History, Tourism, and a Parade

I believe in starting my year how I intend it to go. In my last blog post for 2019, I talked about some of what I anticipated doing in 2020. Included were catching up with friends and meeting new people. I did both of these on the first day of the year at the 131st staging of the Rose Parade, one event within Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses. I hung out with friends, including one whom I hadn’t seen for a few weeks and met someone new – a fellow Florida Gator (we united over disdain for the school up north, thanks Tiffany, and showed off the Gator Chomp, thanks Jennetta). Go Gators! On the first day of the year I also added some succulents to my backyard and walked almost 11, 000 steps before 5 pm. So all in all an excellent start to 2020 despite having woken up at the ass crack of dawn ☹️.

The Tournament of Roses’ History is Steeped in Tourism

The Tournament of Roses Association (TRA), the organizer of the Tournament of Roses bills it as America’s New Year Celebration®. Many people around the world have heard of the Rose Parade, but I wonder how many know that it was conceived to showcase (or brag about) Pasadena, warm, charming, and blooming while New York and elsewhere were buried in snow. Intentional or otherwise, this was a superb strategy to attract visitors to Pasadena. The first Tournament of Roses was on January 1, 1890, over 130 years later the strategy remains extremely effective. For that first event, the original organizer, the Valley Hunt Club, had contests like jousting, chariot and foot races, tug-o-war, and polo. A parade featuring carriages decorated with flowers, was added to the event to further show off Pasadena’s warm weather assets (TRA, n.d.).

(Tournament of Roses Association, n.d.)

In 1902, the Parade was paired with the Tournament of Roses football game, but replaced by chariot racing the following year. In 1916, the parade-football pairing became permanent, making the city an even more attractive destination for a new year’s trip (TRA, n.d.). Over the course of the years since, the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game have become significant anchor events for Pasadena. Together they attract thousands to the city, including Californians (residents and domestic tourists) along with national and international tourists. My focus in this post is on the parade, not the bowl game.

I’ve considered attending the Rose Parade several times since moving to California and a few years ago decided I was going. That decision lasted until the night of December 31st when I determined that I did not want to wake up early to take the train and then stand in the cold to witness the event LOL. This time around, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to make the effort, but finally decided it would be good to experience it at least once. I would be going with friends, tourism is my business, this is a major anchor event, etc. Once I paid for the ticket to sit in the stands (a bit more on this later), I was as committed as a pig is to pork or bacon 🤣, but I still wasn’t looking forward to the punishment of waking up early.

The current version of the Rose Parade is remarkably similar to the early ones in terms of the types of entries: floats with floral decorations (since 1890), marching bands (1891), equestrian units (1890) and Tournament entries. With today’s technology, I’m sure it is also distinctly different. The parade takes place along a 5.5 mile section of Colorado Ave and there is no separation of entries – floats, bands, equestrian units and Tournament entries are interspersed as they travel along the route. The parade starts at 8 am and takes 2-3 hours. This year there were 42 floats, 23 marching bands, and 17 equestrian units. From the end of the parade until January 2nd, there was another event called Post Parade: A Showcase of Floats, where one could pay a fee to see the floats close up.

There are a few ways to view the parade: pay for seats managed by TRA (standard $60-$110, also packages); camp out from the night before or days before to get the best free vantage spot with your chairs, blowup couches, outdoor heaters, and barbeque grills; pay to park your RV somewhere and sit in front of it or on the roof; or turn up on the day hoping for the best. Restaurants and bars along the route may have had special packages as well. Our group chose to purchase TRA tickets for $60 and got in section 1976. We had decent views of the parade, but we were close to the end of the route, so by the time participants reached us the energetic dancing and musical performances were done. If I attend this event again I’ll get a seat closer to the middle of the route.

The Power of Hope was the theme for the 2020 Rose Parade and how the various float designers interpreted it through the floats was very interesting – some impressive, some not quite so.

(Tournament of Roses Association, 2020)

There were sub-themes like ‘courage to reimagine’, ‘our hope for the future’, ‘rise up’, ‘years of hope, years of courage’, ‘hope for the homeless’, ‘better together, hope creates community’, ‘stories change our world’, ‘hope knows no limits’, ‘growing a better tomorrow’, ‘spend your life living’, and ‘it takes a flight of fancy’.

The Tournament of Roses is Immensely Impactful

I tend to view life and tourism through a sustainability lens and that is always sharpened for major events like the Rose Parade. If one defines sustainability in a very simple way, it is about whether a thing/event/activity can continue to exist over a period of time. From this perspective, at iteration 131, the Rose Parade is clearly sustainable. However, sustainability is much more than persistence over time. For me it coalesces around natural and cultural resource concerns, but economic and community impacts are critically important as well.

