Floating in the New Year the California way

The Thompson family worked on the Sierra Madre Rose Float Association's entry in the 2020 Rose Parade as a way to experience a unique California tradition. Linda Thompson

For many people, the annual Rose Parade is just a part of the New Year’s Day tradition, but for the Thompson family, the parade represents quintessential California living.

“Back home we would watch the parade and I was always amazed that they made the floats from flowers, but my friends just said, ‘Oh that’s just California,’” said Valencia High School student Maddie Thompson. “The parade is just one of those things that makes this state special.”

Originally from Georgia, Linda and Mike Thompson moved to California with their children Maddie and Craig. The family wanted to gain some “California experiences,” so after Linda saw a call for volunteers to work on the Sierra Madre Rose Float Association’s entry in this year’s parade, she jumped at the chance to sign up.

“What was really cool about this float is that Sierra Madre’s float is only one of six out of the 84 floats that are self-built by volunteers and not by a paid corporate company,” Linda said. “It was a wonderful experience and I found out that there are people who come all the way from North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas that come in just to work on these floats.”

The family, along with Linda’s mother Barbara Kuester, drove down to the city of Sierra Madre on the first available volunteer day and worked on the city’s “Ka La Hiki Ola” float for five and a half hours. Most of their work involved sifting sushi rice to remove the powder and particles from it so that it could be properly glued to the float, but Craig and Mike also helped fill the vials that would hold the flowers on the float while Maddie also had the opportunity to paint some of the giant flowers.

Maddie Thompson paints one of the large flowers for the Sierra Madre float which will then have real flowers glued to it. Linda Thompson

“Before I went I expected them to not have much work for us to do and we would just end up sitting in a corner most of the time, and while we did end up in a corner for part of the time, but I ended up being the person to train people how to fill up the vials of water,” Craig said. “It was really fun because I got to race my dad to fill up the vials. I won.”

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be because there are some volunteers that have been there for 18 years who are really friendly and love to talk about the history of the parade,” Mike added. “The worst part of it was that it was cold and that wasn’t even that bad. I marched in the Citrus Bowl parade years ago, but there’s a reason that the Rose Parade is nationally televised so it was really special to be able to participate with my family.”

As part of the experience, the family was able to learn more about how the floats are conceived and constructed, the history of the parade, and how the parade floats operate. The Thompsons were particularly interested in learning that plant materials other than flowers like rice and coffee are used in float decoration and were impressed by the ingenuity of the float designers when incorporating the different materials.

“Having done theater, I went into this looking at it like a set build and ready to do whatever they wanted and get dirty, and by the end of it I had more fun than if I was at Disneyland,” Linda said. “It was so nice how they trusted the volunteers from the get go and made everyone feel like a part of a community that leads to a sense of doing something that’s greater than yourself. My mom was entertained by the radio, I grew up with TV, and now my kids have the internet, but the one thing that has remained constant over the years for us is the Rose Parade.”

Though they have watched the parade every year, this year will be particularly special for the Thompsons, and their experience decorating the float has left them eager to lend a hand with next year’s float. 

“I went into this as something my parents were dragging to and just another community service thing, but the people there were so welcoming that by the end of it the only thing I could think about was how I want to come back next year,” Maddie said. “It’s kind of like a baby where it’s really cool to see something that you worked on in the early stages transform into the beautiful finished float that people all over the world will see.”

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