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What it’s like to drive a Rose Parade float from a 50-year veteran

He’s been behind the wheel of a Rose Parade float since before he even had a driver’s license.

The year 1973 was dawning and Steve Altmayer had just turned 13.

Don Bent, a float builder family friend, had invited the teen and his mom to watch final assembly at the Rose Palace on Raymond Avenue.

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Bent was in a bind. One of his observers was sick. Could the teen sub in? Wide-eyed, the answer was “Sure!”

“Go home and get some warm clothes for the overnight,” Bent told the youth. Thus began Altmayer’s half-century love affair with America’s favorite New Year’s tradition.

Young Altmayer had the job of observer on that first float. The following year, “Uncle Don” moved him into the driver’s seat.

“And I’ve done it every single parade since,” Altmayer said. “All through high school, all through my years at USC.”

The now-63 year-old will bundle up for the 50th year in a row on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 1, as he readies to drive an aptly named “Feed Your Soul” Louisiana Office of Tourism float in the 134th Rose Parade.

Steve Altmayer, left, and Don McMillan, right, are the float operator and the observer that helps guide the float. Photographed on Saturday Dec.17, 2022, in Irwindale, California. (Photo by Michael Kitada, Contributing Photographer)

Steve Altmayer is the float operator on the state of Louisiana’s float. Photographed on Saturday Dec.17, 2022, in Irwindale, California. (Photo by Michael Kitada, Contributing Photographer)

Float operator, Steve Altmayer, of Chatsworth takes a spin in the state of Louisiana’s entry on Saturday Dec.17, 2022, in Irwindale, California. Altmayer will be unable to see the road and will be guided by his observer in the front of the float. (Photo by Michael Kitada, Contributing Photographer)

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It’s the joy of sharing the sweet-smelling spectacle each New Year’s Day that keeps Altmayer coming back for more.

“It’s just a very festive, fun thing,” Altmayer said. When his float is parked on Orange Grove the night before the parade and mobs of people come to look at it in awe because it’s so well decorated, he said, well, that’s his reward.

“People are all so happy and in the morning you have the crowds going up to the corner for their seats, there’s just nothing like it,” he said.

• Read more Rose Parade coverage here

And, make no mistake. Every one of those 50 mostly-Fiesta Parade Floats-decorated beauties was his baby. Altmayer is as proud of those floats as if he were granddad.

Of those float babies, Altmayer has driven 17 Sweepstakes winners — more than any other driver, he said. It’s the Tournament of Roses’ top award, given to floats with the perfect combination of design, floral presentation and entertainment.

“Having 17 banners in front of your float is just incredible,” Altmayer said.

For 48 of the last 50 Rose Parades, the Chatsworth resident has worked for Tim Estes, president of Fiesta Parade Floats. Fiesta typically builds about a dozen floats each year, said Estes. This year, they are doing only seven. There are left-over issues related to the pandemic and the ability to obtain large batches of flowers needed for decoration.

But, drivers and observers are critical components of a successful parade year, said Estes. And he’s happy to have been able to count on Altmayer all these decades.

When Altmayer drives the “Feed Your Soul” float this year, it will stop mid-way through the parade. Country music newcomer and Louisiana native Lainey Wilson — recently featured on Paramount+’s Yellowstone — will entertain attendees.

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That stopping, starting again and turning is a well-orchestrated dance among Altmayer, who sits fully encased and hidden near the back of the float, his observer Don McMillan and Tournament of Roses volunteer Andrew Santelli.

Santelli rides a scooter in his white suit just ahead of the float. It’s his job to know all the ins and outs of the float. What animations are there? Where are the fire extinguishers? How many riders? How many walkers?

Last year’s Louisiana Tourism float had to be towed, said Santelli, as some Mylar streamers got caught in the engine, causing a small fire. The Tournament’s parade operations motto, he said, is “keep it moving.”

And that’s observer McMillan’s job.

The Arcadia High School classmate, who Altmayer brought aboard this year, sits up front. The observer is also hidden from view, but with a small hole to view the street ahead and an opening below to see the red/pink line down the center of the parade route. McMillan will also run the animations on cue and has a brake, just in case something goes wrong in the driver’s seat.

The three are connected via headsets, so communication is key.

Their language is simple: Touch right, hard right, tough left, hard left. And, of course: Slow down. Or: Stop!

If all is copesetic on the 5.5-mile parade route, the driver may not hear from his observer for a long time.

Years ago, on the Colorado straightaway, with his 33-year spotter Steve Smith, Altmayer hadn’t heard a command for what seemed like forever.

“Hey, you still there? Everything ok?” Altmayer asked over the headset.

As driver, Altmayer keeps his foot steady on the accelerator. There’s no cruise control on a parade float.

And, revving back up to cruising speed after a stop is super important, he said. Hit the gas too hard and float riders can go flying. Altmayer learned that one the hard way.

He had the honor of driving the USC football team float during one of his college years attending the same school in the early 1980s. During those years, floats had manual transmissions and it was before float riders were required to wear seatbelts, he said.

“All the cheerleaders were on top of the float, and I was a little bit too quick on the clutch when we started back up,” Altmayer said. The float lurched.  A few of the cheerleaders took a tumble, he said.

“Rookie mistake,” Altmayer said.

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Luckily, that didn’t happen on so-called TV corner, where Orange Grove intersects with Colorado.

But, by far the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened as float driver, Altmayer said, did occur on television, in 1983.

That was the year a mechanical shaggy dog covered in pampas grass — on a float sponsored by International House of Pancakes — caught fire as it approached the viewing stand.

Black smoke and flames shot into the air, said Altmayer, causing one of the longtime TV Rose Parade anchors Bob Eubanks and Stephanie Edwards to comment to a national audience: “Gosh, I really hope the driver and observer got out of the float.”

Altmayer’s parents were watching, terrified he had gotten seriously hurt, he said. There were no cell phones to send a quick “I’m ok” text.

“My dad was so mad,” Altmayer said. “Why do you keep doing this for Don?” he said his dad asked later when he got home. “You almost put us in an early grave.”

And just as he climbed back into his tight cockpit the next year, Altmayer said he has no plans to hang up his headset any time soon.

“I am shooting for that float driver pension,” Altmayer said, jokingly. “But I might have to get 100 years under my belt to ever see that.”

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