Wit, whimsy and flowers
Nov./Dec. 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Tom Underhill and Fiesta Parade Floats
A behind-the-scenes look at how floats are made for California's famous Rose Parade.
With a little help from a feathered friend, Fiesta Parade Floats lead designer Raul Rodriguez translates concepts and images into designs for winning Tournament of Roses Parade floats.
As they enjoy the marching bands and the high-stepping horses during the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day in Pasadena, millions of viewers—including an estimated worldwide TV audience of 50 million—will get an eye-popping splash of California wit, whimsy and flowers.
And even as they admire the elaborate floats that form the parade's focal point, they likely won't be aware of the work that goes on all year to grow the flowers, design and build the floats, and then hand-decorate them before the 40,000-pound confections motor gracefully along the 5 1/2-mile parade route on Colorado Boulevard.
From design concept to finished float, this marvel, created by Fiesta Parade Floats for an irrigation technology company, took top parade honors in 2010.
Each year, thousands of acres of flowers are planted in fields and greenhouses in California and throughout the world with one purpose in mind—yielding perfect blooms to bring the Rose Parade floats to life. As might be expected, roses play a large part in the design of the floats displayed each year.
But that's only the beginning. Farmers provide hundreds of floral varieties—carnations, mums, gladiolus, orchids, protea—as well as the leaves, stalks, seeds, grains, beans and grasses used to cover the metal and wood shapes underlying each float's design.
Experts say it takes about 20 daisies, 30 roses or 36 marigolds to cover 1 square foot of area on a float. Flowers are often "petaled," meaning blooms are taken apart and petals are individually glued to pre-fabricated shapes.
World-renowned floral designer Jim Hynd takes parade float structures to the next level—adorning them with flower petals, blooms, leaves, grasses and seeds—to create a mobile feast for the senses.
"When I began working on float designs for the parade 40 years ago, about 90 percent of the flowers used came from within a 200-mile radius of Pasadena," said Jim Hynd, floral director for Fiesta Parade Floats, one of Southern California's largest professional float-building companies.
When the parade was founded in the 1890s, professor Charles F. Holder suggested to members of the Valley Hunt Club they promote the event in New York, "where people are buried in snow. Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let's hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise."
In the parade's early days, people used what was growing locally to festoon horses and carriages with flowers and foliage.
While many changes in the parade have taken place, including a high degree of computerized float animation and the growth of professional float-building companies, today's creations remain true to the event's heritage and requirements—only natural flowers and plant materials, nothing artificial.
"Over the years, with the growth of the event, we began sourcing flowers from throughout the world," said Hynd, an award-winning floral designer whose expertise extends far beyond hislavish float designs.
"Last year, we created a float that was completely decorated with flowers from California," he said, referring to a float built for the KitKat Clock Co., which celebrated 80 years of manufacturing success in the United States. The 55-foot-long float featured a three-story-tall, black-and-white cat clock, eyes moving left to right, tail swishing, and was surrounded by dancers bopping down the boulevard to '50s rock 'n' roll blasting from a giant, flower-festooned jukebox.
The Rose Parade has become a reflection of the marketplace, said Kasey Kronquist, California Cut Flower Commission CEO. What used to be a California-grown pageant has morphed into a global celebration.
"It's big business and now flowers are sourced from all over the world," he said. "Our California flower growers are glad to remain closely tied to the floats. We're convinced about the importance of this tradition as a way to showcase California-grown flowers and help promote people's understanding of where the flowers they buy come from."
The 2012 parade marked the display of two California-grown floats, Kronquist said. Student volunteers from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and Cal Poly, Pomona, teamed up to build and decorate a float exclusively with blooms and foliage donated by flower farmers from throughout the state.
For commercial float builders, Bob Mellano is the go-to guy for flowers. Mellano's family, long-time Southern California flower growers, has provided flowers for the event since about 1925.
"We'll be working with Fiesta Parade Floats again this year as their primary floral supplier," Mellano said, adding that the float company is building about a dozen floats for the annual celebration. "We also work with Festival Artists, another builder, and they'll have about a half-dozen floats, too. We'll help supply three or four independent floats, as well."
Not only does the parade represent a lot of business, Mellano said, "It's also a generational thing for us. We've been supplying the Rose Parade for three generations, going back to my grandfather, my father and now this generation."
Come the day after Christmas, trucks laden with flowers from the Mellano & Co. facility at the Los Angeles Flower Market will hit the freeways, headed for Pasadena and Rose Parade float builders. Fiesta Parade Floats alone will receive 40 to 50 semitrailer loads of flowers in a matter of days.
On average, a float requires about 100,000 flowers and pieces of greenery, Hynd estimates, and, in the days leading up to New Year's Day, an army of volunteer decorators will swarm the foundational forms, applying petals, seeds and leaves to the motorized sculptures.
But long before the floats are fully decorated, they require months of construction and also must undergo rigorous safety checks and numerous test runs supervised by tournament officials, said Tim Estes, president of Fiesta Parade Floats.
Once they arrive at the float builders' sites, the most perishable flowers are kept fresh in refrigerated trailers brought in for that purpose. The more perishable blooms are placed last, arranged in small water vials and secured on the float at the last moment.
Parade organizers say it takes at least 60 volunteers working 10 hours a day for 10 days to decorate one float. Many floats, along with their drive trains and computer-controlled animation, serve as foundations for new designs built the following year.
"California is a great place to source flowers and find inspiration for new designs and engineering," said Estes, whose company captured eight prizes from 2012 tournament judges.
The hearts of many Tournament of Roses Parade floats beat with the mechanical engineering skill of Tim Estes, president of Irwindale-based Fiesta Parade Floats. Estes has overseen construction of more than 500 Rose Parade floats, engineered and powered with an astonishing array of mechanical technology and old-fashioned horsepower.
"When the floats are pulled into position before the parade begins, there are a couple of breathtaking moments for me," Estes said. "When all the floats by all the builders are pulled together, there's a magic created that's hard to explain. And then it's an impressive sight to see them set off."
Local reporters and international media share the excitement and beauty of the Tournament of Roses Parade with more than 50 million TV viewers, helping make it a worldwide New Year's Day tradition.
Information about the 2013 Tournament of Roses Parade is online at www.tournamentofroses.com. The event begins at 8 a.m. on Jan. 1. Check local TV listings for stations carrying the event—and keep an eye out for California-grown flowers.
More than pretty faces
Flowers add festive touches to any occasion—a birthday, an anniversary or, in the case of the Tournament of Roses, a 5 1/2-mile-long parade. A lot goes into producing these beautiful blooms. Here's a peek behind the petals.
Stately symbol: Poppy is the official California flower.
Major players: California farmers grow 75 percent of all U.S. cut flowers.
Good looks: Roses are the nation's most popular cut flowers, followed by carnations, chrysanthemums, lilies and tulips.
Super size: California farmers grow nearly 300 cut flower varieties.
Kissing cousins: Roses are related to apples and almonds.