* Content Advisory Notice: This post is about Mardi Gras… so, consider yourself warned.
A good part of this travel project has been about knocking items off our bucket list. Watching Old Faithful erupt at Yellowstone, experiencing “The Run For The Roses” at Churchhill Downs, and getting drenched on the Maid of the Mist under Niagara Falls were all things we wanted to experience during our travels. This past February we knocked another item off the list by attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
But, truth be told, while Mardi Gras was on my bucket list, it wasn’t high on the list. As much as we’ve loved our prior trips to the crescent city, I expected Mardi Gras to be Amateur Hour writ large, an expensive and frustrating experience full of 20 year olds puking on their shoes. While I figured it would be entertaining to observe the craziness for a couple hours, I assumed we’d mostly be watching from the sidelines, steering far clear of any drunken mayhem. Honestly, the whole thing just didn’t sound all that appealing.
In fact, as we were walking toward our first parade, I remarked to Kevin, “I really don’t understand why people would want to collect a pile of plastic junk thrown at them by frat boys on a float.”
Approximately 6 minutes later:
I’m telling you, it happens to the best of us.
One minute, you’re thinking: “This is gonna be a trainwreck with a bunch of drunken imbeciles tripping all over each other trying to grab worthless junk.”
The next, it’s: “Fine, I’ll try to catch a set of beads… Whatever. When in Rome, right??”
And then, in what seems like the blink of an eye, you’re on the ground throwing elbows at a 9 year old boy while trying to ankle sweep the 65 year old woman who’s trying to outflank you while you struggle to capture the prized 6 cent, made-in-china, plastic cup that just fell in the middle of the street. (I think you can tell from the above picture who won those battles…)
Oh, I’m just kidding. There was no fighting.
Quite the contrary, we found that everywhere we went, we were surrounded by happy people who were thrilled to be taking part in this one-of-a-kind celebration. There were all kinds of folks – different ages, different races, locals and tourists, first timers and old hands, all making space for one another along the parade route and handing off beads and trinkets to their neighbors. The excitement and joy were positively infectious and the good vibes flowed through the crowds.
Another thing that came together perfectly? This year, Kevin’s birthday happened to fall smack dab in the middle of Mardi Gras season. There’s really nothing better than letting someone else do the planning for these events, and, in this case, the City of New Orleans did a fabulous job – even sending along a Happy Birthday float on his actual birthday!
We are now firm believers that Mardi Gras is awesome and everyone should check it out at least once – as long as they know how to do it.
What we realized is Mardi Gras means different things to different people and you will have a completely different experience depending on which events you attend and when.
Carnival and Mardi Gras
First, a primer:
Carnival season begins January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany) and ends on Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras (which is French for Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday and the culmination of Carnival season. And Fat Tuesday is what most people think of when they think of Mardi Gras, but in New Orleans, celebrations run throughout Carnival season.
The early part of the season is all about invitation-only balls, while the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday are characterized by parades. The parades become larger and more frequent as the season goes on, but if you visit New Orleans any time during the month preceding Fat Tuesday, chances are, you’ll be able to catch a parade. We arrived one week before Fat Tuesday and attended parades on several days.
The balls and parades are put on by social/fraternal organizations called krewes. Some of the bigger krewes date back to the 1800’s and are extremely exclusive (and expensive) to join. Other newer, smaller krewes offer membership more liberally.
Krewe members pay annual membership and, oftentimes, take part in other activities throughout the year. During Mardi Gras, members ride on the floats and distribute “throws” to the masses who line the parade route. Krewe members pay for their own throws which can be anything from beads to plastic cups and koozies, to stuffed animals, hula hoops, hats, and doubloons (souvenir coins).
“People from outside New Orleans don’t understand that Mardi Gras is all about the parades, and those will never change.” We were talking to a lifelong resident of New Orleans about two fatal accidents that had recently occurred at parades and he was explaining why calls for changes would be rejected. He said, “people grow up going to these parades and that’s how they will always be. They’re never, ever going to change them.”
Soon, we understood what he meant.
The parades are magic.
