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Making the Floats

The making of a Rose Parade float is a year-long process that begins just weeks after the annual parade.

There is much more to float-building than gluing flowers onto a chassis. The making of a Rose Parade float is a year-long process that begins just weeks after the annual parade concludes and culminates with a magnificent showpiece rolling down the streets of Pasadena, Calif., on New Year’s Day.

To get the rundown on this massive annual undertaking, we spoke with Jim Hynd and Scott Lamb, who have a combined 60 years of Rose Parade float-building experience. As floral directors at Fiesta Parade Floats and Phoenix Decorating Co., two of Pasadena’s largest float-building companies, Hynd and Lamb will oversee the production of 32 separate floats featured in this year's Rose Parade.

Because the floats are covered in cut flowers that will live only a few days, much of the work is done in the last week before the parade rolls. For the inside scoop on the final float-decorating push, a process that relies on help from thousands of volunteers, we turn to Andrea Zepeda, float leader with Festival Artists, another leading float-building company in Pasadena.

How is a float's design determined?

The float-building process begins in February with design development sessions between the corporate client commissioning the float and the folks who will build it. Taking into account the parade’s theme and the wishes of the client, in-house designers produce detailed hand-drawn sketches. This year’s theme is "Our Good Nature," a simultaneous nod to the world’s flora and fauna and the benevolence of mankind.

"Once the final design has been selected and hand-colored, I’ll take it from there and begin to interpret that design into the appropriate floral and organic material," says Hynd, floral director for Fiesta Parade Floats. Hynd chooses flowers primarily for color and effect. For example, Hynd is using masses of crimson carnations to replicate the red crushed-velvet jacket worn by a figure on a float.

Volunteers prepare and apply material to floats.

Which materials should be used?

Rose Parade rules require every square inch of float surface be covered with "flowers or other natural botanical materials." According to Hynd, natural botanical materials are defined as substances that "have grown, are growing or will grow." So flowers, seeds, mosses, barks, dried leaves, vegetables and grains can all be employed on floats as long as they’re used in their natural color. Dyeing is not allowed.

Working from the hand-colored drawings, floral directors calculate how much of each material they will need to cover each float. "We’ve developed coverage formulas for each flower," Lamb says. "For example, we know that it takes 16 gerbera daisies to cover one square foot of surface." Lamb can also rattle off exactly how many roses, Brussels sprouts, lima beans and sesame seeds it would take to cover a square foot of float.

Where do the flowers all come from?

As early as April, floral directors place their massive orders with numerous flower vendors. "On any given year, I will order 400 to 500 different flower varieties from every continent on Earth, except Antarctica," Hynd says. Charged with building several floats, Hynd and Lamb each will need millions of fresh blooms, all of which need to be delivered within a week or even days of the parade.

Flowers begin arriving at the Pasadena float barns the week of Christmas via refrigerated semi trucks. They are stowed in temperature-controlled tents each the size of half a football field. Each float-building company maintains one or two of these flower tents. The flowers sit in buckets, racks, stacks and cases grouped according to the float for which they’re destined. When it’s time to decorate the floats, volunteer decorators move the flowers from these flower-prep areas to the float-building barns.

Who decorates the floats?

Every year, tens of thousands of people from all over the country volunteer for the privilege of decorating Rose Parade floats. As a float leader, it’s Andrea Zepeda’s job to coordinate their work. Zepeda, of Festival Artists float builders, will schedule members of religious groups, high school bands, Kiwanis Clubs, Girl Scouts and other organizations to work on floats the final 10 days before the parade.

Zepeda will assign each volunteer to a particular float and task, based on their float-decorating experience and skill level. Novices may spend the day cutting flowers, removing petals or gluing large blooms onto a float deck, while more seasoned volunteers tackle intricate sculptural work on figures and faces.

Which materials go where?

Working from the detailed color drawing, a design team creates a decorator book for each float that shows what material goes where. Painters transfer the information from the decorator book onto the polyvinyl shell of the float, which tells the volunteers where to place each particular flower or seed. "Before it is decorated, the float looks like a giant paint-by-number picture," Zepeda says. Floats are decorated from top to bottom, with the volunteers putting the hardiest materials onto the float first and the most perishable ones on last. "Timing is everything," Zepeda says. The last section to be decorated is the float deck, or main floor, because it receives the most traffic during the decoration process.

Flowers are affixed to floats in various ways. Some, like roses, hydrangeas and irises, must be placed in individual water-filled tubes to prevent droop and death. Blooms that can survive without water, like marigolds, strawflowers and mums, are mounted on thin metal picks and stuck into floral foam. In a technique called "petaling," flower petals are stripped from the blossoms by hand and glued one by one onto the float. Dry flowers are often placed into blenders and reduced to a fine powder for shading sculpted forms on the float.

According to Zepeda, it takes 60 volunteers working 10 hours a day for 10 days to decorate a single float. Each float leader is responsible for the final quality inspection of a float. When the volunteers have completed their work, Zepeda will examine the float for slip-ups like visible glue, thin flower coverage and shoddy flower application. When the float has passed this final once-over, Zepeda says, "it’s off to the parade."

How do floats get to the parade?

The work isn’t finished once the floats get the float leaders’ okay. The 50-foot floats must be towed carefully from the outskirts of town to the parade route in central Pasadena, a 12-mile journey that can take from five to eight hours. "Mishaps happen," Zepeda says. The vibration of the road can knock things loose; the float can hit a tree or telephone pole; gusty Santa Ana winds can cause other problems.

To guarantee floats look as good at the start of the parade as they did when they left the barn, float leaders bring along a patch kit that contains a little bit of each material used to decorate the floats: flowers, greens, veggies, seeds and glue. "We usually end up repairing and touching up the floats all night long," Zepeda says. "We don’t get much sleep."

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