Before they can travel down Fayetteville Street today, topped with hundreds of smiling and waving people, the floats in the Raleigh Christmas Parade need to be pulled from the Granville County barns where they hibernate, wrapped in burlap and plastic.
So late this week, Mark Harris of Triangle Float Co. and his small crew used a tractor to line up more than two dozen floats in a farm field, in the order they will be pulled in the parade. Before sunrise today, the floats will have been hitched to pickups and driven the 33 or so miles to downtown Raleigh. Sturdily built and protected from the elements, the floats can be pulled at up to 55 mph.
Although you may have a glue-gun memory of decorating a high school homecoming float, the big parades almost always turn to the professionals. For years, the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, which runs the Raleigh parade, has worked with two local float companies to provide the parade's star attractions.
"In the end, it's cleaner and quicker and a lot less expensive," said John Odom, a merchants association board member and longtime parade organizer.
The association has organized the parade since 1944, and in that time has developed an efficient system for filling the parade with floats. If a business or group wants to sponsor one, a check is written, a float is picked and then on the morning of the parade, the wavers climb on.
"All they've got to do is ride," Harris said.
Renting is cheaper
Rental fees for the floats this year are $1,350, with merchants association members and nonprofit groups receiving a discount. It may sound like a lot of money, but building a float is not cheap.
Odom remembers that some years ago a local group built its own float, which in the end cost more than $3,000. Professionally made floats cost even more.
Constructing a professional float can run $5,000 to $10,000, including labor costs, said Junior Hayes of J and S Float Co. in Orange County.
"You can't just build something for one parade," Hayes said, "unless you've got plenty of money to burn."
Plus, if a group wants to build its own holiday float, it has to store it for 364 days until it can be used again.
So Hayes and Harris build floats that can be used over and over. They have candy-themed floats and snowman-themed floats, and floats for Santa and his reindeer. Some props are handmade, carved from plywood and covered with colorful plastic sheeting. Others, such as reindeer and snowmen, are manufactured from heavy-duty plastic and mounted on the wagons.
Hayes will have 15 floats in this year's parade; Harris will have 28.
CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, which rents floats from Hayes, will have two this year. Younger dancers will ride on the floats, and older ones will dance or walk alongside. "It's a very special thing," studio manager Karen Talarico said. "They look forward to it."
The dancers work diligently on their routines, which are set to music. Between the dance preparation and the wrangling of the 200 dancers on parade day, not having to worry about the float makes the day run more smoothly, Talarico said.
'It makes it worth it'
The holiday season is the busiest one for floats, although the Fourth of July, homecoming gatherings and fall festivals provide work, too. Still, there are lulls. Harris and Hayes have jobs outside the float business. Harris splices telephone cable; Hayes works in real estate.
Pre-dawn wake-up calls and constant upkeep - plastic sheeting can tear, and antlers sometimes break - are just a few of the headaches that accompany parade work. But it also has its perks, Hayes said.
"When you see the kids' faces and how they light up, it makes it worth it," he said.
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