In a dusty corner near Cal Poly Pomona’s agricultural fields, a group of students work to transform a large, metal-framed, motorized cart into Rose Parade float magic.
The volunteers from both Cal Poly’s Pomona and San Luis Obispo campuses, take blowtorches to metal, fashion bubble wrap around figures, and turn flowers and seeds into decoration.
“I believe this is one of the premiere hands on, learning projects in the country,” said Gregory R. Lehr, interim director of the Rose Float Program. “The beauty of this is that they have to put down their iPods and iPads to do it.”
This year’s theme for the Tournament of Roses Parade Jan. 1 is Dr. Seuss’ book “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” This is the 65th year Cal Poly has participated.
For their entry "Tuxedo Air," the students are playing on this theme of achieving what seems like an impossible dream by creating several scenes with penguins learning to fly.
In one scene, a large penguin is strapped into a homemade set of wings at the top of the float with two other penguins below him beckoning him to take off.
Another scene depicts three young penguins in front of a chalkboard learning math equations and how to fly from an instructor.
“This lends itself to Cal Poly’s style, which is fun, whimsical, and easy to enjoy,” said Bobby Dodge, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering major at San Luis Obispo.
This is the fourth float for Dodge, a project manager for his campus. The nearly one year process includes to design, decoration, and construction phases, all done by students, he said.
Erin Hines, a 21-year-old business major, serves as the project manager for the Pomona campus. When she was in high school, her dad’s company had a float in the parade and she helped decorate it. When she got to Cal Poly, she decided to volunteer. This is her third float.
The biggest challenge is “to try to get the volunteers in the program to stay,” she said.
All of the products used to decorate the float are natural materials. This is the second consecutive year the Cal Poly's entry has earned the "California grown" designation from the California Cut Flower Commission. That designation is given to floats with 85 percent of its flowers and plant materials grown in state.
In a large shed, students process statice, a flower that grows on weeds.
“Statice is one of the big things for use because we use it to trade,” said Adriana Kraig, a 21-year-old math and psychology major at the Pomona campus. This is her fourth float.
Spices, seeds, and beans also can be used for decoration.
Harrison Bergholz, a 23-year-old landscape architect major from the San Luis Obispo campus, said a float built on a tight budget that relies on natural materials couldn’t be possible without bartering.
“Since our program is underfunded,” he said. “We depend a lot on donations and what we can trade for.”
The average float costs about $200,000, according to university officials. Cal Poly gets a budget of $50,000.
Bartering and building relationships with donors has become Bergholz’ specialty in his three years of float building.
The California Cut Flower Commission donates generously to Cal Poly each year and Ball Tagawa, an Arroyo Grande company, grew more than 22,000 plants for the schools’ float this year, said Bergholz, the flower field chair for San Luis Obispo.
What doesn’t get donated gets traded for, he said.
Once the concept for the float is chosen and drawn and members of that committee determine the colors they need, Bergholz determines what can be planted, he said. He planted 8,000 white statice and also researched and planted the blue variety because blue is a popular color and easily traded.
Cal Poly needed black for the penguins this year and was able to trade the float builders in Burbank flowers in exchange for onion seed, which Bergholz calls “black gold.” Cal Poly also traded for raffia, a long brown grass the students plan to use for decorative rope.
Bergholz, who plans to step down after this year as a chair but will still volunteer, said he loves what he does and will miss it.
“It’s like an addiction,” he said. “I became obsessed with it the first day. It’s something you keep coming back to. There are things you can learn here that you can’t learn anywhere else.”
On Thursday, volunteers past and present will christen the float and it will be transported on surface streets to Pasadena. The flowers will be affixed to the float in the final days between Christmas and New Year’s.
On parade day Pomona’s Derek Sorenson, a 22-year-old electrical engineering major will take the wheel of the propane-fueled float, with Joe Marcinkowski, San Luis Obispo’s 21-year-old mechanical engineering major, as his co-captain.
Both Sorenson and Marcinkowski said whole process is a rush.
“I guess I just am just in love with the idea of building something from the ground up,” Sorenson said, “learning how to make it and making it yourself. It’s the full design process.”