DeSoto Grand Parade is Saturday in Bradenton. Here's how all those floats come to life.

Virtual Tour of Tampa's Festive Floats

A virtual tour of Festive Floats, a company that provides floats for parades throughout Florida and south Georgia. The company has over 40 customizable float designs that have appeared in countless parades throughout Florida.
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A virtual tour of Festive Floats, a company that provides floats for parades throughout Florida and south Georgia. The company has over 40 customizable float designs that have appeared in countless parades throughout Florida.

It's DeSoto Grand Parade day in Bradenton, and the first float appears as a distant mirage at the end of the street. The pavement hums. The crowd jostles to see. Sounds of motors and music and friendly voices swell. As the float glides down the avenue, its bright confetti fringe coming into focus, children cheer at the promise of beads and candy.

The parade has begun.

Anyone who has been to a parade in Florida has probably seen a float by Bruce and “Chick” Adams. The couple owns Festive Floats. Their Tampa warehouse serves south Georgia and all of Florida. Regulars include participants in the DeSoto Grand Parade, which is Saturday, and the annual Gasparilla Parade of Pirates in Tampa.

Festive Floats has done parades in Atlanta, Pensacola, Panama City, Key West and Tallahassee. Chick and Bruce have even gone from one end of the state to the other in a day.

Chick is a retired school teacher of 27 years. She and her husband Bruce had no idea what they were getting into when they started driving floats on the weekends to earn some extra money. That was almost 40 years ago.

"It's hard to believe it was that long ago," Chick said.

They bought the business in 1994. At the time, it was located in a former military barracks by Tampa International Airport. They moved to their current location on Orient Road in 1999. In that time, Chick says they have done virtually no advertising.

"We just have our trucks with our phone number on the side in parades and next thing you know you get a phone call," Chick said.

So, how does a parade partaker order a float?

Festive Floats has a catalog of more than 40 designs to choose from, with varying shapes and features. Ships, sand castles and stars-and-stripes are a few themes.

Festive Floats Sea Shack Float
A rendering of the "Sea Shack" float, which Chick Adams says was one of the most challenging floats to create. Festive Floats

Twist and fringe, the shiny materials that border the lower half of floats, can be changed out at no cost. Chick says that they have recently done some rainbow fringe for pride parades. Other upgrades include paper petals, "snow" (for winter parades), glitter and foil. Some floats can even accommodate port-o-potties.

Active orders go into a big blue binder. Chick calls it her "Get Ready Book."

Once chosen, floats get repainted, decorated and go through a mechanical check-up before they are ready to be trucked out.

"Usually they say that pictures don't do our floats any justice," Chick said.

Parading businesses or organizations can personalize the floats with their own banners and signs on the day of the parade. Some businesses and "krewes" have had custom floats made over the years. Festive Floats retains ownership of those floats and rents them out to other groups when the primary customer does not need them.

TECO Float
This grand green ship float was created specifically for TECO Energy. They use it in about 10 parades a year. The rest of the year it is available for others to rent. Ryan Ballogg

There are few companies like Festive Floats. If a parade entrant does not want to order a float, one of the only other options is to build from scratch.

Palma Sola Elementary School in Bradenton has participated in the DeSoto Grand Parade for 17 years. The school acquired its first parade float in the '70s and has upgraded several times since.

"The second year I was teaching here at Palma Sola, the principal came up to me, and he goes, 'I’ve got a treat for you!' He unveiled an old wagon with motorcycle tires on it," said art teacher Doreen Chaloupka-Cosentino.

Years later, decorating the float for DeSoto Grand Parade each year has become a beloved tradition. Faculty, parents, local welders and community members take care of the trailer and leave the design to the kids.

"In the art room with the students I put the theme up on the board and then we brainstorm together," Chaloupka-Cosentino said. "It doesn’t matter if you're in kindergarten or fifth grade."

The float then becomes a two-month collaborative project of the whole school. Teachers create lessons based off of the theme. The school takes bead donations all year to stock up for the DeSoto parades. This year, Palma Sola won "most imaginative" and "best use of theme" at the DeSoto Children's Parade that precedes the grand parade by a month.

The theme: “Under the Sea.”

Palma Sola Parde Float
Palma Sola Elementary students went all out on this year's theme, "Under the Sea." The school received prizes for most imaginative float and best use of theme at the DeSoto Children's Parade. Doreen Chaloupka-Cosentino

"We just started popping ideas together. The kids come up with some wild stuff. We are literally making and creating the week before the parade event. This year we brought things to a different level where we got to ride our creations. We had an interesting creature of the sea that was derived from a seahorse,” Chaloupka-Cosentino said.

Her favorite part is working with the kiddos in the classroom.

“The kids have a blast year after year. It’s kind of emotional when you get to the end and get to see all their faces.”

Chaloupka-Cosentino has the process down to a science now, but it was not always so smooth. Years ago when she had questions, she wound up calling Festive Floats for help.

"When I called them up the first time I didn't know anything and they pretty much just took us under their wing and told us this is what you have to do," she said. "Now we try to give them our props afterward. They’re like, 'We have a ton.' "

Helpful advice is something that Chick says she is happy to provide.

“Even if people want to build a float and come in and see how we do it,” Chick said.

Chick and Bruce, both in their 70s, are considering retiring soon.

"It's about time somebody else took this and had fun with it," Chick said.

On Saturday, thousands of people will gather as the DeSoto Grand Parade makes its way through Bradenton.

There will be lots of festive floats.

Ryan Ballogg: 941-745-7024, @rballogg