Folks stake their claims on the sidewalk hours before the parades start, and they come prepared. They set up food and drink tents that put to shame whatever you’ve seen at various tailgating events. More importantly, experienced attendees know they’ll need a way to capture and carry their loot, so they bring along rolling suitcases, carts, and backpacks.
They also bring along specialized devices to help them capture throws – we saw everything from step ladders to fishing nets to beadazzled picker-uppers – allowing parade goers to reach over fences to grab items that had fallen on the ground nearby.
Alas, fear not! One can come completely unprepared (because, what the hell did we know??) and still walk away with tons and tons of cheap, plastic crap!
(…which can then, fortunately, be recycled at one of dozens of collection points around the city. Unfortunately, there is still an obscene amount of plastic waste involved in this festival and they really need to work on fixing that.)
We saw parts of five different parades and we had a blast at each one.
In addition to the krewes on floats, the parades feature every kind of marching band and dance team you can imagine. Middle schools, high schools, and colleges from all over the region come down to participate in the parades.
The Marines were there…
There were bagpipers
and a crew of Elvis (the later years) impersonators riding scooters…
The parades are entirely family friendly affairs. There are tons of kids… Little kids on their parents shoulders, young kids angling for just the right spot to catch throws in the street, and older kids taking part in the parades.
There are several main routes for the parades scattered throughout the city. None of the big name ones go through the French Quarter because it’s too compact down there. You can download an app to get updated parade schedules and real time tracking.
And the party keeps going well into the night with jaw dropping illuminated floats…
The French Quarter
The French Quarter is a completely different animal. While the big parades in the neighborhoods are attended by lots of locals, the vast majority of people you’ll encounter in the French Quarter during Carnival season are tourists. All of which is fine; it just has a different feel – it is clearly geared more to the adults. (Click any photo for full size version.)
The French Quarter is where you’ll find much smaller parades featuring newer, oftentimes tiny, krewes. The throws these folks give out tend to be unique and let’s just say, if you get one, you feel pretty special.
For example, I was gifted one of these very rare and quite spectacular bracelets made of plastic corsets by one of the ladies of the “Prima Donnas” and I must say, I will treasure it forever:
The musicians performing in the French Quarter are what you think of when you think of Mardi Gras. Roving jazz bands who fire up the crowd and bring everyone out to watch the parades….
The people watching in the Quarter is simply unparalleled, and you’ll find yourself with more questions than answers…
Why is there a man with a python around his neck standing on a hoverboard talking to another man who has a bra hanging from his arm while a lady, who apparently doesn’t want to pay for a photo with the snake, surreptitiously poses for one while the hoverboard guy isn’t paying attention?
Why is Junior Kid Rock wearing a cheetah print onesie riding on a bicycle decorated with a Mardi Gras themed feather stole?
Why would someone leave a Ferrari parked on a street in the middle of the French Quarter during Mardi Gras?
Why is Spiderman riding a bike through a crowd when he’s Spiderman?
Some questions just lead to more questions. For example, my initial question when I saw this was “What am I looking at here?”
So, I looked up the name “Mystical Krewe of Margaret Orrpheus” and learned that this group walks in honor of local meteorologist Margaret Orr… which led to the question, “why would people march in honor of a weather forecaster at a Mardi Gras parade?” But before I could dig deeper into that question, we were asking ourselves an entirely different question:
What is going on between this purveyor of fine nipple glitters and this Scottish bagpiper?
From my untrained eye, it appears that he objects to her business and is trying to interrupt her ability to attract customers by loudly playing bagpipe music right next to her shop, and she is responding by dumping gold glitter near his feet. But why would he object to her business given that it’s Mardi Gras and demand for tasteful breast decoration is probably quite high? Could it be, rather, that they’re having a turf war? Perhaps she set up in his usual busking location and he’s refusing to move, in which case, can we really blame him for trying to protect his valuable territory? I mean, when you think about it, it’s basically just like the Bloods and the Crips, but with glitter and a bagpipe rather than guns and cocaine. Additionally, what exactly is nipple glitter? Is it somehow different than regular glitter or is it the same “seems-like-a-good-idea-until-it’s-all-over-the-place-and-you-realize-you’re-going-to-spend-the-rest-of-your-natural-life-trying-to-eradicate-it” scourge we all know and recoil from? Speaking of which, I wonder how many Mardi Gras celebrants woke up the following day puzzled by all the gold glitter in their houses and cars.
