Rose Parade kicks off with enthusiastic crowd despite rise in COVID, RSV and flu cases
The pandemic has delivered a tough few years, so when Jennifer Veera and her husband, Andy, got the chance to take their four kids to the Rose Parade for the first time, they knew they had to do it.
Jennifer, an emergency room nurse, usually works New Year’s Eve. But with the parade on Jan. 2 this year, she and Andy, an EMT, decided at the “drop of a hat” to pack their 8-year-old triplets, David, Daniel and Lily, and daughter, Leilani, who turns 10 on Tuesday, into the car and head for Pasadena.
The couple, who live in Orange, woke the kids at 3:30 a.m., “which was evil,” Leilani said with a grin. “It was a very short ride because there were no cars on the freeway.” They got a front-row spot on Colorado Boulevard.
Pasadena’s Rose Parade shines in 2023 led by its grand marshal, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
In 2020, Christmas did not include grandparents out of fear of COVID-19. The next year, both parents and the kids had COVID themselves, a quarantine Christmas, and “two weeks of Netflix,” Jennifer, 47, said. This year, things were back to normal.
“It feels good,” she said. “I feel hopeful.”
The 134th Rose Parade’s theme was “Turning the Corner” — an expression of hope and resilience. The grand marshal was former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot in the head in 2011.
“Our country has faced multiple years of a deadly pandemic and political rancor,” Giffords said in a statement. “Yet medical advances and bipartisan compromise have helped us to take steps towards a better future, even if these steps aren’t always as quick or as sure as we would like them to be, but I’ve learned the importance of incremental progress — and that progress starts with having the courage to hope, and then to act on that hope.”
In 2021, the parade was canceled for the first time since World War II because of the pandemic. Last year, it returned to smaller crowds, with coronavirus safety measures that included requiring parade participants and spectators to wear masks in ticketed areas and show proof of vaccination or a negative test.
This year, there were no such mandates, although health officials recommended masking in large crowds amid a winter rise in cases of COVID-19, flu and RSV that has strained hospitals across the country.
The uptick in illnesses probably led to a slightly smaller crowd along the route this year. But the excitement along Colorado Boulevard was still palpable.
The parade — started in 1890 as a promotional event by a local social club to show off Pasadena’s famously mild winter weather — kicked off under clear skies and temperatures in the 40s after days of rain. It was downright balmy compared with the arctic blast that gripped much of the country the week before Christmas.
Kelly and Nathan Alexander sat warming themselves beside a roaring propane fire pit on Colorado Boulevard hours before the parade began.
But the chill in the air was nothing compared with the subzero temperatures the couple endured at home in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“This isn’t even cold,” she said of the 41-degree weather in Pasadena, laughing.
Kelly, 37, is an Arcadia native who grew up coming to the parade with her church youth group and frequently camped out on the boulevard.
Last week, the couple loaded their five kids — ages 8, 12, 14, 15 and 17 — into an RV, skirted snowstorms in Arizona, visited family in Southern California, then headed to the City of Roses. They staked out a prime spot on the 5.5-mile route Sunday afternoon — surprised that there seemed to be far fewer overnight campers than in years past.
“It was really dead,” Kelly said. “Usually it’s a wild party. But the people who were here were having a good time.”
There were some of the traditional overnight shenanigans, such as people chucking tortillas and whipped cream at passing cars. Some threw eggs, which brought out police, Kelly said.
Typically held on New Year’s Day, the event was held Monday as part of the parade’s “never on a Sunday” tradition. The original organizers did not want to interfere with worship services.
This year’s parade featured 39 floats, 21 marching bands and 16 equestrian units, according to the Tournament of Roses.
The festivities were just about to start when Sherry McCarthy’s four grandchildren slowly emerged from their sleeping bags after a cold night spent on Sierra Madre Boulevard. It was their first time camping for the parade.
McCarthy, 72, of San Ramon, has been attending the parade almost her whole life.
“Back then, Dad would get a wagon, two ladders and a board, and throw the kids up there,” McCarthy said. “We had the best seats in the house.”
Over the years, she and her son have perfected their setup. They’re equipped with butane-powered warmers, an electric generator for phone charging and a snack table full of strawberries, pistachios, pastries and apple juice.
This year, the family was just glad to continue their tradition after the pandemic interruption.
“It is hard to watch it at home,” McCarthy said. “Here, you see it all, you feel it, you smell it. To be able to smell the roses and feel the vibration of the bands — you just can’t get it on TV.”
The Donate Life float won the parade’s Sweepstakes Award this year. The float, titled “Lifting Each Other Up,” celebrates the power of organ, eye and tissue donation, according to the organization.
The centerpiece of the float was a Chinese street dragon — which symbolizes power, luck and strength — that wound through flowering trees, lanterns and fans. It was emblazoned with 44 memorial floragraphs, floral portraits representing donors.
The Trader Joe’s float, featuring a ship and a massive, spinning pepperoni, mushroom and olive pizza, was a hit with the Southern California crowd. As it passed, the audience chanted “Tra-der Joe’s! Tra-der Joe’s!” while men in red sweatshirts riding on the float pumped their fists in the air.
The crowd came alive yelling, “Machete! Machete!” as actor Danny Trejo walked the parade route, giving high fives and posing for pictures.
In a somber moment, a riderless horse led the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s mounted enforcement detail in honor of Isaiah Cordero, the deputy who was killed in the line of duty last week.
Best friends Merriam Dockter, 17, and Kayla Tietz, 17, traveled all the way from Boise, Idaho, to watch the parade. They arrived the day after Christmas to visit Merriam’s family in South Pasadena and spent their week doing “tourist” activities, including visiting Universal Studios and hanging out in downtown Los Angeles.
The Rose Parade was a must-do on their list of activities.
“It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do, sleeping the parade route,” Merriam said. “I wanted to experience it in person instead of on TV.”
Down the parade route, 3-year-old Whitney Chouinard shrieked with delight when she saw the animatronic rhinos and giraffes on the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance float. Her mom, Katie Chouinard, 37, of Moreno Valley, danced as the girl sat on her shoulders.
“They’re at that age where this is all magical,” Katie said of the kids in attendance.
Outside the Southern California Children’s Museum, 6-year-old Avery Svidergol stood on tiptoe on a lawn chair in a pair of black Dr. Martens, clutching her dad’s shoulder as she watched the floats.
“How are they doing that?” she squealed as huge baby snails made of flowers chased each other in a circle on the 23-foot-tall Cal Poly Universities float.
Avery and her dad, Scott Svidergol, drove up from Newport Beach before sunrise to take in the parade in person for the first time.
“Someone told me that if you sit close enough,” Scott said, “you can smell the flowers.”
Times staff writer Katie Licari contributed to this report.
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