Beneath the Beauty: What’s it Really Like Inside a Parade Float

Editor's note: Although this is not very technically or analog-oriented, I like the Planet Analog audience to know who our writers are. This is a neat and interesting story peppered with humor as are many of Deuty's blogs—please enjoy it.

As beautiful as they are outside, parade floats are more than ugly inside. That being said, driving a float in a parade is the adventure of a lifetime. This annual opportunity has a lot to the story including the building of the floats, transporting them to and from the parade, and of course, a synopsis of what it’s like to be inside the float itself. I aim to make this article informative about the process while interjecting little stories about the adventure. The stories cover the gamut of many things including catching on fire, being very close to piles of horse dung, putting smiles on faces, surviving the trip through seedy neighborhoods, nearly being asphyxiated, and being surrounded by Vegas show girls.

“Arrrgh! Why am I always running over horse crap?” I grimaced into the headset.

The deviant laugh that came back quickly answered my question. The high school buddy that I had enlisted as a spotter was purposely steering me over the mounds left by those ahead of me. It figures. This guy was always up to something deviant. The fact that I was six inches off the ground sitting on a grated opening didn’t help the matter. Fortunately, I made it through the parade without any traces on me. Driving a float is like many jobs where you encounter this hideous obstacle. However in this case, it’s well worth the minor inconvenience.

The rewarding experience of driving a float in a parade is such an awesome encounter. You are entertaining millions that you can’t see from inside. You can however hear the crowd. Of course you can’t hear the TV audience however you know they are there. Somehow, you just sense their presence which heightens the importance and euphoria of your mission.

Much like my monster truck, a parade float is built purely for aesthetics. In other words, it’s made to look good. Otherwise, the design is barely able to complete the journey without falling apart. In the case of my monster truck, it diverges from this tendency as I made it a safe form of pulling a train of children. Although many would like to see it launches into the air and crush things, that’s not what I built it for. Floats are similar. All they have to do is accomplish their purpose by making it from the warehouse where they were built, to the start of the parade, through the parade, and back to the warehouse. On rare occasion, they are towed to a place where they are displayed. One year I drove the float for the city of Tempe. After the parade, it was put on display outside the Fiesta Bowl.

This adventure can be broken down into two parts:

  1. Transporting the float to and from the parade
  2. Driving the float in the parade itself

Transporting the floats is accomplished by towing them with a vehicle. However, parades take place in large down town areas. Therefore the floats are transported after rush hour. This means transporting them at night is the only option.

Most floats go through the parade under their own power. This power is adequate for making it the distance of the parade at a walking speed. Whereas a parade takes place at relatively slow pace, towing the floats is done at a speed that is just below the level at which the float disintegrates. Therefore, the “worst” float sets the pace.

As adequate” as floats are designed for durability, this speed is not known until the procession gets underway. Floats can vibrate and shake. Most use a drivetrain of a truck with tires. However, many of the extensions of this frame use solid metal casters to take the weight and the abuse. Imagine if you will running with a hand truck or child’s wagon that has solid wheels and a load on it. It would shake and rattle and disobey to a point where the load would eventually fall off. This scenario compares well to how the maximum tow speed is determined. Bear in mind that there are no suspensions on a float. Sometimes the truck’s springs are retained.

Other times the axles are directly mounted to the frame. Even then there is the cushion of the air filled tires. All of this “buffer zone” for transferring vibrations goes away with metal caster wheels. Theses wheels essentially transfer every bump to the assembly just like the hand truck or child’s wagon. You feel it. Believe me, you feel it. As good as the city streets are, one quickly discovers just how forgiving the arrangement of a pneumatic tire and suspension is. This luxury that exists in most vehicles is not available in a float. It’s one rough ride to say the least.

Transporting of the floats is done in a precession of groups. Average group size is around five to six floats. A route is followed and a police escort is used. The police are on motorcycles for mobility around the floats. They are constantly buzzing ahead or behind in order to “herd” the other vehicles. They will sit in an intersection blocking traffic with their lights blaring until the last float of the group passes through. Unlike a crane or construction equipment, most people enjoy the delay. From the smiles I saw, it was obvious that they were seeing an abnormal site. In a way it was a special preview before the actual parade itself. I’m sure it brought out a few cameras.

The group that I towed floats with got the job through our four wheel drive club. We had credentials that the float companies coveted. Our vehicles were geared for low speed operation. Our skills included negotiating tight spaces without incurring damage. We were well versed in communication and equipped with CB radios. In addition to the CB, we had a private radio link to the float company itself in case there was an issue. The only communications we had with the police was to stop and wait for them to respond or wave them down if we could. Otherwise it was two separate groups operating on their own. They kept the way clear, we kept moving. We would spot for each other notifying them of clearing an object or if a portion of the float was acting up.

When I towed a float, the procession went through some of the rougher parts of town. One time a friend broke down. When you encounter a repair that prohibits you from moving, the process requires you wait for the float company to come to your rescue. The procession itself keeps moving. This means that your police escort leaves you. That can risk your safety as you are to stay with the float. In the case of my friend’s situation, some not so friendly folks started helping themselves to the float’s contents. They took speakers and other items of value. He just leaned against his truck with his pistol on his side informing them that they not touch him or his truck. Another time, some homeless drunks screamed at the “Wizard of Oz” float with something about Dorothy. It was quite amusing.

