Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, most of the country typically experiences a wintery wonderland of chilly white landscapes, illuminated by festive holiday lights and accented with the scent of telltale aromas from busy fireplaces. But in Southern California, the sky is usually a vibrant blue, the temperatures brisk (Brrrr! It can get all the way down to 60 degrees!), and there’s the welcoming smell of freshly cut flowers in the air.
During the lull between the two holidays, many residents of the beautiful Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena quickly abandon their dreamy holiday images of snowflakes and flying reindeer and turn their attention to the work at hand: creating another breathtaking edition of the world-famous Pasadena Tournament of Roses. The Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl game, both produced by the nonprofit Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association, have become true American holiday traditions.
Beginning in the late 1930s, Disney joined forces with the tournament, starting a relationship that has flourished ever since. Not only has the Rose Parade featured numerous Disney touches through the years, but the Rose Queen and Royal Court have paid yearly visits to the Disneyland Resort since 1960, and the Resort hosts college football teams each year as the first stop on their visit to Southern California to compete in the Rose Bowl game.
Here, with images of sugar plum fairies and the sweet smells of the season wafting in from the kitchen, we take a photographic stroll through a rose garden of Disney memories… with highlights from many of the Disney and Pasadena Tournament of Roses collaborations.
Disney’s first Rose Parade float entry appeared in 1938, to promote Disney’s new feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The theme of the parade is “Playland Fantasies,” and the Disney float features Marge Belcher, the studio’s lovely live-action model for Snow White. Marge sits beneath a giant floral mushroom, surrounded by the seven dwarf characters who’d made their initial appearance at the premiere of the film at the Carthay Circle Theater two weeks earlier. A few years later, Marge would marry and go on to greater fame as part of the great dance duo of Gower and Marjorie Champion.
Roy E. Disney once claimed that one of his most vivid memories was attending the 1938 Rose Parade and seeing the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs float. “I watched the whole parade standing on the hood of an old Buick in a used car lot on Colorado Boulevard that belonged to one of my dad’s best friends,” he said. “I couldn’t have been more excited that day, especially when the Snow White float went by.”
In January of 1955, Walt and his staff send their second float to Pasadena, this time to promote another groundbreaking new production: Disneyland. Sponsored by Southern California’s popular Helms Bakery, the float is decorated with more than 7,000 pink roses and is recipient of the Judge’s Special Award for featuring some of the most iconic images from the soon-to-be opened theme park: a giant pink Sleeping Beauty Castle; a version of the Dumbo the Flying Elephant attraction; and Mickey Mouse himself, in the front. A tall balloon rising above the float introduces many in the crowd to “Disneyland,” the new wonderland to come.
In March 1965, Mr. J. Randolph Richards, president of the 77th Annual Tournament of Roses, announces the theme for 1966—“It’s a Small World.” Just one year earlier, the Disney-designed and built attraction it’s a small world premiered to great acclaim at the UNICEF-sponsored pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and was slated to be installed into a new permanent home at Disneyland in Anaheim. Richards then announces the obvious choice for grand marshal to accompany that year’s theme: Walt Disney, who he praises as a “master showman” who has “brought joy and laughter to millions in every part of the world.”
Lillian Disney accompanies her husband to the Rose Bowl Game that followed the Parade, but it’s Walt’s best pal that rides in the grand marshal’s car with him.
Walt chooses the city of Burbank to sponsor that year’s float entitled “Our Small World of Make Believe,” feeling it is the most appropriate choice of city to represent himself and his creations. The float is designed with help from Disney Legend Bill Justice and features “an open book, a musical clef, and an artist’s palette, representing the three important elements of Disney legend: the story, the music, and the creative art work.” The float also carries 27 of Walt and Mickey’s good friends, including Goofy, Pluto, Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Aurora, Alice, the White Rabbit, Pinocchio, Honest John, Gideon, Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Captain Hook, the Three Little Pigs, and the Big Bad Wolf.
