Joseph Titizian, a member of the Volunteer team at The Walt Disney Family Museum, shares the story of Walt Disney’s involvement with the world famous Tournament of Roses Parade.
In most parts of the country, New Year's Day can be cold and dreary, but in my hometown of Pasadena, California, the roses are always in bloom. The Tournament of Roses Parade was first held in 1890 by members of Pasadena's Valley Hunt Club. The club members were eager to showcase their new home's mild winter weather. "In New York, people are buried in snow," announced Professor Charles F. Holder at a Club meeting. "Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let's hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise." Thus began the Tournament of Roses Parade that today is a New Year's Day tradition and is broadcast around the world. It should come as no surprise that Walt Disney, the World’s Greatest Showman, had a long connection with this parade.
Walt’s first entry in the Parade dates back to January 1, 1938 with a float celebrating his newly released film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White’s live-action reference model, Marge Belcher, rode on the float dressed as Snow White, and was accompanied by performers costumed as the seven dwarfs. Gallery 5 at the Walt Disney Family Museum features a wonderful photograph of Walt, Lilly, and Diane Disney enjoying the 1938 Rose Parade from the balcony of the Constance Hotel.
Walt’s next entry would preview his Magic Kingdom, seven months before it opened its gates to the eager public. On January 1, 1955, the Helms Bakery float featured Disneyland and its soon to be world famous icon, Sleeping Beauty Castle. The float's design comprised of Mickey Mouse at the front, flying pink Dumbos in the middle, and Sleeping Beauty Castle at the back. The middle of the float also had a silver hot air balloon floating above with large red lettering announcing: "DISNEYLAND." The hot air balloon was reminiscent of the balloon in Peter Ellenshaw’s iconic aerial painting of Disneyland. The Disneyland float went on to win the Judges Special Award that year.
On March 14, 1965, J. Randolph Richards, president of the Tournament of Roses, made the announcement of Walt Disney as Grand Marshall, as well as his choice for the parade’s theme, “It’s a Small World.” President Richards stated that it was very appropriate to honor Walt because of "the universal acceptance of the Disney creations. He has penetrated barriers and boundaries, lessening the distance between the continents. This master showman has brought joy and laughter to millions in every part of the world. Many of the countries have paid tribute to his genius by singling him out for high honors." The theme was highly appropriate as the It's a Small World attraction premiered at the 1964 New York's World Fair, and was scheduled to open in Disneyland in May 1966.
Walt Disney would begin the final year of his life as the Grand Marshall of the 1966 Tournament of Roses Parade. Mickey Mouse sat beside Walt as they traveled down Colorado Boulevard. They were followed by the City of Burbank float, itself a tribute to Walt Disney. It was Walt's choice that if there was to be an entry revolving around his life and his creations, that the Burbank float should be the one to carry out the motif. Burbank is, of course, the home of Walt Disney Studios. The Burbank float was designed with help from Disney Animator Bill Justice, and was entitled "Our Small World of Make Believe." The official description submitted to the Tournament of Roses was "the setting is 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 artwork." A total of twenty-seven of Disney characters either walked behind Walt’s automobile or rode on the City of Burbank float. Following the 5.5 mile ride down Colorado Boulevard, Walt and Lilly were driven onto the field of the Rose Bowl where per tradition, the Grand Marshall flipped the coin at the beginning of the Rose Bowl Game. (In case you were wondering, UCLA beat Michigan State 14-12). The two college football teams competing in the Rose Bowl game have been visiting Disneyland for some friendly camaraderie since 1959.
Walt Disney would not live to see the 1967 Rose Parade, but the organization he created would continue to be involved with the Tournament of Roses. Disneyland would celebrate several milestone anniversaries with extravagant opening numbers to kick off the Parade. The city of Glendale float celebrated Donald Duck's 50th anniversary in 1984, and Mickey Mouse himself was Grand Marshall of the 2005 Parade.
I look forward to sharing more stories with you about the life and legacy of Walt Disney. I hope to see you all in 2011 at The Walt Disney Family Museum!
Happy New Year!
Volunteer at The Walt Disney Family Museum