So many questions.
As for Fat Tuesday itself, it was everything we thought it might be.
Out on the main parade routes, the biggest, oldest, most well regarded krewes were hosting parades. And because they have more money, their floats were astonishingly ornate, and their throws more rare. This was the Krewe of Rex, one of the oldest in New Orleans:
And here’s a throw I caught from one of their floats – it matches the float and has the krewe’s name and the year on the back.
After a couple hours watching the parades, we headed down to the French Quarter to see what was going on there.
And it was exactly what we expected: A shitshow of the highest order.
But there were impressive costumes, talented musicians, and lots of people having fun.
Was it good, family friendly fun? Not at all.
Seriously: Do NOT bring kids anywhere near the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday.
You can’t even rely on Jesus to set a good example on Fat Tuesday.
Speaking of which, if you’re wondering, the whole boob flashing thing was really a thing, but we really only saw it in the French Quarter. Again, the parades outside the Quarter – at least, the ones we attended – were PG rated.
Pretty soon, it became the magical hour of about 6:00 p.m. and, recognizing that nothing good was going to happen after dark on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, we headed for the exits.
How to do Mardi Gras for Cheap and Save Your Sanity
One of the best things about this event was we stayed at Bayou Segnette State Park, which is located about 20 minutes from the French Quarter. I booked our site almost a year in advance and it was the best decision we made. Not only is the state park really nice, green, and quiet, but it costs just $30 per night. It was the perfect relaxing oasis to return to after a long day of craziness.
Even better, we used the ferry from Algiers Point, so we didn’t even have to deal with the expense or aggravation of parking in the city. There are a couple parking areas right at the ferry terminal that charge $5 a day (increased to $8 or $10 for big events), or, if you’re willing to walk a few blocks, you can park for free in the neighborhoods surrounding the ferry terminal (just check the signs. It’s not permitted everywhere.)
So, we stayed for $30 per night, parked for free, took a $2.00 ferry ride, and got a lifetime’s worth of the greatest show on earth.
We had an absolute blast at Mardi Gras. It was one of our favorite weeks on the road and far eclipsed any of our expectations.
Looking back on it now is bittersweet, of course. It is surreal to consider the virus was silently spreading through all of these celebrations, and just weeks later, the city was overwhelmed with victims. In fact, one of the most famous krewes lost multiple members in the weeks that followed.
I don’t know if there will be a Mardi Gras in 2021, but I have no doubt that, eventually, it will be back. The city of New Orleans is truly one of a kind – its people, culture, and traditions matched only by its striking resilience. After touring this entire country, I can tell you there will be no better place to celebrate the end of this crisis than the first Mardi Gras after it’s over.
We might just make it a goal to be there ourselves.
Where we stayed:
Bayou Segnette State Park, Westwego, Louisiana
It’s been well over 40 years since I went to Mardi Gras. My dad’s family was from NOLA. When we were packing up to sell our house, I came across doubloons I had stashed away from the late 60′ and early 70’s. I gave them to the grandkids. I’d love to go back with Steve and watch him experience it just once. People watching in the Quarter is beyond comparison! I’m glad you had so much fun. Nothing beats the birthday float for Kevin.
That’s funny – while I recycled the majority of the beads we collected and got rid of most of the random trinkets, I held onto the doubloons. Of course, they’re the easiest to store in a small space, but they also just seemed like cool souvenirs to collect. Maybe I, too, will find them many years from now!
Mardi Gras was hands down one of the best expo we’ve had. We stayed two weeks and I loved every minute. NOLA is my favorite city and I will make every excuse to return. The people of New Orleans are special. They have such a deep love and pride for their city and carnival. They make you their family when you are there. Oh and let’s not even talk about all the amazeballs food. I could live at Freret Beer House. Last time we went I got an AirBNB within walking distance ???? I love that damn city so much. Carnival was such a great experience for us. Bourbon street is trash and doesn’t really represent the city. There’s so much more. I was even surprised at how family friendly carnival was. I can’t say enough great things about it.
