Back in the winter of 1890, members of Pasadena, California’s distinguished Valley Hunt Club began brainstorming ways to promote California as the “Mediterranean of the West.” The hunting and fishing social club wound up inviting its former East Coast neighbors, who were buried in snow, to a midwinter holiday, to watch games such as chariot and foot races, jousting, polo and tug-of-war beneath the warm California sun.
An abundance of fresh flowers — even in the throes of winter — prompted the club to add another showcase for Pasadena’s charm: a parade that would precede the competition, with entrants adorning their carriages with hundreds of blooms. The result? The first-ever Tournament of Roses Parade.
Today the Rose Parade is part of America’s New Year’s Day celebration, which also includes the prestigious Rose Bowl Game. It’s the oldest bowl game in college football and it features the top teams from Pac-12 and Big Ten. (The 2020 Rose Bowl will host No. 6 Oregon Ducks and No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers, Jan. 1, 2020. at 5 p.m. EST. The Rose Parade starts at 11 a.m. EST.)
History of the Tournament of Roses Parade
That first Rose Parade welcomed 3,000 people to an event filled with beautiful horse-drawn carriages covered in flowers. During the next few years, the parade was expanded to include marching bands and motorized floats, and the games included ostrich races, bronco-busting demonstrations, and a race between a camel and an elephant (the elephant won).
Viewing stands were eventually built along the parade route, which today runs 5.5 miles (8.8 kilometers) from the corner of Green Street and Orange Grove Boulevard to Colorado Boulevard (where the majority of the viewing occurs) before heading to Sierra Madre Boulevard and then ending at Villa Street.
In 1895, the Tournament of Roses Association was formed to take charge of the event, which had grown too large for the Valley Hunt Club to handle. Now more than a century after its formation, the two-hour New Year’s Day parade is attended annually by about 700,000 spectators who revel in a beauty of its magnificent floats, talented marching bands and high-stepping equestrians.
All About Those Fabulous Floats
If there’s one thing the Rose Parade is known for, it’s the elaborate floats. Some feature high-tech computerized animation and exotic natural materials from around the world. Although a few floats still are built exclusively by volunteers from their sponsoring communities, most are constructed by a cadre of professional float-building companies and take nearly a year to complete.
Remaining true to its floral beginnings, every inch of every float must be covered with flowers or other natural materials, such as leaves, seeds or bark. The most delicate flowers (including roses) are placed in individual vials of water and then set into floats one by one.
The designs of the floats must be submitted to the committee well in advance (anybody can submit a proposal for a float). Final floats are approved in February, and construction begins right away, though decorating starts about a month before the parade. Dry materials go on first, but all fresh flowers and greenery is added the last week or the final day or two, depending on the flower. An estimated 18 million flowers are used on the floats in the parade, plus 5,000 gallons (18,927 liters) of glue and 600 tons (544 metric tons) of steel.
Volunteers make up a huge chunk of the manpower that put the final touches on the floats. They supply more than 80,000 hours of combined manpower building and volunteering to make the parade happen.
Three judges award trophies for the best floats based on various criteria ranging from creative design and thematic interpretation to floral craftsmanship and thematic interpretation. The top award, the Sweepstakes Trophy, is presented to the most beautiful float entry encompassing float design, floral presentation and entertainment.
The 2020 Rose Parade will feature 41 floats, including ones from the universities of Oregon and Wisconsin. Each float will be decorated according to the 2020 theme, “The Power of Hope,” celebrating the influence of optimism and hope.
Marching Bands and Equestrian Groups
While the floats may be the blooming stars of the Rose Parade, the marching bands and horses are also perennial favorites. The marching bands have been part of the tradition since 1891 when the Monrovia, California City Band provided music in the second Rose Parade. Ever since, thousands of high school, college, university and military bands have made the march.
And speaking of marching, the equestrian teams will be doing a lot of that, as well. These horse and rider units first became part of the parade in January 1890, when then-Grand Marshal Francis Rowland and President Charles Holder rode their horses to lead the first parade through Pasadena. Each year since, the parade has included a variety of horse breeds, including Curlies, American Saddlebreds, Gypsy Cobs, Andalusians, miniature horses, draft horses and more.
Crowd Favorites for 2020
The California Polytechnic State University‘s float — a joint entry by both Cal Poly Pomona and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo universities — has been a crowd favorite for 70-plus years. Designed and built entirely by students, the Cal Poly floats have led in introducing technology to the parade throughout the decades, from the first use of hydraulics for animation in 1968 to the first color-changing floral effect in 2017.
Expect the university’s 2020 float — “Aquatic Aspirations” — to depict a submarine that embarks upon an ocean exploration to discover fortune and riches, but instead comes across an even better discovery: a breathtaking underwater home thriving among the pieces of an old sunken ship. The huge float is expected to include an estimated 26,500 flowers, ranging from pink and yellow Gerberas and roses to blue irises (as well as a mix of nuts and seeds, ground coffee beans and yellow crushed popcorn kernels). It will also include a coral reef with colorful tropical fish; an octopus waving from the bow of the sunken ship; and a trio of giant sea turtles guiding a parade of fish, jellyfish and a stingray.
In addition to the floats, 17 equestrian groups and 21 marching bands from around the world, the 2020 parade will also include an “opening spectacular” with a song written and produced for the parade by Grammy Award-winner Emilio Estefan. The song will be performed by Ally Brooke of all-girl group Fifth Harmony and popular Latin reggaeton artist Farruko.
For the first time, there also will be a mid-parade performance with the cast of Disney’s Broadway musical “Frozen.” And the grand finale will be performed by legendary rock band Los Lobos.
If you can’t make your way to Pasadena to see the parade in person, you can watch it live in the U.S. beginning at 11 a.m. EST. (Check your local broadcast listings for more information.) The parade also airs live around the world, including in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, as well as on American Forces Network.