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The Rose Parade returns without pandemic restrictions for the first time

EMILY FENG, HOST:

The Tournament of Roses is the way Pasadena, Calif., has greeted the New Year since 1890. The Rose Parade sets the stage for the big Rose Bowl college football game. This year, it's Utah versus Penn State. There's marching bands, shenanigans and, of course, elaborate, flower-covered floats that make their way down a route starting at Orange Grove Boulevard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND MUSIC)

FENG: The theme of this year's parade is Turning the Corner. It marks a return to normal of sorts after the parade was cancelled in 2021 and 2022 because of pandemic restrictions. But there's one big exception to this return to normal. The parade has a never on Sunday policy. So tomorrow, January 2, is the big day, which gives busy float makers a few extra hours before the event they've anticipated all year long.

BENNY CRUZ: It makes me, like, grin ear to ear. I'm super excited for it.

FENG: That's Benny Cruz. He's a fifth-year mechanical engineering student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and came up with the university's float design.

CRUZ: My original sketch concept was a large tree branch along the length of the float with a bunch of large mushrooms covering the float and then three main snails across the length.

FENG: The Cal Poly team calls their float Road to Reclamation.

CRUZ: Even though this branch has fallen, we are reclaiming it with all this new life in the form of mushrooms and snails and an inchworm and ladybugs.

FENG: Benny Cruz is also construction chair. So he had to figure out how to make that sketch into a 55-foot float reality with moving parts.

CRUZ: Right there at the front of the float, you see one of our main snails with a very detailed patterned shell. And during parade, it's head and eyestalks will be moving around. As you go to the very back of the float, we have our tallest element, which is, like, a 20-foot tall mushroom.

FENG: And float construction goes way beyond design and decorations. Like, how do you get that giant mushroom under a bridge?

CRUZ: If you want to see the parade and you wait by this bridge, you'll get to see this massive mushroom fold down about 60 degrees as we fit under this bridge and then rise back up.

FENG: All that work comes with a big payoff. Cruz gets to drive the university's float.

CRUZ: My viewport is about maybe, like, a foot and a half wide and 6 inches tall. So it kind of feels like I'm driving a tank.

FENG: Building a float like this is a team effort with 60 student leaders and hundreds of student volunteers.

CRUZ: We spend so much time on these floats because we love what we do. And the fact that we get to show it off to so many people is really just icing on the cake.

FENG: So if you watch the parade tomorrow, keep an eye out for the mushroom. Benny Cruz says he'll give you a wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE METERS' "HERE COMES THE METER MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.