* 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