Fiesta Parade Floats President Tim Estes was shouting directions to his crew outside his Irwindale facility.
He took the fat stogie out of his mouth just long enough to yell, “Float’s moving!”
And, unless you are driving a float or tweaking an engine gear on this mid-December Saturday morning, Estes has no time for you.
Because, it’s float-inspection day. And Estes is a laser.
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Tournament of Roses officials descend upon the massive warehouse to put floats upwards of 55 feet long through their mechanical paces.
Spectators might think the cigar Estes was smoking at 7 a.m. was celebratory.
Maybe the big man, who has been building Rose Parade floats for 57 years, was ushering in the New Year early?
Or perhaps, the stogie was a nod to the 134th Rose Parade’s theme of “Turning the Corner?” — a hint of hope the pandemic is finally in the rear view mirror?
That’s just Estes, said co-workers. The stogie comes out every year at this time, the busiest for the unassuming, but passionate leader of Fiesta. The big guy’s company of 30 has seven floats in this year’s parade. And that’s down from around 12, said Estes.
Pandemic supply chain issues linger and it’s not been as easy to get volunteers post-pandemic to do all the decorating. Plus, he said, there’s the price increases, for everything.
Every year, Rose Parade officials announce an uplifting, positive theme for America’s favorite New Year’s tradition. The themes have been mostly generic, especially in the 21st century: “Our Good Nature,” “Inspiring Stories,” “Dreams Come True” are examples of most recent ones.
One could say you can gauge America’s collective temperature by Rose Parade themes.
In the early part of the 20th century, themes were flower-centric: “Poems in Flowers” and “Fairy Tales in Flowers” to name two.
But, during those years where war weighed heavy on America’s consciousness, the themes were more meaningful.
As World War I ended, in 1918 the Rose Parade theme was “Patriotism.” In 1919, “Victory Tournament.”
The themes turned patriotic again towards the last three years of World War II. Themes turned from “America in Flowers” in 1941 to more prominent and war-centric ones: “We’re in to Win,” (1943), “Hold a Victory so Hardly Won,” (1945) and finally, “Victory, Unity and Peace,” (1946).
And so, it seems fitting that the 2023 Rose Parade theme, “Turn the Corner,” hints at what we’re all thinking: As those gorgeously decorated, sweet smelling spectacles round the corner from Orange Grove to Colorado Boulevard on the morning of Jan. 2, can we all finally breath a sigh of relief?
We’ve lost 1.1 million Americans since the pandemic began at the end of 2019. We’ve endured more than two years of isolation and quarantine. We’ve weathered delta, omicron, long-haul. We’ve fought face mask battles in grocery stores.
And, thankfully, local health directors and politicians are no longer giving weekly health updates on television, let alone daily ones.
With the 134th Rose Parade, have we finally gotten to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic?
“We say turning the corner, but we’re at a very high point right now with numbers,” said Lisa Derderian, PIO for the City of Pasadena, which has its own health department.
In addition to coronavirus variants, there are still colds, flus and respiratory syncytial virus to contend with, said Derderian. And last week, Pasadena issued updated health orders strongly encouraging people to mask back up indoors.
As tens of thousands of visitors descend upon Pasadena this week, Derderian said health officers are thankful the city’s biggest tourist draws — the Rose Parade and the 109th Rose Bowl Game — are both outside.
But last year’s parade attendance was down after a cancelled 2021 event. And people took precautions such as zipping themselves into private plastic bubbles.
Derderian said people still need to take precautions, especially indoors, and in crowded outdoor locations, such as cramming onto curbsides watching the parade.
“Pasadena is a destination location,” Derderian said. “Restaurants are full and hotels are full. It’s great for the city, but we need to be cognizant that we need to be healthy when people are indoors.”
Also, she said, respect others’ decisions about whether or not to don a face mask.
“We’re not here to scare people,” said Derderian. “We just want people to be prepared.”
The official statement about the theme from 2023 Pasadena Tournament of Roses President, Amy Wainscott, doesn’t reference the pandemic, but there’s a strong hint:
“Turning a corner means rising above – alone, or with family, friends and community,” writes Wainscott in the announcement. “This year, as we turn the corner together, we share in the hope, beauty and joy of what 2023 will bring.”
As health officials prepare for New Year’s and Rose gatherings, veteran float aficionados like Estes from Fiesta floats aren’t really that concerned about the physical mechanics of “turning the corner.”
As floats travel from the start of the parade on Orange Grove near Green Street, they pass TV row, then begin the seemingly tricky hard right turn onto Colorado Boulevard, where a red line guides them east on the straight-away for most of the 5.5 mile journey.
Builders like Estes and his longtime driver Steve Altmayer are pros at making those turns.
“If I wanted to dramatize the turn,” said Estes. “I’d say ‘oh my god,’ it’s the hardest thing in the world!”
But, Estes said, for all but a couple of floats, turning that Orange Grove corner is not that big of a deal. You see, drivers like Altmayer, encased and hidden deep inside the float, are turning from one 65-foot street onto another 65-foot street.
That’s a lot of space to maneuver a typical 55-foot float, he said. Piece of cake.
The Orange Grove to Colorado turn on the parade route, said driver Altmayer is a 110 degree turn.
“When you’ve been doing it so long and you have a confident observer up front, it’s not a problem,” Altmayer said. He should know, he’ll be at the wheel of the Louisiana Tourism float. His 50th Rose Parade.
The real challenge, said Altmayer, for his boss Estes and all of the builders, is Rose Parade floats are not longer assembled close to the parade route. Most of them are built in Irwindale, a 19-mile trip on New Year’s Eve. (Or in this year’s case, on the eve of New Year’s Day.)
And that’s where the tricky corner turning comes in, agreed Estes. It’s dark and the corners are much tighter.
“It can be a five-hour to eight-hour trip,” Altmayer said. “It’s very tiresome. You’ve got to be on top of your game. You want to get that float to the parade line looking like it did when it left the building.”
Altmayer and other Fiesta drivers count on the cigar-smoking Estes to lead the way.
“I’m pretty good at directing floats,” said Estes. “Even having good experienced drivers, but they still like having me at the turn.”
Whether the floats turn the corner or not on Jan. 2 (don’t worry, they will, said Estes) or whether we’ve put the pandemic in the rear view mirror, there’s high expectations for this year’s Rose Parade, after a lower-than-normal turnout last year.
“We’re hoping this year will make the big year to make it a comeback,” said Derderian.