The first day of the year is a particularly special day in Pasadena. For more than a century, floats taller than buildings and constructed entirely of rainbow rose petals have been paraded through the streets in celebration of New Year’s Day. Last year alone, 28 million Americans tuned in to ESPN’s coverage of the Rose Bowl game — the Rose Parade’s grand finale.

Behind the scenes, backstage and on the sidelines — yet seemingly at the center of it all — you’ll find Karen Sunshine, who earned her master’s degree at Clemson in parks, recreation and tourism management in 1994.

Clemson alumna Karen Sunshine — special events manager for Disney and founder of her own event planning company, “Plan it With Sunshine” — spoke to Clemson students during an event in fall 2015.

Karen Sunshine — special events manager for Disney and founder of her own event planning company, “Plan it With Sunshine” — spoke to Clemson students during an event in fall 2015.
Image Credit: Clemson University

She’s the special events manager for Disney, the founder of her own event planning company, “Plan it With Sunshine,” and full-time mom to three kids and a pup named Pawley.

“I’ve heard every ‘sunshine’ joke there is out there,” she laughed.

So, she embraces the name and credits her bright career in the hospitality industry to the southern hospitality she experienced at Clemson.

But, she may have never found Tiger Town if it weren’t for her love of college football.

After completing her undergraduate degree at Santa Clara University, Sunshine was ready to get to work on the West Coast. She’d heard that the annual Tournament of Roses needed 1,000 volunteers — it was a perfect opportunity for a college graduate to get started in the event business. Plus, the Rose Bowl stadium is a dream destination for sports fans of all stripes.

But her volunteer application was denied.

In the wake of this rejection, Sunshine made a spontaneous trip across the country to see a Clemson football game.

While sitting in the stands of Memorial Stadium, she flipped through the pages of the game program and landed on an advertisement for the University’s parks, recreation and tourism management graduate degree. In that moment, amid a sea of orange-clad Tiger fans, Sunshine decided to go back to school — to make Clemson her home for the next two years.

“The rest is history,” she said.

Classes at Clemson emphasized the importance of organization and prepared Sunshine for the weighty responsibilities inherent to event management. But it was through her experience on the job that Sunshine learned to trade high heels for a pair of Nikes.

“In my line of work there are a lot of long days spent on concrete,” she said.

Though they may be long, no two days are ever the same. Sunshine’s Disney career has allowed her to cross paths with the likes of Johnny Depp and Grumpy Cat, and to work Pirates of the Caribbean movie premieres, World Series Celebrations — even Miley Cyrus’ ‘Sweet 16’ birthday party.

In her work outside of Disney, she deals with recognizable brands like Toshiba, Mercedes Benz and luxury hotels.

But, an event especially close to Sunshine’s heart required her to bring two top-tier football teams together during the 2015 Rose Bowl festivities.

“College football is complicated — teams have intense schedules, and the playoff matchups are announced only three weeks before the game,” said Sunshine. “It’s not the coach’s top priority to think about a visit to Disneyland.”

The responsibility of fitting press conferences into practice schedules and media blitzes between mealtimes falls to Sunshine.

“You get to see a team’s personality based on how they interact with each other,” she said. “Last year, we had — for the first time ever — two Heisman trophy winners come together. In the true spirit of college athletics, they were super gracious to each other.”

Clemson alumna Karen Sunshine poses for a picture with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Karen Sunshine with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Image Credit: Karen Sunshine

But coordinating events at the “Happiest Place on Earth” isn’t all sunshine and rose petals.

“It can be a very angst-ridden process. There’s always a feeling of responsibility if something goes wrong, that you didn’t contribute your part. There’s a lot of complexity to delivering an event and keeping large groups of people safe.”

At the end of the day, though, Sunshine finds reward in giving others an unforgettable experience — and sharing those stories. During Clemson’s Homecoming week, she traveled across the country to share her career experiences and offer advice to current Clemson students. (And to cheer on her Tiger football team, of course.)

“When you put on an event, you should always walk away with a jewel of a story,” she said.

In her 20-year career, Sunshine has more than a few gems. Some of the best moments come from executing ideas that seem impossible — like building an Olympic-sized swimming pool on Main Street, and having an Olympic medalist take a lap.

“We have a term at Disney called ‘Blue Sky’ — throw out your craziest ideas, and if it’s doable, we will do it.”

With this mantra, it’s easy to see how posing with the Heisman trophy, riding on the team bus with MLB champions and zip-lining above the rainforest at a tropical resort is simply part of the job description.

“I get to do things for work that I wouldn’t normally get to do. It’s not everyday that you get to go to a movie premiere or be on the sidelines of the Rose Bowl game,” she said. “It’s been such a gift. I wouldn’t have had all this fun if it weren’t for Clemson.”