A Brief History of Disney and the Rose Parade, Part One: The Walt Years

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

As a former Southern California boy, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses parade, roughly 15-20 minutes away from where I lived in Glendale, California, was a pretty big deal. So, just like for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, I get up early in the morning every New Year's Day to watch the Rose Parade, since it brings back many happy memories.

Several television channels run coverage, but none of them capture that raw excitement of staying up late, putting on the flowers by hand in a big shed housing the floats, or the youthful foolishness of camping out all night (often in the cold) on Colorado Boulevard to get a good location to see the parade. Nor do they capture the wonder of seeing those floral floats up close.

With this column, I am going to attempt to document as many connections I know of Disney and the Rose Parade, because, once again, I don't see it listed anywhere else and maybe my little contribution will bring out some additional information.

On January 1, 2013, the 124th Pasadena Tournament of Roses parade (simply known as the Rose Parade to some people) featured a massive float from the Disneyland Resort titled "Destination: Cars Land" re-creating the Radiator Springs area at Disney California Adventure in an all-floral tribute.

The float was designed to look like it breaks down several times on the parade route with white smoke spewing from it, but is always rescued when Mater the tow truck following closely behind it gives it a "jump start" to get it going again.

Riding on the float were Disney Channel Shake It Up series star, Zendaya and DJ Ernie D from Radio Disney, who broadcast live from the float during the parade.

As Erin Glover, Social Media director at the Disneyland Resort described it last year: "Lightning McQueen and Sally racing in the front, on top of a floral 'Welcome to Cars Land' sign; Flo's V8 Cafe and Cozy Cone Motel signs (along with a mini Cozy Cone Motel underneath); floral representations of ride vehicles from Luigi's Flying Tires and Mater's Junkyard Jamboree; Luigi and Guido cheering on miniature Radiator Springs Racers vehicles racing through a floral replica of Ornament Valley—with a real waterfall!"

By the way, the cones and signs spun, something that is traditionally referred to as "animation" in the official parlance of the parade.

The float marked the 75th anniversary of the participation of Disney in the parade. It was just another of the many Disney anniversaries celebrated in 2013.

I've written about Disney and its Rose Parade connection before and material from that article has been borrowed by several other sites over the years, sometimes word for word --one of the hazards of sharing information on the internet, which is one of the reasons that this year I waited until after the parade.

The first Tournament of Roses Parade was staged in 1890, but Disney's participation did not begin until 1938 as a way of promoting the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that had premiered December 21, 1937, but would receive a large general theatrical release February 8, 1938.

Dancer Marjorie Belcher, who was the live-action reference model for the character of Snow White, had appeared on Christmas Eve with costumed versions of the Seven Dwarfs in the Hollywood Christmas Parade (known at the time as the Santa Claus Lane Parade) as they rode down Hollywood Boulevard.

She and performers in dwarf masks (who, in addition, had appeared at the premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater) also appeared on a Snow White-themed floral float on January 1, 1938, for the Rose Parade. She was 18 years old and, instead of the costume she used for filming, Disney got a colorfully bright sequined vest for her to wear with a fancier outfit.

Roy E. Disney, who was about to turn 8 years old on January 10, claimed that one of his most vivid childhood memories was watching that 1938 parade.

"I watched the whole parade standing on the hood of an old Buick in a used car lot on Colorado Boulevard that belonged to one of my dad's best friends," he said. "I couldn't have been more excited that day, especially when the Snow White float went by."

Roy E. Disney was the Rose Parade Grand Marshal decades later for "Celebration 2000: Visions of the Future," which tied into the release of the animated feature film Fantasia: 2000 that was set to debut January first at various theaters including one in Pasadena.

The Snow White float was the first movie studio sponsored float in Rose Parade history and received a "Special Award" from the judges - in the form of a marble electric clock. The side of the float read: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—Walt Disney Productions."

The now defunct newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald & Express, in its late edition January 1, 1938, proclaimed: " ‘Snow White' Brings Acclaim by Children."

It stated: "Squeals of delight came from children in the great crown as Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came abreast. It brought a lovely forest scene, with Little Snow White seated beneath a gargantuan toad stool, with each of the Seven Dwarfs having a smaller stool to himself, surrounding her in a rough circle."

It wasn't until 1955 that a Disney float showed up again in the parade.

The Helms Bakery float in the Rose Parade that year won the Judge's Special Award for its portrayal of the forthcoming Disneyland that would open in a little more than six months.

The float was three connected circles with Mickey Mouse at the front, Sleeping Beauty Castle in the back and flying pink Dumbo elephants in the center circle. There were more than 7,000 pink roses on the float. The float also featured a long curved pole with a silver balloon and red lettering spelling out "Disneyland" in the center.

Helms Bakery was a very popular Southern California bakery that, at one time, even had bakery trucks that went through neighborhoods like an ice cream truck. Customers could purchase freshly made bread, donuts and more, often hot from the oven. (Did you know that the Willie's Churros stand in Disney's California Adventure was designed and painted to resemble those fabled Helms Bakery trucks?)

