Just before 6 a.m., Kelly and Nathan Alexander warmed themselves beside a roaring propane fire pit outside Total Wines & More on Colorado Boulevard as they waited for the Rose Parade to begin.
The parade — started in 1890 as a promotional event by a local social club to show off Pasadena’s famously mild winter weather — kicked off Monday under clear skies and temperatures in the 40s. It was downright balmy compared with the arctic blast that gripped much of the country the week before Christmas.
Kelly, celebrating her 37th birthday Monday, is an Arcadia native who grew up coming to the parade with her church youth group, camping out on the boulevard “millions of times,” she said.
Last week, the couple, who now live in Colorado Springs, loaded their five kids — ages 8, 12, 14, 15 and 17 — into an RV, skirted snowstorms in Arizona, visited family in Southern California, then headed to the City of Roses. They staked out a prime spot on the 5.5-mile route Sunday afternoon — surprised that there seemed to be far fewer overnight campers than in years past.
“It was really dead,” Kelly said. “Usually it’s a wild party. But the people who were here were having a good time.”
Typically held on New Year’s Day, the event was being held Monday as part of the parade’s “never on a Sunday” tradition. The original organizers did not want to interfere with worship services. The 134th Rose Parade comes three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, the parade was canceled for the first time since World War II. Last year, it returned to smaller crowds, with coronavirus safety measures that included requiring parade participants and spectators to wear masks in ticketed areas and show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
This year, there are no such mandates, although health officials are recommending masking in large crowds — and staying home if sick — amid a winter rise in cases of COVID-19, flu and RSV that has strained hospitals across the country.
On a per capita basis, L.A. County’s latest coronavirus case rate is 163 cases a week for every 100,000 residents. A rate of 100 or more is considered high.
The uptick in cases likely led to a slightly smaller crowd along the route this year. But the excitement along Colorado Boulevard was still palpable.
“It warms our hearts to see families come together,” Lissy Quentin of Pasadena said as she, her husband and two children watched the University of Utah marching band, dance team and color guard pass by.
The parade’s theme this year — an expression of hope and resilience — was “Turning the Corner.” The grand marshal was former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot in the head in 2011.
“The idea of ‘turning the corner’ also resonates from a national perspective,” Giffords said in a statement. “Our country has faced multiple years of a deadly pandemic and political rancor. Yet medical advances and bipartisan compromise have helped us to take steps towards a better future, even if these steps aren’t always as quick or as sure as we would like them to be, but I’ve learned the importance of incremental progress — and that progress starts with having the courage to hope, and then to act on that hope.”
Six-year-old Avery Svidergol stood on tiptoe in a pair of black Dr. Martens on a lawn chair outside the Southern California Children’s Museum, clutching her dad’s shoulder as she watched the floats.
“How are they doing that?!” she squealed as huge baby snails made of flowers chased each other in a circle on the 23-foot-tall Cal Poly Universities float.
Avery and her dad, Scott Svidergol, drove up from Newport Beach before sunrise to take in the parade in person for the first time. Scott was delighted that his daughter saw the Goodyear Blimp. It was the first time she’d ever seen such an aircraft.
“Someone told me that if you sit close enough, you can smell the flowers,” Scott said.
Jennifer and Andy Veera were excited to bring their 8-year-old triplets, David, Daniel and Lily, and daughter, Leilani, who turns 10 on Tuesday, to the parade for the first time. It’s been a tough few years for the couple working on the front lines during the pandemic. Jennifer, 47, is an emergency room nurse and Andy, also 47, is an EMT.
The couple, who live in Orange, woke the kids at 4 a.m., “which was evil,” said Leilani, with a grin. “It was a very short ride because there were no cars on the freeway.”
Jennifer said she figured they’d have to squeeze between people and didn’t expect to get a front-row spot right on Colorado Boulevard, but the early crowds were small enough that it was easy.