As bad as it sounds, these occurrences are few and far between. Although I have arrived at the start of the parade on the morning after the tow only to find speakers missing, for the most part these roving displays of happiness bring out the smiles of many. Even the roughest looking bars emptied of patrons eager to have a look. Comments and smiles rained down on us. Laughter filled the air. Sleepy eyed children blinked at us from the arms of adults. We waved and smiled breaking the barriers of gang turf. Our presence shed brilliance in otherwise mundane existences. The rewards of this adventure are not limited to parade day.

There once was a convenience store commercial about a guy who had to leave a parade to fuel up his tow vehicle. That really happened. One guy in our group had to get gas. The entire procession stopped and waited for him. I don’t recall if he unhooked or towed the float through the station. What a bonehead. We are going to be idling for at least three hours which will consume gas. Fill up before you show up. Seriously, the stupidity of some people amazes me. The majority of the towing crew was prepared. We did a maintenance check, washed our vehicles, and filled our tanks. We also carried flashlights, chains, tow straps, tie downs, and many other items to get us through the pull.

Towing a float is a job as much as it is an adventure. Arrival at the parade start is late at night in the wee hours of the morning. One must be back and ready to go early. This all takes place during the coldest hours of the morning. In order to be prepared, it’s best to bring layers to adjust to the temperature. It can get really hot inside the float during the day or be freezing cold. There isn’t a lot of air movement and you often sit adjacent to the hot engine or downwind of the radiator. These are just some of the situations that occur. There is always the possibility of rescuing a damsel in distress. If you see that girl shivering due to a costume that doesn’t insulate, you can become her knight in shining armor by throwing your coat over her shoulders at least until the parade begins.

Some of the most memorable situations occurred in the parade staging area. I towed for the Fiesta Bowl parade which meant there were college cheerleaders around. When I showed up to tow the Luxor float, it was surrounded by Vegas show girls. I looked to the heavens, extended my hands, and thanked the lord above for my good fortune. Another time I found three guys in Spuds Mackenzie outfits. They were hung over and laying around. I summoned them to don their uniforms and follow me. Soon they were dancing with the Florida State cheerleaders. This is a party opportunity much like Halloween. Some are in costume, all are in a rare state of mind where walls are lowered in favor of just having fun.

When you get inside the float, the party winds down and the intensity throttles up. You are driving an object blind with people darting in front of you. You are at the mercy of a spotter who is sometimes blinded by the float and thus can’t see who’s next to you. You can’t stop or steer quickly. To do so would throw your occupants around. Many are standing without anything to grab onto.

Inside the float it’s a quagmire of rusted sharp metal. An infrastructure of welded metal and chicken wire surrounds you. Often times, mechanically moving parts are whirling or spinning. The wiring is barely adequate. One time my wiring caught fire. I quickly extinguished it. My float was no longer operational however this had occurred at the parade’s end. I hooked up and towed it from there.

In addition to the metal hazards, it is often dark with limited visibility. Exhaust is vented to the outside however there can be leaks. The exhaust can come back into the float and build up. I was always prepared with a flashlight, fan that hooked to the battery, layers of clothing, and a cooler with water and snacks. Parades can take hours which means you can’t stop to go to the bathroom. That possibility must be accounted for during the parade as well as during the tow. I’ll leave the preparation for that to your imagination.

Building the floats is process within itself. The designs start months in advance. A chassis size is chosen from the various remnants of past parades. Extensions are placed on the frame. Weight is supported with a variety of wheels. Realize that this weight must successfully transverse turns. Therefore test drives are conducted. Once the main frame is created, subframing takes place. As the vehicle grows vertically, beams transition to angle iron and tube steel. This then scales down to steel rod and finally, chicken wire.

Once all the welding is done, sheets of plastic material cover the frame. These are multicolored “skins” of sort that are comprised of many small circles approximately one inch in diameter. The “circles” are connected on one side. The unconnected sides wave in the wind like quaking Aspen. Not only does this give them the image of “floating”, it also changes the reflective light surfaces thus making them shimmer. At the very final stages of design, fresh live flowers are added. All that’s left is to populate the float with live beings in order to complete the display.

Several other stories surround this adventure. When I towed my float, cell phones were a rare luxury. I was limited to the one way communication of a pager. I had my wife with me while my infant son was staying with my in-laws. Twice they paged me while enroute. When I had a quick opportunity to run to a pay phone to find out what was up.

“We got your film for the parade,” they stated.

I could have throttled them. This is why outlaws are wanted and in-laws are not. Paging me to call meant there was an issue with my son. Twice meant the matter was exponentially more urgent. In the same manner this story shows how the isolation from communication while towing was an issue, it also illustrates how the modern cell phone has even benefitted transporting a parade float. One common theme is shared with normal vehicle operation: no texting while driving.

3 comments on “Beneath the Beauty: What’s it Really Like Inside a Parade Float

  1. David Ashton
    December 16, 2015

    Nice article Scott, but some pics would have been nice…. 1000 words and all that….


  2. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    December 17, 2015


    I wanted to include pictures however my digital versions were lost and my photo albums are in a storage unit in another state.  Try as I might, I still haven't found the float pavillion for this year's Fiesta Bowl parade.  If I do, I'll try to post some pictures.  Thank you for the response.  Scott

  3. David Ashton
    December 17, 2015

    Scott…”I wanted to include pictures however my digital versions were lost and my photo albums are in a storage unit in another state. 

    Don'cha hate it when that happens??

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