The Firehouse Five Plus Two under, the direction of wacky Disney Legend Ward Kimball, performed in the parade, as well.
In 1960, the tradition of the annual visit of the Rose Bowl football teams to Disneyland began when the University of Washington and University of Wisconsin players toured Disneyland Park prior to their January 1, 1960, game.

Of course, being the prime Southern California vacation destination, it was only natural that out-of-state visitors would want to see Disneyland but it led to more formal visits.

On December 26, 1962, Disneyland hosted the 1963 Tournament of Roses Queen and Royal Court, along with USC and University of Wisconsin coaches and players, who were to do battle on the Rose Bowl gridiron less than a week later. Mickey Mouse presented a bouquet to the queen and her court in Town Square. This was followed by the queen, her court, the players and the band parading down Main Street, followed later by the entire group attending a Golden Horseshoe Revue performance with Walt Disney and dinner.

That Rose Court Jubilee, as it became to be called has been an annual event, lasting for more than a half-century, even though both the Golden Horseshoe Revue and Walt Disney are both long gone.

However, when most of us think of the connection between Disney and the Rose Parade, it is the 1966 parade when Walt himself was the Grand Marshal.

J. Randolph Richards was the president of the 77th Annual Tournament of Roses, and he reviewed more than 7,000 suggestions for a theme from the cards and letters that came in from near and far. Realizing that the wonders of the present era of 1965-jet plane travel, communications satellites and orbiting space vehicles "have seemingly reduced the size of the globe" Richards settled on the theme: "It's a Small World."

On March 14, 1965, Richards made the announcement of the theme, as well as his choice for grand marshal: Walt Disney. It was stated that it was very appropriate to so 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."

Richards was probably also inspired by the fact that Walt had announced that the popular "it's a small world" attraction from the New York World's Fair would be relocated to Disneyland to open in a magnificent Mary Blair-designed attraction building on May 28, 1966.

The official press announcement declared: "Mickey Mouse [costumed performer Paul Castle] will ride in the Grand Marshal's automobile [a white Chrysler Imperial] along the side of Walt Disney, whose agile pen created the lovable animated character many years ago. The rest of the Disney characters will be close by. A total of 27 of the widely known cartoon creations will be taking part in the New Year's Day Festivities by walking along behind the automobile of the famed showman or riding on the entry of the city of Burbank, a design of Disney Studios in that community."

In January 1988, performer Paul Castle told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times: "My most favorite time of all (portraying Mickey Mouse) was with Walt Disney in the Rose Parade in 1966, the year he passed away. He was the grand marshal of the Rose Parade and I was in the car with him, in the back seat, just Walt and I for three hours. Just Walt and I. Of all the things I've done in my lifetime, that to me was my biggest day. Walt and me. January 1, 1966."

"It was Walt Disney'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. The Walt Disney Studios in that city is closely tied in with the story of this man and his creations. Therefore, in all probability such a choice was a sentimental one, reflecting his esteem for the San Fernando Valley municipality," stated the official press announcement.

Ironically, the city of Burbank had denied Walt permission to build his Disneyland in its community, fearful of the carnival atmosphere it might generate along with a "bad element" of visitors that often frequented such venues.

The Burbank float with design help from Disney Legend Bill Justice was titled "Our Small World of Make Believe," and was the only float that year featuring Disney characters.

Walt started the parade riding in an open car followed by the Burbank float which was described as "an open book, a musical clef and an artist's palette, representing three important elements of the Disney legend—the story, the music and the creative art work."

Costumed Disney characters who appeared on and around the float included Winnie the Pooh, Captain Hook and Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Gideon, J. Worthington Foulfellow, Pluto, Goofy, Alice, The White Rabbit, The Three Little Pigs, Big Bad Wolf, and the Seven Dwarfs.

Artists at the Disney Studio contributed artwork throughout the Official Program, and the Participant Dinner program, using many of the standard Disney characters, "it's a small world" attraction artwork and Disney-drawn mascots for the teams of the two conferences including the notorious Oregon Duck who bore more than a passing resemblance to Donald Duck.

Walt and his wife, Lillian, attended the actual Rose Bowl game, seated in the box of the tournament president, where the UCLA Bruins defeated the No. 1-ranked Michigan State Spartans by a score of 14–12. The 150 piece Michigan State Marching Band performed earlier at Disneyland on December 30 as part of a special "Michigan State Day."

The Purdue University football team visited Disneyland on the afternoon of December 22, 1966, exactly one week after Walt Disney died. The Purdue Marching Band paraded in Disneyland, along with the USC Trojan Band on December 30, 1966. Indiana University and USC's football teams visited Disneyland on the afternoon of December 22, 1967. The Indiana University Band paraded down Main Street at Disneyland on December 29, 1967.

Next Week: I take a look at the Disney connection to the Rose Parade after the passing of Walt Disney, including a recent discovery of an appearance of the Song of the South characters authorized by Disney that I never knew existed and why relatives of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy were upset with Disney participating in the Rose Parade.