If you think decorating a parade float is a genteel pastime, think again. “They tell you to wear the worst clothes you’ve got because you will get glue on them — you will get dirty,” says Peter Haverlation. He ought to know. He helped decorate 16 floats over the years, and saw how messy — and intense — things can get as the clock ticks down to the Jan. 1 launch of the world-famous Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., each year. Millions will be watching on TV — 52 million Americans, to be exact, and millions more in the 220 countries where the event is broadcast.

Tournament of Roses’ rules require every square inch of every float be covered with real flowers or plant materials such as moss, seeds, bark, leaves, grains and vegetables. Volunteers apply the plants, gluing them directly onto the floats, or placing roses and blooms in vials of water on the floats’ bases, one by one — thousands of them — working as fast as they can as the parade hour draws near. Many pull an all-nighter when time gets short.

How did Haverlation get involved in one of the nation’s most famous parades? “We’d gone to Rose Parades for years and were curious about the process,” he says. “So when my daughter came home from a Sea Scout meeting talking about [how] the owner of the float would pay 37 cents an hour to the Scouts if they would decorate it, we decided to help.”

The Haverlation clan included Peter, wife Kathy and 12-year-old Jennifer. The youngest, Douglas, joined in the fun a few years later. The family enjoyed it so much, they kept decorating floats long after Jennifer left the Sea Scouts.

“On the first day, the float leader puts a paper ‘badge’ on your back, with your name and the number of years you’ve been working on floats,” says Haverlation, owner of Peter’s Pool Service in Los Angeles and longtime organizer of the Western Pool & Spa Show. It helps officials assign tasks based on skill level. “We had zeroes on our backs in the beginning. Anyway, at one point, a column needed to be covered with holly berries, and a couple of kids were wasting materials and not getting things done. I came up with [some] ideas to save time and materials — I guess my mechanical mind from the pool business helps. The leader was amazed because he expected it to take us two hours and we did it in one. So he gave us tasks that became more difficult as we went along. After a while, he ripped off our badges, saying, ‘You aren’t zeroes!’ We were put to work on the camera side of floats after that.” (Only adept volunteers may decorate the side facing the TV cameras that film the parade.)

While some floats can take 10 days to decorate, Haverlation’s experience was three to five, depending on the intricacy of the design. The float design firms have their own tents, where work on all of their creations is done, so volunteers might find themselves working on several, if needed.

“That last night before the parade, when they bring out all the fresh flowers, it smells wonderful!” Haverlation recalls. As for his favorite floats, he says the prettiest he worked on featured a dragon (Singapore Airlines) and a jungle (Rain Bird Corp.).

Then there was the Arco creation, winner of the 1996 Grand Marshal’s trophy. The 55-foot-long float sported a spooky tree, jack-o’-lanterns, bats, vultures, a hissing black cat and animated trick-or-treaters. It sprang from the imaginations of renowned designer Raul Rodriguez and Fiesta Parade Floats. The float’s hydraulic lift could lower the tree from 36 feet tall to 17 feet in less than 45 seconds — and it also morphed into a giant goblin. Haverlation remembers working on the vultures as Rodriguez came by to inspect, his blue macaw, Sebastian, perched on his shoulder.

“We’ve seen other parades, but in terms of designs and beauty, there isn’t another as beautiful as the Rose Parade,” Haverlation says. “It was an honor to be a participant. Now we appreciate the intricate work even more because we know what goes into it.”

On parade

  • Typically, there are 40+ floats, requiring approximately 18 million flowers; 20 bands; and 20 equestrian units with 300 horses total. It takes 2.5 hours to travel the 5.5-mile route. The first parade in 1890 drew 2,000 spectators; today, 700,000 line the streets to watch, and millions more view it on TV in the USA and abroad.
  • The parade was meant to attract tourists by showcasing Pasadena’s sunny weather. At first, a winter festival accompanied the event, with chariot races, jousting, and even camel vs. elephant races! (The elephant won.) In 1916, a college football game at the Rose Bowl after the parade became de rigueur.
  • Famous grand marshals have included Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford; Bob Hope and Shirley Temple, many times; Hank Aaron; Walt Disney; John Wayne; Frank Sinatra; and Carol Burnett.