A parade float is an elaborately decorated three-dimensional figure or scene, mounted on a wheeled chassis that participates in a procession as part of a specific celebration. Most parade floats are self-propelled, although they may also be towed by another vehicle or pulled by animals. The general shape of the float is such that the underlying structure is not visible, and the figure or scene appears to float on the surface of the street, much as a ship appears to float on the surface of the water. Parade floats are used in a variety of civic and religious celebrations. Two of the best known parades are the Mardi Gras Parade in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.
One of the earliest written references to a procession, the predecessor of today's parade, dates to about 1800 b.c. when King Senwosret III of Egypt had his scribes write "I celebrated the procession of the god Up-wawet." Such religious processions may date back to 3200 b.c. or earlier.
The first reference to any vehicle resembling a parade float comes from Greece in about 500 b.c. when a statue of the god Dionysius was carried from his temple in a "festival car" pulled by two men. This procession was part of the opening ceremonies for a stage drama and was designed to gain favor from both the god and the drama critics.
Parades continued to be an important form of celebration and often featured kings, conquerors, and other notables riding in splendidly decorated carriages. The Emperor Maximilian of Germany was one of the first to commission an artist to design "triumphal cars" for his parades in 1515. The cars were decorated with bells, fancy fabrics, and carvings of flowers, fruits, and mythological creatures.
In the United States, parades and parade floats were an important part of American life starting in the early-1800s. Mobile, Alabama, held its first civic parade with floats on New Year's Day in 1831. The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was held in 1857 with two floats. The Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backwards) parade in Omaha, Nebraska, started in 1895 and was the first to use electricity to light and propel the floats. The floats ran on the city street-car tracks and drew power from the over-head trolley wire.
In Pasadena, California, the first Festival of Roses parade took place in 1890 as a promotion for Southern California's sunny winter weather. Isabella Coleman won second prize in the parade in 1910 and decided to go into the business of building floats in 1913. Her first entry won first prize for her client, and she went on to build Rose Parade floats for the next 59 years. Her success created a small industry of professional parade float builders.
Today, most major floats are designed and constructed by professional builders. Each float costs between $50,000 and $200,000 or more and takes up to a year to create. The floats are built in large warehouses, using a wide variety of materials and construction techniques.
The main chassis contains the components to power the float, the controls and steering mechanism, and the base for the support structure. Most floats use automotive gasoline engines with automatic transmissions. The engine speed is geared down through one or more auxiliary gearboxes to achieve the desired parade speed of about 2.5 mph (4.0 kph). The engine is cooled by an extra large radiator to ensure that it will not over-heat during the long parade. Tires are filled with foam to prevent flats. Two or more drivers sit in hidden positions within the float, where they can control the float's direction of travel.
If the float incorporates parts or figures with extensive or complicated animation, the motion is usually provided by means of hydraulic cylinders and motors powered by hydraulic pumps driven off a second engine. To make the motion appear smooth and realistic, the hydraulic cylinders and motors are actuated by a complex array of valves that are controlled by a computer. Many floats have three or four separate operators surrounded by an array of gauges, manual controls, and computers to monitor the animation effects.
The chassis is constructed of steel plate and tubing. The main supports and framework for the float's characters and backgrounds are made from steel rods and tubing attached to the platform. The various shapes are formed with steel rods that are welded to the main supports and covered with aluminum wire screen. The screen is sprayed with a polyvinyl plastic "cocooning" liquid originally developed to cover and protect ships laid up in inactive reserve. The plastic hardens on the wire screen to form a hard, durable skin.
The decorations themselves may be made from paper, wood, flowers, or a variety of other materials. For the famous Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, the parade rules require that all decorations must be some part of a living plant. The emphasis, of course, is on roses and other flowers, but seeds, petals, bark, leaves, fibers, stems, vegetables, nuts, and almost any other part of a plant are also used. For example, onion seeds are used to give a smooth, black surface. Crushed walnut shells or dried strawberries are blended with commeal to create skin tones. Animal fur can be simulated with thistles, palm fibers, or even uncooked oatmeal. Seven different types of glue may be used to hold the flowers in place.
These decorations are enhanced with rigid polyurethane foam pieces that are carved to form detailed objects, and with flexible foam cylinders that are bent to form eyebrows, lips, and decorative molding. Wire is used to make long-stem flowers stand upright, and delicate flowers like roses and orchids are held in narrow plastic vials of water to keep them from wilting.
Each parade float is an original work of art and is designed new from the ground up. Once the theme of the parade has been announced, the builders submit concept drawings for review and approval by the parade committee.
With approved drawings in hand, the builders then start to solicit potential sponsors to fund the construction. Sponsors look for a float that will not only draw favorable attention from the crowd and the judges, but one that will also catch the eye of the many television crews that cover the parade. With an estimated 425 million people in 100 countries watching the Tournament of Roses parade on television, sponsors want the maximum amount of coverage for their money. One way to do this is with floats that incorporate animation. This trend in float design has seen builders turn to movie animation and special effects experts for even more elaborate and dramatic action. As with any complicated system, such animation requires computer controls. Expert computer programmers develop the programs required to properly sequence the motion.
With some float designs, the sheer physical size becomes a problem. In the Tournament of Roses Parade, for example, all floats must pass under a 17 ft (5.18 m) high concrete bridge on one portion of the parade route. Floats that are taller than this must be able to hydraulically collapse in less than 25 seconds to fit under the bridge without delaying the parade. In other cases, weight can be a problem. Designers have to calculate the frame strength for long, cantilevered sections, keeping in mind that the delicate-looking floral decorations can triple in weight if nature decides to rain on the narade.
