When Cal Poly was first invited to enter a float in the 1949 Rose Parade, the students had no experience, a budget of $258, no committee and only 90 days to build it.
Despite those handicaps, the students responded with an enormous rocking horse, “Childhood Memories,” that won an award of merit. They did so by being creative: Certain campus plants were heavily pruned, midnight flower raids were staged on campus and in Pasadena, and lumber was appropriated from around school at odd hours.
Today, the Rose Float operation has a much larger budget, better equipment and a yearlong design and construction plan. Nevertheless, the Pomona and San Luis Obispo students rely on creativity, imagination and innovation to compete with better-funded floats built by professional companies. This year, the students are breaking ground in another way: The 2014 float, “Bedtime Buccaneers,” will attempt to animate some of the flowers that cover it.
“We plan to animate about 1,800 vialed flowers,” says Ian Davison, a mechanical engineering student and Rose Float construction chair. “The resulting motion will create the illusion of a dynamic floral surface that appears to flex and shift in a way that mimics ripples traveling across the surface of water.”
The vialed flowers will appear on the two front corners of the float, covering about 40 square feet and featuring about 10,000 individual parts manufactured in-house. It’s believed to be the first float to use animation in this way and is the latest innovation students have introduced to the Rose Parade.
The Cal Poly Universities’ history of innovation dates back at least to the early 1960s. The 1962 float, “Man on the Moon,” featured student Ron Simons dressed as an astronaut. Simons would wave to the crowd before ducking back into a sphere that began to spin around a crescent moon.
Simons graduated and joined the military, but he returned to campus for a second degree in 1967 with new ideas for the Rose Float.
“I realized that we needed to get smarter in how we animated our float action,” he recalls. “I had been raised in a farming environment and was somewhat familiar with the use and power of hydraulics.”
So Simons took a trip down to his father’s farm shop in the Imperial Valley and literally helped himself to equipment that helped the Cal Poly Universities win their first animation award in 1968.
Simons would go on to spend his entire career as an administrator at Cal Poly Pomona, eventually becoming University Advancement’s associate vice president for special projects before retiring in 2012. For many years of those years, he served as the head advisor to the students’ Rose Float Committee.
Dale Wong, another alumnus, remembers when students became the first to use hydraulic motors to help move a float designed as a roller-skating elephant, “Tons of Fun,” in 1977, the first to use computer animation in 1979, and the first to use fiber optics in 1981.
“We were always trying to add something that hadn’t been done in a parade float before,” he says. “The challenge was to add to the legacy from the previous years’ floats.”
By then, the students were using antiquated military surplus equipment for the lab machinery and welding tools, sometimes working at night without roof under portable lights.
They relied on donations to help build the float, such as two loaned landing gear from an F-4 Phantom fighter jet —to serve as steerable front legs for the elephant on “Tons of Fun”— and computers, and sometimes had to improvise for the ultimate “learn-by-doing” project.
“At that time, you couldn’t go down to the nearest electronics store and pick up a laptop or desktop because they didn’t exist yet,” says Wong, a 1978 electrical engineering graduate who later enrolled in the MBA program. “The interfaces between the computer and the hydraulics for animation had to be designed and built by the students.”
The results of their innovation speak for themselves: The Cal Poly Universities have won dozens of awards in 65 consecutive years of participation, and millions of viewers around the world have seen their floats.
Many alumni have gone on to work for the professional float building companies.
“I believe in one parade we had more than 25 alumni — drivers, observers and animators — riding in the parade,” Wong says. “There are many alumni who have gone on and joined the Tournament of Roses, become float mechanics and still either build or decorate floats.”
Plans are underway to raise money for a new 10,000-square-foot Rose Float lab on campus that will provide better protection from the weather and increased security for tools and equipment. That will help the Cal Poly Universities remain competitive against the professional float builders, but the students will always have their own advantage.
“While the students are certainly not as experienced, their numbers always helped,” Simons says. “Someone would come up with an innovative idea. There was no shortage of brain power.”