No doubt about it, most of today’s Americans have grown up experiencing a New Year’s Day tradition of college football, turkey and all the trimmings. Another big part of that day for many has been the annual Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, the festive, colorful event that reminds us all that Southern California has some of the most gorgeous winter weather anywhere.
We can remember back in our youth waking up from an intense sleep – usually made all that much deeper by an extended night out on the town – and turning on the television to see the incredible floats and marching bands making their way down Colorado Avenue to the vigorous applause of an appreciative grandstand audience. It was like a reminder that oh, right, this really is New Year’s Day. It wouldn’t be New Year’s Day without this amazing parade.
For many years we watched this from a snowbound region in Washington state where we grew up. Outside the streets were covered with ice and our yard always had at least a couple feet of snow, but there on the television was this intoxicating blue sky and people in shirtsleeves smiling broadly at what really is one of America’s great entertainment spectacles. We told ourselves someday we would go and see what it was like firsthand.
This perception of Southern California’s climate was no small contributor to our eventual move to the region when a professional opportunity presented itself. But interestingly, we lived in Southern California for 13 years before we finally got to experience the Rose Bowl Parade in person. Even though Pasadena was just a two hour drive from our home, we seemed to always come upon the big day without having planned ahead of time to see it live. The first question, of course, is whether to make it an overnight outing or whether to make it a daytrip. Hotels do charge a premium during the Christmas-New Year time period and it can be difficult to get good accommodations in Pasadena or nearby that time of year. Not impossible, mind you – but we ultimately decided that a daytrip was the easiest way to do it with the least amount of planning. We checked the Tournament of Roses site as well as other sites we found in an internet search, and learned ahead of time about parking, about when to get there and about some of the best places to see the parade. Working with the Tournament office, we were able to get seats in the grandstand section where the parade makes a sharp turn eastbound onto Colorado Avenue – the place where many TV cameras and anchor booths are located.
The day started early for us – with an 8 a.m. parade start in Pasadena, our drive from the San Diego area had to begin by 5 a.m. at the latest in order to allow time to find our parking and then find our spot in the grandstands. The drive was an easy jaunt up the freeway – much easier than in daylight hours when these roads are heavily used and can easily become clogged – and even when we got close to Pasadena, it was pretty easy going. The traffic started backing up only in the last mile or so as we approached the freeway exit ramp. Surface streets in this area, of course, were slow-going because of all the route revisions in place due to the parade.
We had planned our parking ahead of time – we paid for a space within a half-mile or so of our grandstand seating which was actually in a parking garage, and just a couple of blocks from the freeway exit. Our advice is to get out your maps ahead of time and don’t depend on your gps – the route revisions will not be shown on your gps. There is plenty of information online about best routes to use on parade day and this actually turned out to be much easier than we imagined. Having seen and read about the crowds that are in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, we had dreaded the potential traffic – but our detailed planning helped us avoid problem areas and get to our parking relatively quickly.
Once we parked, the sun was starting to rise on another beautiful cloudless Southern California New Year’s Day and we joined the crowds walking along surface streets in search of a viewing spot for the parade. During one point in our walk from the parking garage, we crossed the actual parade route with spectators already in place, lined up along the street 10 or 12 people deep on each side. The coveted street curb viewing area was occupied by people who had brought their chairs and even camping gear, apparently well ahead of time. We’re told people sometimes stake out these positions days in advance.
Our decision to go had been somewhat last-minute so we had to go to the Tournament of Roses office to pick up our tickets. But this actually was a great place to be prior to the parade – this is the area where the floats line up getting ready to join the parade. We enjoyed walking among the floats and getting an up-close view of the floats and their passengers. Over at the Tournament office, the Rose Parade royalty were posing for photos and there was a buzz in the air as we were rapidly approaching the hour of the parade.
Tickets in hand, we made our way to the grandstands using maps we had brought with us. It was several blocks from the Tournament office to our grandstand and the crowds thickened with each passing block. By the time we reached the grandstand, we were in a sea of slow-moving pedestrians.
We were a little confused about which grandstand we were in – the marking system was not as precise as we would have liked, but the good news is that there were plenty of volunteers from the Tournament of Roses to help guide us to the right area. Once we got there, we were quite pleased with the vantage point we had where we were able to see the parade make its turn right in front of us. We noticed we were in the thick of the TV coverage – we later had a friend tell us he saw us on TV even though he wasn’t looking for us and didn’t know we were at the parade.
So what was the actual parade experience like? It was amazing. After seeing it on TV so many years, what struck us most was that the grandstands are closer to the parade than we had imagined, and the entire area, while crowded, seemed smaller than it does on television where they use a wide angle lens that makes everything seem a little further away. As we had envisioned, the band music was big and bold and in your face, and the floats and their riders were even more colorful than they seem on television. The parade seemed to take less time that it seems like on TV – we weren’t quite ready for it to end. But end it did, and we then joined the throngs of spectators making their way back to their parking.
Leaving the parade, the watchword is patience. Not unlike the crowd leaving a big sporting event, it takes time for all of the people to gradually make their way out of the area. We had no trouble getting back to our parking, but we did experience an hour-long wait for traffic to clear out of the parking garage. Our advice is to take your time returning to your car – maybe find a place to enjoy some coffee or breakfast and allow plenty of time for traffic to dissipate before you attempt to leave. But all and all, the day spent at the parade was an uplifting, fun experience with a minimum of hassle given the size of the event. If you’re thinking about going, our recommendation is by all means go – you’ll be glad you did.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Pasadena is just a few miles east from Los Angeles, in the heart of the L.A. basin.
WHAT: The Tournament of Roses Parade is a tradition much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a showcase for Southern California.
WHEN: The parade generally is held on New Year’s Day although it can be held a day earlier or later depending on the calendar.
WHY: The Tournament of Roses Parade is held the same day as Pasadena’s Rose Bowl and was created to highlight that sporting event. While Rose Bowl seating is limited, the parade is more accessible whether you stand along the parade route, or sit in a paid grandstand area.
HOW: There are tickets available for many aspects of the parade. For grandstand seats, call 626-795-4171.
Photos, from top: media climb on tower to catch best vantage point of parade; NBC broadcast booth; Rose Parade bands keep the music coming; Prepare for a sea of parade-watchers to exit the parade all at once
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway