© David Zanzinger

The Splendor of the Rose Parade

An insider's look at a New Year's tradition

BYBryn Bailer
All the world loves a parade — and when it comes to grand pageants, you don’t get much more beloved than the one hosted by the Pasadena Tournament of Roses. For more than a century, people have journeyed to Southern California to marvel at the annual flower-bedecked parade of floats, marching bands, and precision drill teams — while millions more flock to television screens worldwide to take in America’s New Year’s Celebration.
 
Parade History
The Rose Parade started modestly in 1890, as a way to promote Southern California’s balmy climate. Members of the local Valley Hunt Club decorated their horse-drawn wagons and carriages with fresh flowers, and ended the celebration with chariot races, polo games, and tug-of-war matches.
 
The chariot races are long gone, but flowers still play a key role in the parade. Per regulation, every inch of a Rose Parade float must be covered in flowers or other natural plant materials, so bark, fronds, fruits, vegetables, seaweed, mosses, seeds, or powdered spices also are pressed into service.
 
Behind the Scenes
The intricacies of float decorating are on display at cavernous float barns around the city. At the barns, float decoration is decidedly serious business: Each float can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take almost a year to design and construct. Vast quantities of plants and flowers are required. According to float organizers, it takes at least 250,000 flowers to cover a 5,000-square-foot float.
 
The float barns have refrigerated rooms that warehouse hundreds of thousands of fresh flowers in water-filled buckets, highly organized distribution points for tools, and eight different types of glue used to attach the various botanicals to the floats.
 
Hundreds of volunteers — cheekily nicknamed “petal pushers” — clamber up the elaborate, animatronic floats, stringing moss here, attaching palm fibers there, or de-stemming pompon-like mum blossoms and gluing them onto the float. Others patiently strip petals from individual flowers, which will be attached by hand, while some gather around boxes of seeds, using tweezers to sort them by color.
 
Parade organizers say it takes an average of 60 volunteers, working 10-hour shifts for 10 days straight, to decorate a single float. Fortunately, hardy blossoms like chrysanthemums and strawflowers can be attached well in advance. Delicate blooms like roses and orchids, which often are sealed in small vials of water to prevent wilting, aren’t set in place until shortly before the parade itself. 
 
One of the most dramatic floats under construction for the 2017 parade was sponsored by BDK Capital. It featured a 30-foot-tall Sun Wukong, the mythical monkey king of Chinese legend. A young man in a University of Arizona sweatshirt painstakingly applied mahogany-colored palm fibers to the regal, simulated simian to approximate the look of thick fur. Over at the student-designed and -built California Polytechnic State University float, volunteers applied bright-yellow button mums to create the scaly “skin” of a 25-foot long golden-colored chameleon, and fixed chartreuse-hued button mums to make a grinning green one. In the end, more than 32,500 button mums would be attached, along with 9,500 roses and more than 4,000 gerbera daisies.
 
Ready, Set … Roll Floats
Even before the street is officially closed for the parade, a festive atmosphere predominates. Locals who have staked out spots on the sidewalk (some since noon the day before) sip hot chocolate and coffee, and button up against the morning chill. Children skateboard, stroll, or dance in the street. It’s people-watching at its finest.
 
From reserved grandstand seats overlooking the Colorado Boulevard parade route, lucky attendees have excellent views of the high-energy marching bands and color guards, high-stepping equestrian units, celebrity grand marshals, and more than three dozen floral floats.
 
It takes about two hours for the parade to pass, and eventually, the botanical beauties are towed back to the float barns, where they are unceremoniously disassembled. Ironically, it is the floats’ short-lived splendor that makes the Rose Parade that much more fabulous. Beauty, after all, is fleeting.
BRYN BAILER is a freelance writer and photographer, currently based in Tucson, Arizona.
Experience the Rose Parade on A AAA Tour 
AAA is celebrating the Rose Parade with AAA members by hosting a special group tour to Pasadena. It’s the best way to fully experience the grandeur of the Rose Parade with an up-close view of the spectacular floats.
 
We’re pleased to offer members our AAA Rose Parade Tour, Dec. 30, 2017 – Jan. 2, 2018. Guests will have two opportunities to see the floats up close — during a tour of the float barns the day before the parade, and then at the Showcase of Floats after the parade. During the parade, guests will sit in reserved grandstand seating.
 
Also included in the trip is a New Year’s Eve dinner party, a visit to The Huntington Library and Gardens, and a stop at the California Science Center. In addition, guests have the option to start their trip a day early by adding a tour of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library with lunch under the wings of Air Force One.
 
Learn More
Find out more about the Rose Parade trip by calling a AAA Travel agent toll free at 1-888-870-9392 or visiting AAA.com.
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