I agree with you 100%. All of it! We’ve visited the city several times now and we’ve never had a bad time. There’s so much to do and see, the architecture is super unique, the food is incredible, the people are friendly, and it’s just always a great time! Just looking back on these photos makes me smile. It was such an awesome experience. I’m glad you guys loved it too!
Mardi Gras and New Orleans is on our list, though sadly everything on our list needs to take a hiatus at the moment. Looks like a blast and when we do go, now we’ll be prepared. It is unreal how much CRAP you caught/collected! lol! Glad you were able to enjoy it and stayed safe. Hard to tell what has better people watching, Mardi Gras or Vegas!
Ya know, we discussed that. In general, our top 3 locales for people watching have been New Orleans, Venice Beach in LA, and the strip in Vegas, but really – Mardi Gras just puts them all to shame. New Orleans is always an interesting place to walk around and see what people are up to, but add in this festival, with all its energy and creativity, and it’s just something else.
Wow!! So much fun to experience Mardi Gras through your photos and words, and also…so bittersweet. As you know, we love New Orleans, too. I would love to see those incredible floats in person as you did. You totally scored with all that loot, LOL! What a perfect place to celebrate a birthday!
We’ve been twice to the French Quarter Festival in early April and it was one of the highlights of our seven years of travels. I was wistfully thinking about those adventures a couple of days ago and wondering when (or if) we will ever again be able to experience the joy of so much music and great food in a colorful city in the company of tens of thousands of other people, crammed together and all having an absolute blast. I know it’s not for everyone, but we loved it. So when this thing is all over with, we’ll meet you in NOLA for the party of the century! Oh, and I’m so glad Bayou Segnette worked out well for you, and that you enjoyed breakfast at Tout de Suite. Now I want THAT for breakfast.
As bad as things are right now, I remain hopeful that things will, eventually, get back to normal. It might be a couple years, but these traditions are so firmly rooted, I doubt they’ll ever go away. I remember there were discussions after Hurricane Katrina about whether Mardi Gras would be back, and of course it was – and it’s only gotten bigger and better over time. I’m with you 100% on wanting to get back to those crowds of happy people, listening to music and being carefree. It is crazy to think all of this happened just 3.5 months ago. But – I agree – let’s plan to meet back there whenever all this insanity is over and party like only New Orleans can!
And yes – thank you for the tips about Bayou Segnette, the ferry, and breakfast. All of those decisions helped keep our costs down and our moods up!
Hi Laura! I have always felt as you did about Mardi Gras being a big drunken party and wondered why people flocked there. Guess now I will have to rethink that because you’ve given me a better understanding of what goes on there. I really enjoyed your post and the pictures! Did you have a beignet? I’ve heard they are amazing.
Hey Robin! It’s funny when you think about it – everyone who’s never been to Mardi Gras has one idea of what it’s like, while everyone who’s actually been to it, has a completely different opinion! I think you’ll love it – especially if you minimize your time in the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday – or go into it with the understanding that it’s going to have a very different feel than the rest of the city.
We did have beignets and I can confirm, they are delicious – and I’m not generally a big donut person. There’s a place called Cafe DuMond right in Jackson Square that is open 24/7 that serves excellent ones, but you can find them all over the city. They really are terrific – and they’re piled high enough with powdered sugar that you’re guaranteed to leave the city with some souvenir Diabetes. 🙂
New Orleans? Who wants to go there? That was my reaction when Dave told me we were attending a conference there in the spring of 85. I went, grudgingly, because I’ve never refused to go anywhere. I fell madly in love with the city. New Orleans has become one of our very favorite places. We experienced Mardi Gras in the French Quarter (where we were staying at the time) and your post accurately captured the experience! One must abandon oneself to the revelry, don’t question what is going on around you and commit it all to memory (or blog). Some of our best stories center around New Orleans! Seriously though, the city is so much more than Mardi Gras and staying at Bayou Segnette State Park makes further exploration a dream.
I agree completely. You know we love cities and we have visited many of them over the years, but New Orleans is way up at the top of our list of favorites. The music, food, people, energy – all awesome! And you are completely right – you just gotta abandon yourself and take it all in. There’s no point in trying to make sense of it and that would only serve to take away the fun. What a great city!
