The 120-year-old Rose Parade ushered in the new year on a sun-kissed morning in Pasadena with a much-needed injection of optimism and celebration, a powerful antidote in a time of economic turmoil.
The theme of the 2009 parade was "Hats off to Entertainment," and many of the floral entries celebrated the gleeful distractions of escaping to the movies, the theater, the playground and the great outdoors, among other destinations.
For many parade participants and observers, it was a welcome respite after a year of precipitous drops in home prices and in the Dow Jones industrial average, which suffered its worst loss since 1931. Many said that they hoped the Rose Parade's old-fashioned dose of Americana might provide a fitting beginning to a collective new leaf.
Take the pink-clad breast cancer survivors who waved madly, smiling with joy, as their "Hope Grows" float rounded the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards. Many said their float -- a lush garden scene that also highlighted handbag designer Vera Bradley's new line -- represented their hope that they will triumph over the disease, and that 2009 will be a better year for the country.
"It's a new beginning," said cancer survivor Joan Lang, a 67-year-old nurse from Pasadena.
Judy Stoddard made the trip to Pasadena from her home in Lincoln, near Sacramento, after decades of watching the parade on television. She and her husband, Michael, were sitting along Colorado Boulevard.
"I'm feeling positive," she said. "It's going to be a great 2009!"
From the denizens of Camelot to the neighbors along Sesame Street, the parade offered a cast of richly rendered floral characters as well as rousing marching bands and impressive equestrian groups from across the country.
Before the parade, several city and community groups that sponsored parade floats said they were feeling the economic pinch -- with some considering abandoning the Rose Parade after years of participation in the New Year's Day tradition.
But those woes were under wraps Thursday as costumed city leaders and citizens waved from atop float entries from Cerritos, Mission Viejo and Los Angeles, among others.
The parade -- which zipped by at an efficient pace, coming in under the allotted two hours -- kicked off with sequined dancers performing a ballroom routine atop a red-and-black floral stage.
The red-jacketed president of the Tournament of Roses, Ronald H. "Corky" Conzonire, tipped his hat to the crowd -- and, a few minutes later, a 49-foot-tall robot at the front of the American Honda float rose to full height and made a similar gesture with his topper, which was covered in black seaweed and banded with red carnation petals.
The American Honda float, which won the Theme Trophy, later snagged a cable along the route -- but that momentary delay, in which no one was injured, was the rare hitch in an otherwise textbook parade. The annual Stealth bomber flyover ran late because of ice in Palmdale, where the aircraft takes off.
In all, 46 floats -- including 24 award-winners -- 22 marching bands and 18 equestrian units traversed the 5 1/2 -mile route.
The Tournament of Roses, which runs the parade, for the first time allowed television viewers and other parade observers to vote on a "Viewer's Choice" award on the website of KTLA, which televised the parade. (KTLA, like The Times, is owned by Tribune Co.) The winner will be announced today. The other awards were bestowed by parade judges.
Eight-year-old Dylan Ryll of Alhambra waved excitedly at the Rain Bird Corp. float from his perch along Colorado Boulevard near Madison Avenue. The safari-themed creation depicting giraffes, zebras and other animals lingering at a cascading waterfall won the Sweepstakes Trophy, the eighth time that the irriga- tion company captured what is considered the parade's top award.
"Omigod, omigod, Mom, look!" Dylan exclaimed. "It's my favorite -- it's so big and the giraffes are so tall!"
For the most part, crowd favorites included familiar faces, such as cartoon characters Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, who in New Mexico's float raced across a desert floor decked in nearly 50,000 roses.
The cheerleaders and marching band from USC also drew cheers from the crowd.
In the grandstands near the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado, two nuns dressed in habits stood out in the sea of cardinal red-and-gold-clad USC fans. Sister Clara Bolanos, 45, and Sister Inez Arguello, 39, had won the tickets in a drawing at their convent.
The women said that the parade's theme seemed particularly relevant this year.
"The parade has a lot to say about the spirit of the American people," Bolanos said. "Nothing will put us down."
Pasadena police said there were 39 arrests along the parade route this year, most for public drunkenness, and two drug-related arrests -- statistics up sharply from last year.
More than 700,000 people lined the parade route, a fire official said, the biggest crowd count in three years -- thanks in part to the warmer weather, which climbed into the 70s. It was the kind of bright, clear day that parade boosters have long used as a floral-scented advertisement for sunny Southern California.
But those same temperatures also led to a surge in reports of heatstroke, dehydration and faintings, said Lisa Derderian, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Fire Department. Officials responded to 49 health calls along the route -- twice as many as last year -- from spectators and band members, many of whom marched in heavy clothing.
Near the parade's end, exhausted band members broke rank to speed-walk to a Red Cross station on Sierra Madre Boulevard, where volunteers passed out water in small paper cups.
Donna and Al Boeheme had driven 19 hours from San Antonio with their 4-year-old daughter, Elle, to be at the parade.
From her perch on her mother's shoulders, Elle issued a warning to spectators nearby: "I talk a lot," she said.
And talk she did, delivering a running commentary on the procession.
"Look, there's flowers and flags," as Alhambra's entry floated by. "Cowboys!" she squealed as a cavalcade of horses from Texas rode past.
Blocks away, Rachel Gain, 37, of Mission Viejo took in her fourth parade.
"This is magical," she said. "With everything going on in the economy, it's bound to only get worse this year. . . . But for these two hours, we forget and have fun."
Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim, Yvonne Villarreal, Ron Lin, Ruben Vives, Kate Linthicum and Nathan Olivarez-Giles contributed to this report.