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Building floats for annual Rose Parade requires blow torches, tweezers — and millions of flowers

Eighty-hour weeks and hundreds of volunteers go into making Rose Parade floats as well.

PASADENA, Calif (CN) —Ten years after a gay couple got married on a Rose Parade float, Ged Kenslea still has some of the 40 insulting messages haters left on his phone.

“There were a couple I thought I needed to keep for the archives or posterity,” said Kinslea, senior director of communications for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which sponsored the float.

While that float, which celebrated recent victories for same-sex marriage, became controversial, most of the floats in the annual Rose Parade prompt more smiles than threats. And for Southern California, the annual New Year’s Day parade has long been a point of pride.

“The floats in the Rose Parade are far superior to the floats in the Macy’s parade,” said Tim Estes, president of Fiesta Parade Floats, one of three companies that create floats for the parade.

Held in Pasadena, usually on New Year’s Day (except when it falls on a Sunday, as is the case in 2023), the parade tradition began in 1890, mostly as a way to promote Southern California to cold winter states. Today, several hundred thousand people see the parade in person as millions watch it around the world on TV or the internet.

While the parade features celebrities, bands and horses, the main attraction is always the giant floats covered with millions of gorgeous flowers.

“When they’re decorated, they come alive,” said Chuck Hayes, who works in sponsor relations with Phoenix Decorating Company, which created 16 floats for this year’s parade. “People come to see the floats. You can go see horses and bands in a parade anywhere.”

Every year, the parade committee determines a theme — this year’s is "Turning the Corner." From there, the float companies work with float sponsors to develop their design.

The best floats, Estes said, are clever without being overly promotional. Each float requires 3D designs, molded steel frames, foam cutouts and masses of flowers, seeds and other organic materials.

That’s what distinguishes Rose floats from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day floats, Estes said — every inch of the float has to be covered with flowers or other natural materials.

“It’s harder to do than something that’s just painted over,” he said.

When Estes was younger, a neighbor owned the C.E. Bent & Son float company, and an 8-year-old Estes began his float life by helping with them decorate.

“I just thought it was really cool,” he said. “I was more enthralled with how to build the floats.”

When he was older, he became foreman of the company, and eventually, he bought his own float company in 1988.

“This will be my 59th parade,” said Estes, whose company is making seven floats for this year’s parade.

Making giant floats is a unique and creative career. “It’s like putting together new Tonka toys every year,” Estes says, but it’s a lot of work. Estes works 80-hour weeks.

“I don’t take Christmas off,” he said. “I don’t take Thanksgiving off.”

Floats typically take 2-3 months to build, he said. As New Year’s Day approaches, thousands of volunteers help apply the colorful flowers. That work can be intense and highly detailed.

Some might decorate a sea turtle for days, Estes said, or apply tiny seeds with a pair of tweezers. Volunteers often include employees of clients, Girl Scouts, high school bands and people who travel from far away just to be part of it.
“There are kids from Kiwanis that have never seen a float before,” Hayes said. “And there are people that have come every year for 50 years.”

When the floats are completed, they have to be transported to Pasadena, first for judging, then the 5 1/2-mile parade. For Phoenix, that’s a 15-mile drive. But at 4 mph, a painstakingly slow one.

“It takes about six hours,” Hayes said.

Like most parades, this year’s floats include a fun assortment of animals, spaceships and animatronics. And float sponsors include the usual array of nonprofits, cities and schools.

For Claremont McKenna College, this year’s parade float offers a final touch to its 75th anniversary celebration. The college’s 55-foot long float shares its stories and traditions, featuring a snow-capped Mt. Baldy and replicas of its more popular buildings. Faculty, staff and students will help decorate it, along with community volunteers.

“Through Rose Parade activities, our community will have one-of-a-kind opportunities to engage and celebrate as we ‘turn the corner’ to CMC’s next 75 years and centennial,” said Evan Rutter, assistant vice president for alumni & parent engagement at the college. “We look forward to sharing Claremont McKenna’s history, philosophy, and unique features with the hundreds of thousands of in-person spectators and tens of millions of viewers on screens around the world.”

Whether the builder is Fiesta Parade Floats, Phoenix Decorating Company or AES, the designs are often playful, featuring giant animals, super heroes and more.

Volunteer Emily Hastings applies glue to a float featuring Honest Abe. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Decorating Co.)

Even the AIDS Healthcare Foundation float features a playful "Wizard of Oz" theme, built by Fiesta Parade Floats. But the message, about homelessness, is serious.

The foundation typically aims for an important message. In the past those have included topics such as vaccines, the fight against Ebola and civil rights.

“It’s an important way to get advocacy messages around the world,” Kenslea said.

While the float themes can be important, AHF also chooses riders with a powerful story.

After a mass shooter killed 49 people at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the AHF float included three people who survived the massacre, including one who lost his mother to the tragedy. A housing-themed float included an 88-year-old man who had lived on a piece of cardboard in Hollywood. And in 2013, a giant wedding cake featured the marriage of Aubrey Loots, 42, and Danny Leclair, 45.

“It gets emotional,” Kenslea said. “I was emotional for the same-sex marriage float. I was emotional for the Pulse nightclub float.”

After the conservative religious organization Focus on the Family published names and numbers of people involved with the same-sex marriage float, Kenslea received several angry and threatening messages. But despite the backlash and pressure leading up to the parade, the committee didn’t back down.

“They were incredibly supportive,” Kenslea said. For AHF workers around the globe, the floats are a point of pride — and it’s even more thrilling for those who see it in person, Kenslea said.

“It’s a slice of Americana that’s a real privilege to see up close and personal.”

This float, created by Fiesta Parade Floats for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, included three survivors of a deadly Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., including one who lost his mother during the massacre. (Photo courtesy of AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

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