Like many others I thought the Mardi Gras was mostly an excuse for an adult party. A very educational post on the reality of it. We spent a couple nights at the French Quarter RV Park, it was convenient walking and without the crowds of Mardi Gras.
Hey Jeff! Yes, FQRV is about as close and convenient as one can get. We stayed there previously and loved being able to walk right into the French Quarter. Unfortunately, it’s gotten prohibitively expensive over the years and for Mardi Gras, it’s just plain nuts. I think it’s over $200 a night during that week? Ridiculous. Otherwise, though, it’s a great basecamp from which to to explore the city.
But I still have so many questions!!!! We have been to New Orleans but not during Mardi Gras and it was still very interesting and entertaining. Similar to walking the Vegas strip, you never know what you are going to see. We stayed in the same park and took the ferry as well. One day we took our dually into town and drove around. Big mistake! I don’t think we ever found a place to park!
Funny enough, the first time we went to park at the ferry, our GPS sent us the wrong way and we ended up missing the exit and driving into the city. We decided to see if we could just park for the day. The first lot we found wanted $100. So… we turned our little selves around and drove back over the river. Driving and parking anywhere in New Orleans is, apparently, not for the faint of heart; I can’t even imagine what it would be like in a big truck!
The French Quarter should be visited at least once. It’s definitely an experience and I can only imagine what it’s like during Mardi Gras. Glad you guys had a great time!
Agree completely! Everyone needs to have the experience of visiting this fun city at least once – even if not for Mardi Gras. There really is something for everyone!
I loved your post! I was able to do a virtual Mardi Gras without being there. It really sounds like a fun time, and I really like your planning regarding the whole thing.
I think the planning part was really instrumental in making the whole thing fun. We didn’t have to worry we were overspending on camping, we didn’t have to fight for parking, and each night, we got a good night’s sleep. I’m not sure we would have been as happy with the whole thing had we spent too much to stay close and be bothered by people making a racket all night outside our windows. It just requires that you make the decision to attend Mardi Gras way in advance. Bayou Segnette fills up fast.
While Mardi Gras has never been on our bucket list, you nearly convinced me to add it with all the information about the fun, family-friendly, non-pukey options away from the French Quarter. Looks like you really did it right, and all your homework and advance planning paid off handsomely. You obviously had the chance to mingle with the locals and enjoy the true experience of Carnival, which can be really hard to do in such a crowded and popular setting. Looks like a blast, but also like something from a totally different world…. I wonder when we will collectively feel comfortable attending large events like that again.
You’re right on all of this. The planning helped immensely and we really felt like that was the best way to do it; we, too, were surprised by how friendly the locals were and how happy everyone was to help each other and share in the spoils of the parades; and I agree completely that, right now, it all looks like something from a different planet. We are wading through dark times right now, but I am optimistic that the sun will come out again, eventually. We’ve been through periods like this before. (Ok, not this bad, but they weren’t great.) Stay positive!
That really looked like a lot of fun! I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but I may just go someday after seeing how family friendly and colorful the parades were. Looking forward to seeing where you and Kevin go next.
It was definitely a lot of fun and I’d absolutely encourage you to go check it out, Maura. We were completely surprised by the experience and truly enjoyed every minute. It’s an incredible party put on by a super fun town!
How fortunate that you guys got to experience Carnival/Mardi Gras before everything went sideways and that you liked it more than you thought you would! The colors are glorious, and it makes me want some King Cake right this minute. The one and only time I visited NOLA wasn’t during the craziness and it was the first place that I remember taking notice of architecture. I loved the style and feel of it there. I’m sure the festivals will all return, and when they do, I hope you guys can get back there for more fun! The RV park you stayed in looks like a pretty darn perfect place to return to zen after the madness, too.
I really believe staying at that park made all the difference for us. We got the best of both worlds in terms of access to the city, and having a quiet place to decompress each night. The architecture in New Orleans is really remarkable. We always enjoy just wandering around the French Quarter looking at the ornate facades and balconies, and on our first visit to the city, we took one of the streetcars all the way out into another section of the city, just taking in the beautiful old mansions along the way. It’s just one more thing to love about New Orleans.