Following Walt’s fondly remembered role as grand marshal, it would take nearly 15 years for Disney to again be represented in the Rose Parade in an official capacity. The occasion is the Disneyland 25th anniversary “Family Reunion” celebration. It’s been 25 years since Disneyland was first represented in the parade, and to mark the park’s silver anniversary, Disney ironically does not contribute a float entry. Instead, Disneyland is represented by a unique pre-parade entertainment spectacular highlighted by many elements of the soon-to-be-unveiled Disneyland 25th Anniversary Parade, which would be featured daily during the park’s anniversary year.
The pre-parade show features Disney characters, fanfare trumpeters, a rolling stage featuring the word “Disneyland” spelled out in twirling mirrored letters, plus the Dixieland jazz band Firehouse Five Plus Two, led by legendary Disney animator Ward Kimball. A highlight of the pre-parade is a real steam-powered Dragon Calliope. The ornate rolling musical instrument had been part of the short-lived Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland. The calliope was repainted silver and blue and appeared in the daily 25th anniversary parade at the park. In 1981, the calliope traveled to Walt Disney World where it was featured as part of the “Tencennial” celebration, and it now resides proudly on display at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground in Florida.
With the dawn of the new millennium, Disney and the Rose Parade came full circle as Roy E. Disney was named grand marshal, making Walt and his nephew the only people from the same family ever to share the honor of being named grand marshal. Roy’s participation is heavily tied into the millennium and the debut of the film Fantasia/2000.
After a series of whirlwind “premieres” around the world, Roy (who was executive producer of the film) and Fantasia/2000 come home to celebrate with a West Coast premiere that takes place on New Year’s Eve at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, followed by midnight fireworks.
The relationship between Disney and the Rose Parade reaches new heights, literally, when millions of parade viewers worldwide get a unique preview of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror with a parade float inspired by the soon-to-open attraction at Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort.
Dubbed “A Sudden Drop In Pitch,” in keeping with the 2004 Rose Parade theme of “Music, Music, Music,” the float is the tallest in Rose Parade history at the time, with a height of nearly 100 feet. (The actual attraction is only 83 feet taller.) The float is designed to fold down to a height of less than 18 feet so that it can be taken under freeway underpasses, and it is fully animated with a rotating Sun Wheel, a shaking elevator car (complete with screaming stunt people), and pyrotechnics (only the second float at the time to ever feature fireworks).
Following the parade, the float is actually transported down to Anaheim and put on display at Disney California Adventure, where it remains for several weeks.
With both Walt and Roy E. Disney having served as grand marshals of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, it seemed only inevitable that someday Mickey Mouse might be accorded the same honor. On November 16, 2004, Mickey was joined on the lawn of the Wrigley Mansion (headquarters for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses) by Julie Andrews (the Honorary Ambassador of the Disneyland 50th anniversary) and Tournament of Roses President Dave Davis as they announced Mickey as grand marshal of the 2005 Tournament of Roses, featuring the “Celebrate Family” Theme. As grand marshal, Mickey represents the Tournament of Roses to a worldwide television audience in the 116th Rose Parade and tosses the coin before the 91st Rose Bowl game (not easy to do with just four fingers!).
The parade kicks off with another festive, high-energy Disney pre-show featuring a multitude of Disney characters, singers, dancers, fireworks, and a spectacular float inspired by Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.
With the global celebration of the 50th anniversary of Disneyland continuing for 18 months, Disney’s 2006 float entry represents floral representations of all five Magic Kingdom castles from around the world: Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong.
As it turns out, “The Most Magical Celebration on Earth” (as the float was called) is met with an unseasonably wet reception as it ventures onto famed Colorado Boulevard. Usually Disney events can count on “Walt Weather,” as insiders like to call it (a sudden clearing of the skies before a major parade or show). However, on this occasion, the typical Rose Parade weather of crisp blue skies, abundant sunshine and snow-capped mountains in the distance is replaced with a constant drizzle and slight winds.
But there have been abundant sunny and warm days since then, and if history is any indication, there will be plenty more… and many additional chapters written in the storied friendship between Disney and the Tournament of Roses.