Portland’s Grand Floral Parade and Dragon Boat Races: A sensory overload of color, noise and raw energy

The idea for the Rose Festival was presented to the public in a speech by Mayor Harry Lane at the end of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905. The first festival occurred in 1907.

The Grand Floral Parade is the centerpiece of the festival and the second largest all-floral parade in the United States after the Tournament of Roses Parade. More than 500,000 spectators line the route, making this flower parade the largest single-day spectator event in Oregon. The first parade, in 1907, was called the Rose Carnival, but eventually came to be known as the Rose Festival Parade and later still the Grand Floral Parade.

We have lived in Oregon now for 11 years and had yet to make it up to the Rose Festival so I decided this was the year we were going to do it. After researching things it seemed a good idea to set out early. The parade route is quite long so we weren’t quite sure how packed the streets would be – but we didn’t want to take the chance and be stuck 20 deep back from the curb.

The Rose Festival in Portland is more than just the Grand Floral Parade and one of the other events that caught my attention was the Dragon Boat races that take place on the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge. The races are made up of four-team heats held every nine minutes. More than 60 different teams – local, national and international – compete in boats provided through the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association. Our plan was to check out a few heats before walking back into town and finding a suitable place on the Parade route.

It was a grey morning in Portland on the day of the Parade and a little chilly down on the banks of the Willamette River. But it wasn’t raining, which is always a blessing in the North West! The nice thing is that it doesn’t cost anything to come and see the races. At this early hour (around 8:00 am) the crowds were not huge so we were able to scramble down the little beach to the water’s edge right by the finishing line of the races. The category of races that were in progress was the women’s team event. It was very impressive to see the coordination – there are 20 paddlers – and effort that these teams were putting into their races. Speaking to some of the competitors who were hanging around they explained that they had been training for this for several weeks – three times a week.

After watching four races we decided to head back to downtown and find our places for the Grand Floral Parade.

The Parade itself starts at around 10am on the east side of town across the river from downtown. When we found our ideal place; a corner where the Parade turns after crossing the Burnside Bridge before heading into the main streets, it was still only about 9:15am. It wasn’t likely the Parade would reach us much before 11am – so we had some hanging around to do. Luckily, the crowds were small so we were able to get very close to the curb and settled down for some great people watching.

Eventually, the Parade arrived. The crowds were not horrible – at least not where we were – and were probably only four people deep at most. So, everyone got a great view. The parade itself is largely a mixture of floats of various sizes – some of which were gorgeously decorated with brightly colored floral displays – depicting aspects of nature and high school marching bands.   There were of course a number of more unusual vehicles, animals and peoples marching.

After watching the Parade pass for about an hour we decided to head out for a bite to eat and ride out to the Rose Test Garden in the City’s Washington Park. It had been a long day already.

I am really glad we finally decided to check out the Grand Floral Parade. It’s one of the those things you need to do at least once, especially if you live in Oregon.

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