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Story Time: Tournament of Roses

January 2, 2021

I missed the Tournament of Roses parade yesterday. I have loved it forever. The insane spectacle of it all – the fluffy floats, the giant bands, the specificity of the announcers (“The float features 17,500 magenta roses and 83 pounds of poppyseed”).

I loved it so much I built 2 floats. What? Yes, the Cal Poly State Universities in San Luis Obispo (my alma mater) and Pomona each build half of a Rose Float, join them together over Thanksgiving weekend, and spend the whole winter break finishing construction and decorating. 

My floats were in 1983-84 “A Knight to Remember” and in 84-85, “Only in America.” I went to Cal Poly knowing I wanted to build a float more than any other extracurricular activity. 

How does a float get built? Well, let me tell you. 

In January, the float is driven at night from Pasadena back to Cal Poly Pomona, which can be quite a process – a huge, mouldering ungainly vehicle too large for many underpasses and roads. This drive is coordinated with the California Highway Patrol and local police. 

One year the float, a large pink hippo, ran into a freeway abutment, causing an infamous call to report the accident. 

“Type of vehicle?”

“Um, a 32-foot pink hippo.”

“Registered owner?”

“Uh, I guess the state of California.”

The float is then deconstructed and half taken back to San Luis Obispo. 

Students building the float in Pomona

In February or March of each year, the student leadership of the Cal Poly Rose Float organization holds a design contest and selects a float from the proposed sketches. These do not include plans – they are just pictures of what the float will look like.

In the “Only in America” year, my design with a friend was a merry-go-round, which I still maintain would have made a great float, but it wasn’t chosen. We instead tried to represent the whole United States in 30 feet, which made a cute but somewhat confusing float. 

Once a design is selected, students draw plans for the design, the mechanical underpinnings, the electrical system, etc. Both campuses have float barns (which were also built by students) that hold everything you need to build a float – welders, tools, hydraulic hose, electrical wire, chicken wire, etc. The students spend a lot of the year fundraising to provide for float expenses.

Making cotton candy as a fundraiser…with a malfunctioning machine

Students are entirely responsible for building the float from the ground up. Cal Poly Universities have electrical and mechanical engineering programs, as well as computer science and horticulture, all of which come in handy. While students who are majoring in these programs usually take the lead on the related parts of the float, almost everyone does everything. Everyone learns to weld, for instance. 

I learned to weld, not very well, and probably created more havoc than actual finished metal. I remember getting a piece of hot slag in my bra and ruining a weld. Ow!

Students grow the flowers for the float on the campuses. They traipse around fields gathering other plant materials (the weed “Rumex” produces a nice medium brown seed). They also barter for some materials and purchase others. Every inch of the float has to be covered in natural plant material – roots, leaves, seeds, flowers, twigs. The toughest colors are blue – often provided by bachelor buttons or irises, and black, which might be gotten by water hyacinth root or onion seed.

Over Thanksgiving, the float halves are joined together and the decorating structures are built. This involves building shapes out of bent and welded metal rods which are then covered with chicken wire and screen and “cocooned” with a spray-on material. Some structures are carved from foam. Once the structures are complete, the whole float is painted in the colors that represent the plant materials that will go in each place. This makes decorating easier and also hides any gaps that flowers don’t quite cover.

The float, looking pretty much like a float by now, is driven from Pomona to Pasadena for decorating. This used to take place in a nice float barn, but I have heard that in recent years, it has had to happen under a freeway overpass. It’s not freezing cold in Pasadena, but it gets cool at night and float decorating takes place at all hours until it is done. 

Dozens if not hundreds of volunteers use gallons of glue to stick flowers, leaves and even individual petals to the float. It’s messy, sticky and dangerous work.. The glues can leave your head spinning, and you’re often on scaffolds. 

My friend Stacy became a lead decorator by picking up a clipboard and looking smart. People started asking her what to do and she pointed them where to go. This was a wise move, because she didn’t have to climb any scaffolds herself. 

As parade day approaches, you’re either ahead or behind. If you’re behind, as we were on A Knight to Remember, you end up stapling evergreens to the float at 3 am in the parade lineup on Orange Grove Boulevard. 

If you’re ahead, you can go volunteer to help other organizations finish their floats with your hard-won expertise. In 84-85, we helped finish at least 5 other floats. Some floats are built by professionals, others by civic organizations. All are decorated by volunteers, because no one can afford that kind of intensive labor. 

On New Year’s Eve, the floats are driven through the closed streets of Pasadena to line up in formation for the parade. Everyone in Pasadena is out partying on the streets, so it’s a great time. 

After a freezing night spent outdoors on the sidewalk, punctuated by horrifying trips to portapotties and trying to remove 7 layers of clothing while not touching any disgusting surface, parade day arrives.

At precisely 8 am, the parade kicks off with a flyover by some stealth bombers, and then it is just hours and hours of floats, bands and horses. Quite frankly, it’s better at home where you are comfy and can see multiple camera angles while drinking coffee and eating cinnamon buns.

That’s it. A year of work. Good times. I learned more building the floats than I did in any of my classes at Cal Poly. Cooperation, working as a team, taking on new skills, asking for things, planning. 

I hope the parade comes back next year and I hope we will all be here to see it. Stay safe, folks. 

Some of my Rose Float people. Still friends.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    January 2, 2021 11:17


  2. Robin permalink
    January 2, 2021 11:17


  3. January 2, 2021 11:32

    Definitely a great team building exercise. Had no idea that efforts were year round.

    • January 3, 2021 08:08

      The biggest team building exercise ever.

  4. Carolyn Stephens permalink
    January 3, 2021 09:21

    I’ve always watched it on television but one year I got to see it in person. And it rained. A lot. The saddest sight was the high school bands in their wet uniforms and the majorettes with their soggy hairdos. This was their trip of a lifetime. The day before I had been enjoying people watching at the “original” Farmer’s Market in L.A. and I met a lot of those kids. As bad as it was, I’m sure most of them still tell the story of The Year It Rained on the Rose Parade.

  5. January 4, 2021 06:42

    Wow, what an amazing effort that is! I hope it comes back next year, too.

  6. January 4, 2021 12:58

    I had no idea that you did this! The Tournament of Roses Parade was a TV tradition in our house as a kid. I loved it. I still do. I am floored and amazed by all the organic material that ends up on these floats. I hang on every word of a description for each one as they roll past the announcers. One thing I am really glad about is that this was one parade that our HS band was never invited to attend. I played snare and a snare player plays the WHOLE time during a parade. I probably would have died.

  7. Gail Munro permalink
    January 5, 2021 09:00

    Thanks for the insight. I love the parade too. Been there a few times! Everyone needs to go once.

    On Sat, Jan 2, 2021 at 10:58 AM Suebob’s Red Stapler wrote:

    > Suebob posted: ” I missed the Tournament of Roses parade yesterday. I have > loved it forever. The insane spectacle of it all – the fluffy floats, the > giant bands, the specificity of the announcers (“The float features 17,500 > magenta roses and 83 pounds of poppyseed”).” >

  8. January 5, 2021 20:59

    So very cool! What a great story. Thank you for sharing it, Sue.

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