bucks County, and made the trek into Philly, settling on the curb across from Suburban Station.

Hours later, that's where she sat with her cousin Janet and Janet's daughter Madigan, on camp chairs, bundled in scarves and jackets, as Santa Claus rode by, officially ending the city's 96th 6ABC Dunkin' Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade.

"We did it when we were younger," said Thieme, 24, gesturing to her cousin. "We wanted to share it with Madigan."

But as Janet was quick to remind her cousin, the parades of their youth were simple compared to yesterday's massive affair, complete with towering balloons, marching bands and even Darth Vader and his vanguard of Storm Troopers.

"When I was here, it was nothing like this," Janet said. "It's just so big and exciting."

"Big and exciting," indeed: Thousands lined JFK Boulevard and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the event - the nation's oldest Thanksgiving Day parade - a sea of people stretching all the way to the Art Museum steps.

There, revelers were entertained by Grammy winner Dionne Warwick, students from the Creative and Performing Arts High School and even the Geator with the Heater himself, Jerry Blavat.

Along the parade route, towering over the people in front of them, Pete McEneaney and his family sat perched on a paint-splattered two-by-four suspended between two ladders.

The homemade bleacher is a tradition for the West Chester native: He's been attending the Philly parade and setting up the seating for four decades.

It started with his oldest son, who's now 55 and has kids of his own.

"The little guys were always pushing to the front," said McEneaney, 83. "This way, everyone can see."

He grinned as he snapped pictures of his son-in-law, Jason Winkleblech, and two of his grandkids, Joshua and Hannah, who sat on the same battle-tested plywood that he'd dug out of his garage for the family's first parade outing.

The group picture is as much a tradition as the bleacher itself, he said.

"I love to look at them all and see how times have changed," he said.

About a stone's throw from McEneaney strolled Scarlet, a graying Great Dane decked out in a Rutgers University windbreaker.

Paul Caulfield was at the other end of the leash, wearing gear that probably wasn't as well-received: a Stetson and a Dallas Cowboys jacket.

The Croydon, Bucks County, resident and his faithful dog haven't missed the parade in nine years. Their annual walk down the parkway grew out of Scarlet's role as a therapy dog. Before the two would make their rounds at city hospitals, they'd take a quick lap around the floats and balloons.

These days, Scarlet is retired, giving her and Caulfield more time to take in the sights.

"It's just so festive; it's a great way to start the day," said Caulfield, 54. "Plus, it's way better than watching it on TV. You miss so much by not being here."

The Watts family agreed. Yesterday's parade was the first for Sarah and her son, Emery, who'll turn 3 in a few weeks.

Sarah and her husband, John, rode the subway down from North Philly at 8 a.m., snagging a spot near the street. It was worth it, she said, when she saw her son's face light up at seeing his favorite cartoon character, Daniel the Tiger, float by.

But toddlers aren't the only ones who marvel at the event - or so said Amanda Madeh, 15, and her friends from South Philly.

The junior-high and high-schoolers scoffed when asked if they were getting "too big" to enjoy the parade.

"It's always full of surprises, like that," Madeh said, pointing to a passing float carrying Disney princesses.

"Everybody's smiling; it's just a great day."

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