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
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.
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.
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 .
— Chris Cavette