Floating on flowers

Behind the scenes with the Rose Parade’s award-winning float builders

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/27/2012

The end of the year is nigh, which means the float industry is gearing up for its big show on Jan. 1. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people line Colorado Boulevard and 72 million people in nearly 200 countries tune in to watch what has been dubbed "America's New Year's celebration" to experience flowers and music. But the crown jewels of the operation, now in its 124th year, are the floats.

In warehouses across San Gabriel Valley, and throughout Greater Los Angeles, year-round builders are putting the final touches on 42 enormous floats as thousands of volunteers cover every square inch of the moving structures with organic material, from a variety of flowers, beans and rice to seeds, grains and even produce. A Tournament of Roses Association liaison is assigned to inspect each float moments before it is displayed to the world.

The flowers, which come from all across the globe just two days before the parade, are the very last things to go on the floats to ensure their freshness. Besides the crowds of volunteers who help decorate, at least 30 employees work hard year round at each of the two main award-winning float building companies, Fiesta Parade Floats and Phoenix Decorating Co. That number can reach 200 come December.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about the Rose Parade is that we take three months off every year, put some metal on some wheels, slap on some flowers, and we've got a parade float," said Brian Dancel, media relations manager of Phoenix. "Absolutely not. Our deconstruction begins Jan. 3. We don't reuse anything except the banner float; these all get broken down, all the metal thrown into recycling, all of the natural materials thrown into the trash, and we begin again right away for next year."

The first sales meetings between the float builders and sponsors occur in early January. By March, most of the designs are finalized and construction begins on the first wave of floats. According to Tim Estes, president of Fiesta, the designers, builders and sponsors work very closely on every step of the process.

"We really work closely with each and every client to develop the design that they want," said Estes. "It's a working relationship that takes anywhere from three weeks to as much as eight weeks to come up with the design. Once the design's done, we're able to convert it into a rough construction model, do blueprints and start the construction. The design element is the hardest part in the whole process."

Even though Fiesta's designs are ultimately drawn up by internationally renowned artist Raul Rodriguez, the final product is the result of a collaboration of Estes, Floral Director Jim Hynd and Rodriguez working directly with clients.

The clients of all four float companies--from cities like Los Angeles, Glendale, South Pasadena and Sierra Madre, to companies like Dole, Miracle Grow, Farmer's Insurance and Honda, the main sponsor of the Rose Parade--all enjoy very healthy returns on their investments, with float costs ranging from about $100,000 to $400,000.

"These floats are not rolling commercials," said Dancel. "However, they do get 45 seconds of coverage on live television in what is the second most-watched event in the United States every year behind the Super Bowl. It's a fraction of the price with more bang for your buck. You're talking about an outreach to a lot of people. It's one of the smartest business decisions that any company could make."

Estes, who has been in the float industry for nearly 50 years, has seen positive and negative changes in float making in the past few decades. From a design standpoint, clients want more of a message involved, as opposed to just having a pretty float with their name on it.

"With respect to actual construction, we're finding easier and better ways to come up with creating the figures and components that go on the float," he said. "The materials we're using today are not the same materials we used on floats 30 to 40 years ago. Animation has also certainly made some good, positive steps with respect to using more hydraulic power."

However, Estes has watched the parade be cut down from two and a half hours to two hours, and the toal number of floats from 60 to 42. The parade has also been shortened to accommodate TV broadcasting schedules. Both Fiesta and Phoenix would rather see more floats restored to the parade.

"Since the Rose Parade is so well known, due to the great floral floats that are created by some very creative artists, float builders and the self-built floats, perhaps we could try to eliminate a couple bands and equestrian units and increase the parade by about 10 floats," said Estes. "One large band equals approximately two to three floats in overall length, so get rid of one band and you can bring in two or three more floats."

The variety and craftsmanship among the remaining 42 floats, however, is quite a sight to see even before the flowers are attached. Oen of Fiesta's floats will have a 30-foot real flame shooting out the top of a 26-foot volcano. Rodriguez and his bright blue Hyacinth Macaw, Sebastian, will be riding on that float, sponsored by Dole. Farmer's Insurance sponsored a float that will host the first wedding ever broadcast live during the Rose Parade right at TV Corner at Colorado and Orange Grove boulevards. Virginia couple Gerald Sapienza and Nicole Angelillo won a Facebook contest and will say "I do" atop Farmer's Insurance's "Love Float."

From a giant Cat in the Hat to a 40-foot slide that kids will ride during the parade to Jesus standing at the pearly gates, there's something everyone can enjoy during the 2013 Rose Parade.

"There's a lot of variety of people who will be riding, things that we're honoring; you name it, we've got it here," said Dancel. "It doesn't get any larger on New Year's Day than the Tournament of Roses Parade. We're just happy to be a part of it."