For many events, one has to hazard guesses about the three broad components of sustainability. For the Tournament of Roses, TRA provides some information about the economic and basic community impact elements. I’ll start with the economic perspective because simple statistics on the economic ‘benefits’ tend to be more readily available and more frequently touted to generate support for the creation, development and/or expansion of any event or initiative.

What Economic Impact of Parade?

In 2017, some 3.2 million people visited Pasadena, booked 42,059 room nights, and spent $496.2 million in hotels, attractions, and restaurants (Pasadena Center Operating Company (PCOC), 2018). In 2019, visitors booked 46,048 room nights (PCOC, 2019) and given its minimally higher revenue per available room (revpar), revenue from room nights was probably around $500K higher.

With the popularity of the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game, the city’s two biggest anchor events, Pasadena welcomes a significant number of tourists to the city for the first few days of the year, contributing to the aforementioned room nights, spending, etc.. These tourists buy parade and game tickets, stay in hotels, dine in restaurants, drink in bars, visit other attractions, spend on souvenirs, and in various other ways contribute to tourism’s overall impact to the city. Non-tourist attendees also spend money on parade and game tickets, in restaurants and bars (my friends and I had lunch in a local restaurant), on souvenirs (we bought commemorative pins), and more.

According to TRA (2019), around 700,000 individuals attended the 2019 Rose Parade (it also had a TV audience of 37 million national and 27 million international viewers). Beyond Pasadena, other Southern California destinations from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and beyond also benefit from Pasadena hosting these anchor events.

Based on some of the conversations I heard in section 1976, it was evident that for this year’s parade there were domestic tourists from various parts of California and other states, as well as international tourists whose primary purpose for the trip was the Tournament of Roses. Additionally, there were American marching bands from Oregon, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, and Texas, along with international bands from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Denmark, Japan, and Mexico. There were also equestrian units from Texas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Michigan. The band and equestrian unit members with all of their support personnel also fall into the category of tourists. Together they could account for upwards of 2,000 tourists.

Banda Municipal de Zarcero (Alajuela, Costa Rica)

In a study of the 2018 Tournament of Roses done by Enigma Research for TRA, the researchers estimated that the combined economic impact of the two events was $198.2 million (combined impact for Pasadena 29%, L.A. City 29.5%, other L.A. County 30%, Greater L.A. area 9%, rest of California 3%). The parade alone had an impact of approximately $142.8 million. The level of spending for the Tournament was the equivalent of 2,062 year round full-time jobs, primarily in accommodation and food service; retail; and arts, entertainment and recreation. Tax revenues were around $38 million. Around 133,000 of the 700,000 parade attendees were resident outside of the greater L.A. area, with most being from outside of California (Enigma Research, 2018).


Events on the scale of the Tournament of Roses should generate immediate, mid- and long-term positive impacts beyond the direct economic benefits. The TRA established the Tournament of Roses Foundation in 1983 (TRA n.d.). The foundation awards grants yearly the Pasadena area. These grants help the awarded non-profit organizations to support activities and programmes in performing arts, visual arts, education, recreation and sports. Since the foundation’s establishment, more than 200 organizations have received upwards of $3 million (TRA, n.d.).

In their 2018 Community Impact Report, TRA (2019) described its partnerships with Pasadena City College and the Pasadena Unified School District to support education from elementary to tertiary levels. TRA also hosted tours of several college campuses in southern California for high school students in two school districts. The report also noted that TRA offered training for board members of local non-profits and supported organizations working to reduce food insecurity, among other initiatives. Similar activities were described in their 2016-17 report (TRA, 2017). In 2019, TRA hosted #ThisGen2019, a one-day youth empowerment forum featuring speakers such as Google’s Global Head of Strategic Partnerships, an Olympic bronze medal winning figure skater, and a UCLA gymnast.

Though TRA has a small core staff of employees, volunteers make a significant contribution to the organization’s work. In 2019, 935 volunteer members contributed 80,000 hours in a range of areas for the year. Community volunteers and visitors also assisted decorating the floats (adding flowers, seeds, bark, etc.) in the last few days before the parade.

The parade is also a major way for cities, civic organizations and corporations to support the community in a way that is meaningful to community members. Floats were organized/sponsored by various cities, organizations and businesses including City of Alhambra, City of Torrance/Torrance Rose Float Association, Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens,  Kiwanis International, Sikh American Float Foundation, Rotary Rose Parade Float Committee, Inc., Chinese American Heritage, Trader Joe’s, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, Kaiser Permanente, and City of Hope.

Interviews with attendees reported in the L.A. Times indicate that community members generally enjoy the parade and some attend each year as a part of their family’s tradition. Interviewees also expressed the pride they felt in seeing the diversity of participants and spectators. In section 1976 I heard extra loud cheers when the bands from El Salvador, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Costa Rico were passing. I was also moved when I saw these marching bands and in particular the renowned Southern University ‘Human Jukebox’ though we didn’t see their main performance because we were close to the end of the route.

