Rose Parade's floats brighten a gray day

The flowers popped with color on a gray day, oceans of hydrangea and blue iris, a volcano pouring lava of orange roses, a giraffe of 16,000 yellow chrysanthemums.

The cool weather this time foiled the Tournament of Roses’ century-old campaign to flaunt Southern California's mild winters. But for the parade’s 128th venture down Colorado Boulevard, the petals all but glowed under the gunmetal sky.

"It's so much better than TV," said Anna Herwig, a freshman at Penn State who came to see her team play USC in the Rose Bowl.  "I always watch it, but it's so much more colorful and exciting in person."

Sofia Refai came with her daughter from Sweden to visit her sister in Pasadena and take in the parade she had read about. If the Valley Hunt Club, which started the parade in 1892, had been trying to lure Scandinavians like her, they'd need not have worried about the sun.

"This is like spring in Sweden," she said, invigorated by the balmy 49° air. She put on a sweater only because her sister made her.

She'd been reading about the parade in a newspaper in Stockholm, and found the experience more than lived up to its name.

"It's beautiful," Refai said. "The atmosphere is so cheery. All the people are so happy."

Law enforcement heightened security, barricading 56 streets connected to the parade route to prevent truck attacks like the ones last year in Berlin and Nice, France.

The 41 floats, interspersed by 19 marching bands and 20 equestrian units, capped a contentious year in America and abroad with a look of Old World grace and whimsy, brought to life by heavy machinery and ever-more-complex animatronics.

Honda's "Hope Blooms Forever” opened the parade, themed "Echoes of Success,” with a giant origami crane and a mythical phoenix.

Tucked in the back third of the float, in a windowless space, Roger Thomas steered the heavy metal beast, with directions from an observer up front. He kept the speed at 2 1/2 miles per hour for the 5 1/2-mile route.

"Imagine driving your car down the street with a blindfold and your passenger telling you where to go," he said before he set off. "With a billion people watching."

Accompanying Thomas and the observer were an animator, operating the float's moving parts, and a “bird man," Luthor Nelson, who at two designated moments for the cameras released 50 white “doves.”

They were actually Nelson's own white homing pigeons. He would release a total of 198 birds, in four batches, from two floats.

He expected them to circle around once and then fly off, arriving at his home, 12 miles southeast in Hacienda Heights, long before he got there.

Such is the blend of modern and ancient that come together in every float — hydraulics and horticulture, robotics and pigeon fanciers.

A smoke-breathing dragon threatening a castle represented the city of Torrance.

Lucy’s Pet Care stirred the crowd with the longest and heaviest float in the parade, featuring a tropical paradise with an 80-foot-long working wave pool. Bulldogs, pugs and other canines in life vests rode the waves back and forth on small surfboards. The entry was meant to highlight the struggle to reduce the number of dogs and cats euthanized every year.

A float in honor of those who died in the Orlando nightclub massacre featured a giant flora dove flying over a field of 49 stars, for each of those killed in the attack. Messages of comfort, consolation, love and hope hung from a tree next to a rainbow, a symbol of gay pride.

Major corporations, small cities, philanthropic groups, schools, sports teams, even a reality television show — “The Bachelor” — participated in the venerable parade. This year, with New Year’s Day on a Sunday, the event was held Jan. 2, abiding a long-standing tradition implemented so that it would not stir horses tied up outside churches and thus disrupt the services.

The city of Downey’s float evoked that era with a mining cart whooshing down a roller coaster through a frontier town, a small-scale Thunder Mountain rolling through Pasadena.

The float was one of only a handful at the parade that were designed, built and decorated entirely by volunteers.

Kelley Roberts joked that it's "stupidity" that drives him to be one of those volunteers every year. He spent the previous night putting the last touches on the float, his eyes watering from the cinnamon used as part of the decoration. 

Now 47, Roberts got his start in the Rose Parade at the age of 10, when he defied his parents' orders and sneaked out of the house to help a neighbor decorate the Downey float that year, which he remembers as featuring a dragon.

"And the rest is Downey Rose float history," said Roberts, now the construction chairman for the Downey Rose Float Assn.

Even with volunteers, the group has to raise tens of thousands of dollars — as much as $90,000 some years, Roberts said. Flowers alone can cost from $12,000 to $40,000, and then there's the steel structure, welding supplies, foam, paint and glue.

Roberts said he worked on the Gold Rush float almost every evening since August. He designed and built the float's roller coaster, which he planned to ride during the parade.

"Really, it's the passion to see if you can take that picture and turn it into a 3-D reality," he said.

Victoria Villegas and her husband chose to visit their daughter in Pasadena this year for one reason: to attend for the first time the parade they grew up watching on television. 

"I feel like I've been here," said Villegas, 54, who traveled down from Bradley, a small town in Central California. "New Year’s Day, that's all you watched." 

Wrapped in sleeping bags and blankets, with their feet propped up on a cart storing their belongings, the couple had considered bringing a portable heater but worried about security.

"We said if they see us with that propane tank, they'll probably throw us out," Villegas said. 

The couple noticed a strong police presence that increased into the early morning hours, with several officers on foot chatting with parade-goers. 

"I like how interactive they've been, they've been so friendly," Villegas said. 

The couple said that while terrorist attacks at public events such as the Boston Marathon did not discourage them, they were more vigilant now about their surroundings than they were in the past.  

"Nothing's stopped us," Villegas said. "We're still in that mentality of, 'If we stop, then they win.’”

When the parade wrapped up without incident, workers unplugged the water-filled barricades used to stop vehicles.

Water flooded the streets as people tried to leave.

"I thought we were in a water shortage," one man joked about the drought.

"Now we get to walk on water," another said.

The first of Nelson’s pigeons were already arriving at his home. All 198  would be accounted for before the Rose Bowl game started at 2 p.m.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Times staff writers Makeda Easter, Melissa Etehad, Victoria Kim, Joe Mozingo and Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.

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