Throughly enjoyed this post. I grew up visiting my Uncle and Aunt in New Orleans my entire life. My dad was born and raised in West Monroe Louisiana, and many of my relatives lived and, if still alive, still live in Louisiana. What is funny is my Uncle would never allow me to go near downtown. Not just the French quarter, but downtown. They said it just wasn’t proper for a young boy. We are talking the late 50’s and early 60’s. So my perception of New Orleans was very different from most folks. I viewed it as a small neighborhood of fun kids and great exploration. If truly wish at least one time they would have allowed me to experience Mardi Gras or a parade or two. Your blog post really brought the experience to life. Great photos and great descriptions of the events. One day Carmen and I will make it to a Mardi Gras. We have friends who live in Alabama and they claim their Mardi Gras is older and better than NOLA. Well, not sure about that, but we know there is a Mardi Gras in our future and this blog helped solidify that decision. Thank you! Jim
Hey Jim! We’ve heard from several people that New Orleans was not the first city in the south to celebrate Mardi Gras, but the response is usually “but it’s the best!” I can’t really say one way or the other, but I do know we’ve always enjoyed our visits there and this event raised the bar even higher.
When we were talking to that guy who’d grown up in the city, I got to thinking how cool it must be to take part in these parades as a child. It’s like taking a regular town parade and adding steroids, then adding a bit of Halloween (with all the costumes), and a dash of Christmas morning (courtesy of all the gifts)! So Cool!
Anyway, I hope you guys will check it out one year. I have no doubt you’d love it.
Well, thank you for this post. When I was younger (not that I am old!) I really wanted to experience Mardi Gras but it never panned out. Now I got to see the colorful activities virtually with a beer in my hand as I watch the parade, though no one is throwing me beads. When we were there it was past the revelry so I just imagined the activities in my head as we walked along the French Quarter.
How cool that NOLA celebrated Kevin in a big way!
You’re definitely not old… and if you want, I can give you some extra beads I kept when we see you again. It’ll be like you were right there the whole time! I am honestly glad we visited New Orleans at other times, too. It really is a different experience during Carnival, so I’m glad we had the opportunity to take in the French Quarter when it wasn’t quite so crowded. And yes, as for Kevin’s birthday, New Orleans did a fabulous job of marking the occasion!
What an experience!! Attending Mardi Gras (in New Orleans) has never been high on my “list”, but after reading your post and seeing the photos, it might have to become a destination one year, after the pandemic is behind us. The floats of the Krewe of Rex are elaborate and beat everything else. Such a colorful and fun spectacle.
Carnival is big in Belgium as well, but it’s only on one day – a Sunday some time in February. It was a highlight of the year for us kids, as the floats were special, pretty, and fun and the throws consisted of candy. Like on Halloween in the US, after the carnival parade in Belgium, we all had full bags of candy and treats! No beads or plastic stuff. Great memories!
Oooh, that is a GREAT idea…. They really should throw candy rather than all that plastic stuff. People would be just as happy to get it. At least the beads can be recycled (I guess they use them for school art projects and stuff like that), but the other stuff just ends up in a landfill, which I found pretty depressing. Candy is a much better choice.
I have no doubt you’d enjoy this festival. It is so lively, fun, and colorful, I really can’t imagine anyone NOT enjoying it. Definitely add it to your list!
I am disappointed that we had our plans canceled at the state park and missed the NOLA if not Mardi Gras. You definitely saw it all. It leaves me a little speechless. Just a little. Great story and photos
Haha. We were pretty speechless at times too! I hope you will get back there at some point. We’ve visited New Orleans several times and always enjoyed ourselves. There’s really something for everyone and I’m sure you’d love it. We just need to get through all this insanity first….
We’ve visited NOLA a couple of times but never during Mardi Gras, thanks for taking us along for your trip. Our visit there also included an impromptu parade we participated in with Larry the Cable Guy. Found a great place for beignets, listening to some jazz, and to watch the street entertainers.
Sounds like a great visit! To me, New Orleans has always been a perfect place to just wander around and see what we find. Better to not have an itinerary and just let the day unfold however it does. With Mardi Gras, we did a bit more advanced planning, but that was just to address our need for accommodations and transportation. Once we were there, we just wandered, and everywhere we went, we found great stuff.