Aguiluchos Marching Band (Puebla, Mexico)

The Buffalo Soldier Mounted Cavalry Unit from Three Rivers, California was also special. The Buffalo Soldiers were the first national parks rangers. Three Rivers is one of the gateways to Sequoia National Park, the second oldest national park in the US, and the first to be headed by a Black Superintendant, Charles Young. At the time of his appointment to Sequoia National Park, Young was the Captain of a black company (Buffalo Soldiers) stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco.

There were marching bands from Pasadena City College; the Los Angeles Unified School District (I heard there were four band members from Saugus High, Saugus Strong) and other school districts from around the state; a float from the California Polytechnic Universities (I was happy to see the CSU campuses represented); and the Tournament of Roses Salvation Army Band from Pasadena. All of these helped to give more of a community feel to the parade.

Los Angeles Unified School District All District Honor Band

Natural Environment

While watching the parade I wondered about its impact to natural resources and the ideas floats depicted (or could have) about natural resources and associated issues. I was surprised that there was no float focused directly on climate change (perhaps I missed it). One float was sponsored by Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, a company that produces biodegradable plant-based household cleaners. Chipotle’s float focused on agriculture, while the Cal Poly Universities’ float ‘Aquatic Aspirations’ focused on the marine environment. Produced by a combined team from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona, Aquatic Aspirations was the only float produced by students.

In another vein, I wondered about the materials used to build the floats. Other than the organic components, what materials are used? What happens to the floats after the Post-Parade event? There were 40 floats decorated with millions of flowers, fruits, seeds, pieces bark, etc. Where are these natural items sourced? Are they all from the local areas where the floats are built? Shipped from afar? If natural materials are affixed with glue, can those items still be composted? How are the materials, organic and non-organic, repurposed, recycled, discarded? On TRA’s website, there is a page focused on its sustainability initiatives, which are laudable, but seem to pertain to the association’s direct operations, not the participants in the parade. I found answers to some of my questions about the floats elsewhere.

There are two types for float builders: commercial float builders and self-built float organizations. The Cal Poly Universities and La Canada Flintridge Tournament of Roses Association are examples of the latter (TRA, n.d.). Both types of builders use volunteers to assist with building and break down. Builders use millions of flowers and thousands of pounds of fruit, vegetables, seed, bark etc. for the floats each year. Thousands of individual flowers are added to each float in vials. After the parade, float builders recycle these vials or save them to reuse (Henry, 2018). Likewise, they send some of the metal components from the frames to recyclers and save some pieces for reuse. However, there is minimal reuse because of the uniqueness of each float design. Some flowers, fruits, vegetables and other organic materials are composted. In the past, some self-builders like the Cal Polys have invited their communities to take any flowers they want (Henry, 2018). I hope that the majority of the organic materials are actively composted or set aside to break down on their own. Maybe this is research that TRA would be interesting in conducting.

Other Things That Jumped out at me

Flowers that immediately made me think of home – Frangipani (Hawai’i float), Heliconia, Bird of Paradise, Anthurium, Red Ginger. Watching the parade also made me think of carnival, cropover, and Junkanoo. Junkanoo in the Bahamas is perhaps the most similar in terms of the full live bands, but the atmosphere is completely different for that event.

Stiltwalkers and music played by bands of El Salvador and Puerto Rico also reminded me of home.

Stilt walkers from Banda El Salvador: Grande Como Su Gente

Few men dancing and in flag section of bands; few women playing instruments

Parade marshalls “white suiters” on Honda cycles that looked kinda small.

When you turn up expecting to tow the float into position, but not pull it in the parade … but then you’re on parade!

The golden lion tamarin (2nd photo above) did not look excited by the float or the parade 😂.

Volunteer pooper scoopers who followed the equestrian units. I saw at least two teams scooping. The team pictured below were appropriately hatted 😁. A necessary service with some comic relief.

I Enjoyed the Parade but my Intellect Wasn’t Sufficiently Engaged. Should it Have Been?

The floats that presented ideas about homelessness, healthcare, inclusiveness, food security, the natural environment, and recognizing the centennial of the women’s suffrage in the US (for the first group of women to gain the right to vote) gave a nod to important societal issues, but just a nod. Is it too much to ask for more depth or provocation in the displays at this type of event? Perhaps. Perhaps parade is merely an opportunity for people to disengage and be entertained by a beautiful event while leaving the hard thinking for another time, a different event. Yet my impression of the parade is based on just one experience of the event. Maybe there were more thought-provoking or controversial floats at previous events. While I know there are critiques of the parade in academic journals, I may need to experience the event a few more times to do a proper evaluation.

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