Perhaps the most complex part of float design comes in the selection of materials to achieve the desired colors and textures. This is especially true for floats decorated with flowers and other natural materials. For the Tournament of Roses Parade, most builders employ a floral coordinator to work with the designing artist to help select materials. Designers have learned that some colors do not view well at a distance, and so they balance them with contrasting or out-lining colors to bring out their effect. In other cases, the floral coordinator may suggest a more-plentiful, less-costly substitute than what the artist originally planned.
Float construction starts with the preparation of preliminary design sketches and ends with a frantic flurry of activity as hundreds of people prepare each float for the start of the parade. Here is a typical sequence of operations required to build a float for the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Designing the Float
- 1 In early January, parade officials announce the theme for the following year's parade. Builders immediately begin developing concepts for floats. Each builder is allowed to submit two design concepts for each float proposal.
- 2 The parade entries committee reviews each design concept to ensure it meets the parade requirements and does not duplicate another entry. From the initial 200-plus submissions, 60 designs are approved for construction. Most professional builders will construct three to 20 floats at the same time.
- 3 In mid-February, float builders take the approved designs and begin refining the details. The mechanisms for the animated motion are designed. Dimensions and weights are calculated. The best locations for the drivers and animation operators are determined. By March, the builders present their refined designs to potential sponsors for review. After many presentations, each float gets a sponsor who agrees to fund the construction.
Building the chassis
- 4 As the final details for each float are worked out with the sponsor, work begins on the float chassis. In some cases, the chassis from one of the previous year's floats can be modified to work. In other cases, and entirely new chassis must be made. The engines, transmission, and axles are installed, followed by the engine controls, steering system, and tires and wheels.
- 5 By May, the builders are ready to present the final design to each sponsor, including a full-color scale model of the float. Once approved, the float construction proceeds at an accelerated pace.
Forming the figures and scenes
- 6 Starting in about June, the steel supports and main framework for each figure and scene are fabricated and welded together. Animated portions are fabricated and welded separately, and the hydraulic components are installed. Artists start to bend and weld steel rods to the framework to form the shape of each individual piece. In some cases, they work from dimensioned drawings prepared by the builder, but sometimes they just work from the master artist's rendering of the finished piece.
- 7 The individual pieces are then welded in place on the chassis, and the hydraulic and electrical systems are connected. The float skeleton may be taken out for a test run at this time to ensure that all the systems are working properly.
- 8 Aluminum wire screen is cut and molded around the shape of the steel rods to form the outer skin of each part of the float. The screen is glued to the rods and sprayed with a polyvinyl plastic liquid, which hardens to form a solid surface. The finished skin is strong enough to support a person's weight.
Decorating the float
- 9 As the work gets underway on forming the figures and scenes, the flowers and other decorative materials are ordered in advance. Growers must time their growing cycle exactly so that the flowers are ready to be picked and shipped just a few days before the parade.
- 10 By September, the main construction is complete, and any small items are fabricated and installed on the float. Deliveries of non-perishable items such as seeds and beans start in October.
- 11 Scaffolding is then erected around each float and the plastic skin and other small items are painted. Each area is painted in a color that closely matches the color of the flowers or other materials that will go there on the finished float. This aids the decorating crews and ensures that if a flower or decoration accidentally falls off, the bare spot will not be noticeable.
- 12 Flowers start arriving in late-December and are stored in separate tents until they are needed. Approximately 30,000 workers, many of them young people from schools and church groups, report to the various builder's construction sites to begin the round-the-clock job of decorating the floats. Most flowers are prepared by popping the heads off the stems before being glued in place. Delicate flowers are placed in narrow plastic vials filled with water before being pushed in place. Each float requires an average of 10,000 lb (4,545 kg) of flowers and takes 7,000 person-hours or more to decorate.
- 13 Judging begins on December 30 while the floats are being completed. A second judging takes place on December 31 with all the riders, sound systems, animation, and other portions of the float in parade-ready condition. On New Year's Eve, the floats are slowly towed from the construction sites to the parade staging area. Each float must be in position by 3 a.m. on January 1 or it will be disqualified.
- 14 At sunrise on January 1, the judges verify the awards for various categories before the parade starts. The parade route covers 5.5 mi (8.8 km), and it takes about two hours for all the floats to pass the starting line. Some one million people line the route, many of them having camped there all night to get good viewing spots.
- 15 Although parade floats are never used more than once, many of their inner components are salvaged and reused to make next Year's floats. After the parade, the floats are put on display for several days to allow the public to get a closer look. As the flowers start to wilt, the floats are towed back to the builder's assembly facility and dismantled. The flowers and decorations are discarded, the steel structure is cut up and recycled, and the major components—the engines, hydraulic parts, transmission, tires, wheels, and electronic equipment—are carefully removed and stored for future use.
As with any original work of art, parade floats are constantly inspected by the eye of the master artist. One noted float builder has been known to have an entire float torn down and rebuilt just days before the parade because something did not look right. In addition to the artist's critical eye, each float must meet the requirements of the organization in charge of the parade regarding maximum overall dimensions, travel speed, safety systems, and much more.
Parades, and parade floats, are expected to remain an important part of celebrations. The floats are expected to become more elaborate and technically sophisticated as builders and sponsors vie for the attention of a worldwide audience. In the Rose Parade, the floral aspect of each float will become more important, as builders search the world for new and unusual floral effects.
Where to Learn More
Hamlin, Rick. Tournament of Roses. McGraw-Hill, 1988.
MacCaskey, Michael. "Behind the Scenes at the Rose Parade." Sunset (Central West edition), January 1993, pp. 74-79.
Tournament of Roses Association. http://www.tournamentofroses.org.