Millions of Americans are familiar with the Rose Parade, the storied Pasadena pageant whose flower-covered floats have dazzled viewers for more than a century.
What's less known is that most of those rolling creations are produced by a trio of local firms that labor in obscurity most of the year to prepare for a single day in January.
Phoenix Decorating Co. in Pasadena, Fiesta Parade Floats in Irwindale and Artistic Entertainment Services in Azusa are the Rose Parade's Big Three.
With the Jan. 2 showtime fast approaching, the companies are putting the finishing touches on floats that took months to design and build. On average, each craft costs more than a typical U.S. home.
Their handiwork must deliver the "wow" factor for sponsors and spectators — a bar that gets higher every year — while navigating the 5.5-mile route without a mechanical failure that could cost them prestige and future contracts.
"For me as a small-business owner, it's a pressure cooker," said Chris Lofthouse, president of Phoenix Decorating.
Like other U.S. businesses, the float-building trade has been squeezed by a slow economy. Some sponsors have trimmed their float budgets or pulled out of the Rose Parade altogether.
The Big Three are keeping a lid on costs by reusing materials as much as possible and continuing to rely heavily on volunteers to decorate their floats.
The companies have also carved out niches to stand apart from one another.
For Phoenix Decorating, size is the sell. The firm is under contract to build 22 of the 44 floats in next week's parade, and it employs a full-time staff of about 300 workers in two Pasadena facilities.
Fiesta Parade Floats touts its track record with the judges. The company says 67% of the floats it has entered over the last 20 years have won awards, which it says is the highest rate among the existing builders in the parade. The company employs 30 workers and is building 11 of the floats for this parade.
Technology is the key for Artistic Entertainment Services, which employs about 60 workers and is building five floats for this parade. Artistic said it excels in the use of state-of-the-art technology, including robotics and lasers for sculpting and casting floats.
Artistic also uses its equipment to build floats for Disneyland as well as signage and props for Universal Studios Hollywood, among other clients.
Combined, the three companies are building 38 floats for next week's parade. The other six floats are being built independently for float sponsors including the cities of La Cañada-Flintridge, Downey and Burbank.
Their strategies may differ, but their goals are the same: Find and keep clients with big-budget float orders and create parade entries that make a statement.
"You always try to push the envelope," said Tim Estes, president of Fiesta Parade Floats, which is building what is being billed as the world's longest and heaviest float. The Natural Balance Pet Foods float will be 116 feet long, weigh 65 tons and feature real dogs surfing in a 6,600-gallon pool.
"You have to put out a superior product," he said.
Launched in 1890, the Rose Parade has blossomed into a major economic force. The event generates about $181 million in direct spending, plus $58.6 million from the Rose Bowl game that follows, according to a 2008 USC study.
The Tournament of Roses Assn. — the nonprofit group that puts on the parade and the game — approves the themes and designs of each float and mandates that the floats be covered in unaltered organic material, such as flowers and seeds. An average float needs at least 250,000 flowers to cover an area of up to 5,000 square feet.
The association limits the number of floats admitted annually into the pageant to accommodate television broadcasters. Numbers vary from year to year, but the 2012 limit is set at 44. In the 1990s as many as 60 floats rolled down Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard.
"It's done to allow for what we call the perfect two-hour parade," said Rick Jackson, president of the Tournament of Roses Assn.
Fewer floats means fierce competition for a limited pool of customers. Some of the float builders bid on jobs outside Southern California. But transporting heavy equipment and workers long distances makes such jobs less profitable than creating floats locally.
Float builders say they woo clients year round, making the point that each craft, emblazoned with the sponsor's name, will be seen by nearly 50 million television viewers nationwide and 28 million international viewers.
But a sluggish economy has some sponsors rethinking their participation in the event. A typical float costs an advertiser $225,000, up from about $80,000 in the 1980s, Fiesta's Estes said.
Rain Bird, an Azusa maker of sprinklers and irrigation systems, sponsored a float in the Rose Parade for 14 straight years before pulling the plug. The company last appeared in the 2009 parade.