Disney and the Rose Parade – 1955
by Todd James Pierce
Growing up in Santa Barbara, my family made multiple trips to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. I’m old enough to have seen the Firehouse Five reunion float in 1980 also Disneyland’s 25th anniversary unit that same year. Even then, as a kid, I understood the Disney strategy, that the company was using the parade as preview marketing to promote the park’s 25th anniversary, an advertising platform that Disneyland would use for the rest of the year.
The company’s tradition of preview marketing goes back to 1938, when the first Disney float was featured in the Rose Parade. Though Snow White had premiered ten days earlier, in the middle of December, the film wouldn’t go into a general release until February 8. As such, Disney arranged an elaborate (and costly) float to be featured in the parade as a type of promotion. Though one might think the parade in a pre-television era enjoyed an audience only of California locals, that wasn’t true. The parade was often featured in magazines, newspapers and various newsreels throughout the country and even overseas.
Marge Champion, the live-action movement model for Snow White was featured on the float, along with the seven dwarfs. “I was in the Rose Parade which was a big thrill for me because my father had taken me and my brother to the Rose Parade since we were tiny kids,” Marge recalled in a 2010 interview. “He was the typical Englishman who loved flowers and parades. So we always went on New Year’s Day. So this time he was sitting up there, watching me go by on that beautiful float.”
But along with the actress, the float also featured the film’s title in a tea script large enough so that even in a grainy newspaper photo the public would be able to read it.
Two years later, a month before Pinocchio premiered in New York, Disney created a float to promote its release. Compared to the Snow White float, the effort on Pinocchio was more subdued, featuring only a floral figure of the wooden puppet in front of a giant star marked with the number “1940” for the new year.
During the second World War, the Rose Parade was placed on hiatus, and as such, the studio produced no floats for its early 1940s films, such as Fantasia, Bambi, and Saludos Amigos. But after the war, Disney returned to the parade. During the late 1940s, when the studio wasn’t producing true feature-length animation, they created two floats featuring Mickey and Donald—including one in 1948 in which the Mouse piloted a steam train with a mechanical floral Duck chattering away atop of the coal car. In 1949—shortly after the release of Melody Time—the parade featured Little Toot, a float that was likely designed with some help from Disney.
Though not “official” Disney entries, both Snow White and Pinocchio made a second trip to Colorado Boulevard in 1954 when the parade’s theme was “Famous Books in Flowers.” Though the floats were sponsored by local cities, the characters as featured on the floats were clearly drawn from the Disney films, not the original texts.
But the most unique—and perhaps most famous—studio entry in the 1950s was the 1955 Helms Bakery float that featured a preview of Disneyland.
By January 1955, the American public had seen models of Disneyland on Walt’s weekly TV show. But for local residents the parade was the first time they saw a color, dimensional representation of the park. On the float was Mickey Mouse—a character who actually wouldn’t have a regular presence at the park until 1959. The float featured the castle and the aerial balloon that was included in both Herb Ryman’s and John Hench’s early birdseye conceptual maps of Disneyland. The one ride featured was the Dumbo Flying Elephant attraction.
In 1954, as the float was being develop, plans for the Dumbo attraction were an utter mess. Disney had originally contracted with the Eyerly Aircraft Company in Oregon to build the Dumbo attraction by adapting stock amusement equipment designed for a spinning Octopus ride. But after Eyerly produced two models, the plan to use both the aircraft company and the stock Octopus equipment was abandoned. The model on the float features hanging elephants, another concept never used in the park.
Along with this, the float suggest that its designers might have been drawing inspiration from a concept briefly floated at the studio in which all of the elephants would be pink—representing the hallucinogenic “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment of the feature. But like the Octopus concept, the “Pink Elephants” idea was also tossed aside in favor of creating ride vehicles that resembled the more kid-friendly lead elephant from the film. For the Disneyland attraction, the original lift system was eventually built by Arrow Development in the Bay Area, but the “Dumbos” were developed by the studio—a collaboration that led to more than a few problems.
Up on the blog today are a series of photos of Disney’s iconic entry for the 1955 parade, including a few taken at the float viewing area which was open to the public on the afternoon of January 1 and all day January 2. Click on the photos to enlarge them.
From January through April, I’ll be posting up new articles and releasing new podcasts. I’m between projects, and with THREE YEARS IN WONDERLAND coming out in March, I finally have more time to devote to the blog. Most regular visitors here already know that THREE YEARS IN WONDERLAND is a detailed narrative history of the development of Disneyland (from 1953-1956), a moment by moment account of its creation and opening: the struggles, the challenges, the in-fighting and the success. I’ll post up the next DHI blog article in two days–an article that is filled with never-before-published photos of Walt. And remember, even when things are slow on the blog, the DHI Facebook Group is always jumping –TJP