The parade’s 2023 theme was on point, Jennifer Veera said. In 2020, Christmas with the kids did not include grandparents out of fear of COVID-19. The next year, both parents and the kids had COVID themselves, a quarantine Christmas, and “two weeks of Netflix,” she said. This year, things were back to normal.
“It feels good,” she said. “I feel hopeful.”
About 10 minutes before the parade began, a man pushed a roughly 6-foot replica of the Bible on wheels down the boulevard. A man beside him hoisted a sign that read: “Repent or Perish.” People booed from the grandstands outside the century-old First United Methodist Church building booed.
Nearby, Sherry McCarthy’s four grandchildren were slowly emerging from their sleeping bags after a cold spent on Sierra Madre Boulevard. It’s their first time camping overnight for the parade.
McCarthy, 72, of San Ramon, and her sister Sandy McLaury, 76, of Altadena grew up in Pasadena and have been attending the parade almost their whole lives.
“Back then, Dad would get a wagon, two ladders and a board, and throw the kids up there,” McCarthy said. “We had the best seats in the house.”
Over the years, she and her son Scott McCarthy, 45, have perfected their parade viewing setup. They’re equipped with butane-powered warmers, an electric generator for phone charging and a snack table full of strawberries, pistachios, pastries and apple juice. The family was glad to continue their tradition after the pandemic interruption.
“It is hard to watch it at home,” McCarthy said. “Here, you see it all, you feel it, you smell it. To be able to smell the roses and feel the vibration of the bands — you just can’t get it on TV.”
This year’s parade features 39 floats, 21 marching bands and 16 equestrian units, according to the Tournament of Roses.
The Trader Joe’s float, featuring a ship and a massive, spinning pepperoni, mushroom and olive pizza, was a hit with the Southern California crowd. As it passed, the audience chanted “Tra-der Joe’s! Tra-der Joe’s!” while men in red sweatshirts riding on the float pumped their fists in the air.
The Donate Life float won the parade’s Sweepstakes Award this year. The float, titled “Lifting Each Other Up,” celebrates the power of organ, eye and tissue donation, according to the organization.
The centerpiece of the float is a Chinese street dragon — which symbolizes power, luck and strength — that winds through flowering trees, lanterns and fans. It’s emblazoned with 44 memorial floragraphs, floral portraits representing donors.
Whitney Chouinard, 3, squealed when she saw the animatronic rhinos and giraffes on the San Diego Zoo float. Her mom, Katie Chouinard, 37, of Moreno Valley, danced as the girl sat on her shoulders.
“They’re at that age where this is all magical,” Katie said of the kids along the route.
On Sunday, enthusiasts had begun gathering along Colorado and Arroyo boulevards in preparation for the next morning’s parade. A trumpet playing “Last Christmas” pierced through the bustle of traffic along Colorado near De Lacey Avenue.
Best friends Merriam Dockter, 17, and Kayla Tietz, 17, traveled all the way from Boise, Idaho, to see the parade. They arrived last Monday to visit Dockter’s family in South Pasadena and spent their week doing “tourist” activities, including visiting Universal Studios and hanging out in downtown Los Angeles.
But the Rose Parade was a must-do on their list of activities. Dockter’s family members have attended since they were young adults.
“My family lives in South Pasadena, and I’ve listened to stories when they did it when they were teenagers. It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do, sleeping the parade route,” Dockter said. “I wanted to experience it in person instead of on TV.”
“It’s more authentic,” Tietz said. “You get to see everything that goes into the floats.”
Early Sunday, Richard Lugo was one of hundreds who turned out for a short preview of the parade as the floats made their way from a warehouse in Irwindale, where they are constructed, to the parade route in Pasadena.
Lugo said he grew up going to the Rose Parade. From the time he was 8 years old until he was an adult, he and his extended family would wake up early every New Year’s Day and walk from his grandmother’s home in Pasadena to the parade.
“Some years we didn’t sleep at all,” Lugo said.
This year he continued the tradition with his 5-year-old granddaughter — taking her for an early look at the floats.
“It’s quite a spectacle,” he said.
Times staff writer Katie Licari contributed to this report.