Not only have Cal Poly students been able to design and build a fully functional Rose Parade float since 1949, but it turns out they also have a prize-winning sense of humor.
This year, the Cal Poly Universities’ Rose Float won the Bob Hope Humor Trophy in the New Year’s Day 124th Pasadena Rose Float Parade.
“We’re thrilled,” mechanical engineering senior and float construction chair Joe Marcinkowski said. “We were pretty lighthearted this year, and we really wanted a fun float. We’re the only student-built float, and we’re by far demographically the youngest builders out there. So we like to have fun. We like to make people smile and laugh.”
The float’s “Tuxedo Air” concept was drawn by alumna Kelsey Christoffels and featured penguins trying to fly. As the 23-foot tall float rolled down the Pasadena parade route, the animated, practically airborne penguins waved their arms, propellers spun and streaming carbon dioxide jet contrails brought the flower-studded float to life.
Marcinkowski, who has been constructing rose floats at Cal Poly for the past four years, said the 28 different moving parts on “Tuxedo Air” was nothing new. In fact, Cal Poly was a leader in the emergence of Rose Parade float animation in the 1970s.
“It’s a tradition we like to uphold,” Marcinkowski said. “For us, it makes the floats fun and really gives the float more character.”
Another Cal Poly float tradition is working side-by-side with Cal Poly Pomona. Since the first entry in 1949, the two universities have joined forces to design and build award-winning floats.
But it is not an easy task.
Once the construction teams get the design, they transform it into a fully functioning 3-D computer model, Marcinkowski said.
The 12-person team at San Luis Obispo’s campus tackles half of the construction, and Cal Poly Pomona takes on the other half. In October, the two universities bring their constructed float pieces together and begin what Marcinkowski calls “the assembly stage.”
“We try to split it up so that each campus stays busy, but so that it lends to the strengths of each campus,” Marcinkowski said.
Finally, in December, the assembled float makes the long trek from Pomona to Pasadena. A simple 30 miles, Marcinkowski said, that takes about four hours and involves a semi-truck and a police escort. Moving at 15 miles per hour, the bumpy conditions on the road put the float’s construction to the test.
“It’s a fun trip,” Marcinkowski said, “but it’s the hardest trip for the float to make.”
While there’s always a little rivalry between the two campuses, Marcinkowski said that “for the most part we get along and at the end of the day, it’s Cal Poly Universities.”
Fellow mechanical engineering senior and design program manager Katie Ruhm agreed.
“It’s one float, and one team,” Ruhm said.
Both Marcinkowski and Ruhm said volunteers dedicate an average of 20 hours a week to the float.
“We’re working on a deadline that we can’t miss,” Marcinkowski said.
In the final weeks before the parade, the universities put the finishing touches and flowers on the float.
Ruhm estimated that 95 percent of the dry floral on the float is grown on the campuses.
In this year’s parade, Marcinkowski was one of four operators that rode inside the float, directing the driver down the street.
“You get a different view of the parade route than most everyone else,” Marcinkowski said. “It’s exciting — even though we’re wearing these big headsets and you can’t hear much of anything, but all down the parade route we can hear people chanting ‘Cal Poly.’ And that’s a cool feeling.”
Cal Poly’s floats have always proven to be a crowd favorite, winning every “Viewer’s Choice Award,” until the award was discontinued this year.
Even without the award, mechanical engineering sophomore Loren MacDonald believes that watching the float in the parade is reward enough.
“It’s great to see the final product,” MacDonald said.
According to Ruhm, the “Tuxedo Air” float is still getting recognition weeks after the parade.
“It’s a privilege to be invited back every year,” Ruhm said.
Though Ruhm said there is always “that moment where you want to throw in the towel,” the Cal Poly rose float’s success makes it worth it.
“We’ve won 51 awards in the past 65 years,” Ruhm said. “So we do pretty well.”