WESTMINSTER — Nearly everyone has seen that wondrous, larger-than-life Underdog balloon on TV during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
This year, Mariko Rachael Bower Woltermann will see it live.
The 6-year-old first-grader at Freedom Elementary will be atop Macy's "Showboat Float" in the parade, after being picked as one of 12 grand-prize winners in the department store's "Be a Star Contest."
Aside from a ride in the parade, the grand prize includes a spot in a December fashion show at the Macy's in Pentagon City, Va., and an appearance in a Macy's advertisement in the December issue of Vogue magazine.
It may sound like the end-all thrill for a 6-year-old, butyou'd never know watching Mariko on a recent afternoon playing in her bedroom, amid stuffed animals, books and favorite toys. The brown-haired, brown-eyed youngster talks little about the prize. Yet she's more than willing to share what happened at school that day.
"You know what we did in school today?" she said. "We did words on these big papers, and I got almost all of the words right."
Asked whether she is excited about her upcoming trip to New York, Mariko shakes herhead up and down and simply says, "It's OK. I think it will be fun."
Like most first-grade girls, Mariko enjoys spending time in her room, playing with her favorite toys and collectibles. For example, she pulled out about 10 music boxes from a shelf.
"This is my favorite," she said, pointing to a ceramic Peter Rabbit. "But I really likethem all. My daddy gave them to me. He always brings me back something special when he comes home from a business trip."
On another shelf sits a trophy, with several ribbons draped around its top.
"These are what I got last year at my (dance) recital," she says, as shebegins to read the description on the ribbons, which she won in dance class.
While Mariko is pleased about being a winner in the "Be AStar" program, she pursues many other interests. For a first-grader,she's busy.
On Sundays, there's swimming lessons, Mondays bring piano lessons, on Tuesdays it's gymnastics, and on Thursdays, there's dance class.
Mariko's parents are Mariya A. E. Bower and Gerald M.Woltermann of Westminster. Mariya works in the computer center for CSX Transportation in Baltimore. Gerald is a chemist with Katalistiks Research and Development Center in Reisterstown, Baltimore County.
"It has been a little overwhelming. It seems to have happened so quickly," said Mariya. "I am just amazed that she is one of the 12 picked from 6,000 kids."
In late August, Mariya was shopping with her 6-month-old daughter, Megumi, and Mariko in Macy's at Owings Mills.
"Basically, it came down to the last week (of the "Be A Star Contest"), and I submitted her photograph," recalled Mariya. "We were in thestore looking around, and the saleswoman told me I had cute kids andshould enter them in the contest."
Mariya took the advice and sent an entry form and a photograph of Mariko. Some 6,000 children ages 4 to 14 entered from four regions along the upper East Coast.
Justdays later, Macy's notified Mariko's parents that she was one of 100finalists chosen from 1,000 entries from the region composed of Maryland, Washington, D.C., Delaware, and Virginia.
On Sept. 15, the 100 finalists were invited to Macy's in Pentagon City, where they werejudged by regional modeling and photography professionals.
"We went to Pentagon City, and Mariko basically just walked down a runway and smiled," Mariya said. "I think the judging was probably based on how well they followed directions and if they were photogenic."
Thefamily learned of Mariko's good fortune the next day.
Ninety-six winners (24 from each region) were selected, and all were invited to appear in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, as well as star in a holiday fashion show in their regional store.
The 12 grand-prize winners -- picked by a panel of judges that included Macy's personnel from the Herald Square store in Manhattan and representatives of Vogue -- also will appear in the ad in the magazine.
So far, the most exciting aspect for Mariko has been the chance to travel and meet new friends.
"I rode the train to New York, and that was fun," Mariko said of her Sept. 21 trip for her photo session at Vogue. "I want to go back so I can see the other girls that I saw during the photo session."
The outgoing Mariko can't help but benefit from her "Be A Star" experience.
"She always has a lot of fun in whatever she does,"Mariya said. "At this point, we are hoping the experience helps to build her self-confidence."
Mariko and her family will leave for New York on Wednesday, Nov. 27.
"We are going to relax and just enjoy the event," Mariya said. "We will watch the parade and then stay overnight. I am not sure what we will do for Thanksgiving dinner."
While Mariko does not know whether she will eat turkey or pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day, she is sure about one thing.
Smiling broadly,she says, "I want to have room service."