Chris and I recently spent 5 1/2 days in New Orleans and I came away a big fan of the city in general (with its rich history and culture) and Mardi Gras in particular. I wrote this article that touches on Mardi Gras basics. This post will dig into the good stuff: PARADES!
This Mardi Gras season there were 70 parades in New Orleans between January 6th and February 9th. You might be thinking, “That’s ridiculous. Who would want to see that many parades?” or “Parade, shmarade. You’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” If you’ve never been to a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, hold your judgment! These parades are like no other. They have the same basic components of other parades (floats, marching bands, walking groups, spectators, free stuff) but each comes with a twist that acts like a force multiplier for fun.
Take the floats. The Krewe of Endymion rolled with 36 floats in its parade, one of which was over 365 feet long! We were stationed near an intersection and when that double-decker bad boy turned the corner towards us, it kept coming, and coming, and coming, even after the front was long past, like a mini-parade in and of itself.
Or how about the marching bands? St. Aug’s commands attention with percussive beats you feel in your chest, an outrageously full brassy sound that blows your hair back, and marchers that do. not. give. an. inch., not one inch, forcing the crowd back into such a crush that we, as a unit, had to perform matrix-like backbends to avoid rhythmically swaying drumsticks and trombones. Incidentally, St. Aug’s also makes Anne move like I’ve never seen her move before! They’re her favorite band and she will dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge to out-pace the group and get in prime position to hear them play a second time.
But really it’s all about the throws. I think throws are the key to New Orleans Mardi Gras magic. In my experience, parades are a static event for the spectator. You find a spot to sit or stand and watch the parade pass you by. In New Orleans, you don’t watch a parade, you participate in it. The first time Anne led me off the curb and onto the street I was agog - you can’t stand on a parade route! But wait, there’s more.
Each time a float approaches, the entire crowd, hundreds of people, surge to its sides smiling and laughing, with arms outstretched screaming “Hey mister! Throw me something, mister!!” and the float riders happily comply chucking beads, cups, doubloons, stuffed toys, Moon Pies, sunglasses, light up bouncy balls, hats, and hundreds of other tchotchkes.
Sometimes if you’re lucky you’ll make eye contact and get “The Point” where a rider has singled you out for something good. If so, don’t delay - get up there and claim your booty!! And if you’re really lucky, you know a rider and you somehow manage to get their attention - it helps to know their float number, position on the float, and have an armada of loud friends. If these stars align, a rider might bestow upon you a highly coveted signature item like a custom-decorated coconut or women’s high-heeled shoe. Oh don’t roll your eyes - you’d flip to get one!
When it comes down to it, throws are the great equalizer. As a parade crowd, we were racially, culturally and economically diverse, but united by a common goal: to be chosen, to be the lucky one, to catch something good, to receive manna from heaven. It’s absurd, I know, but nearly impossible to resist. Back at the hotel, I’d stare at my pile and wonder “What was I thinking? What am I going to do with all of this stuff??”, but then we’d go to another parade and I’d once again be reduced to a little kid begging for loot. Pure joy, fun multiplied.
Mardi Gras roots go deep and I loved hearing long-standing parade traditions and personal family stories: Dad always wore boots so nobody else would get doubloons thrown our way…As a Boy Scout Tom worked hidden inside floats to animate props and make pieces move…We’d always go to our Godparents’ house off of St. Charles, have a pot luck, and wander in and out all day…Each of us kids claimed one of Dad’s pockets and told him “Don’t let the others get my stuff!”
You don’t have to know locals to get a sense of Mardi Gras traditions. Wandering around, you can’t help but notice:
- Claiming a spot: People camp out early on big parade days, setting up what is essentially a massive tailgate without the cars. We went for a run in Audubon Park at 10am on the Sunday before Mardi Gras and a few big groups already had areas staked out with tables and chairs, grills fired up, and King Cakes stacked 8-high.
- Neutral ground side or sidewalk side: I don’t know if Audubon Park fills up before a big parade, but the center median strip along any parade route (like on St. Charles or Canal) should be packed. In New Orleans that center strip isn’t a “median”, it’s “neutral ground” and many parade-goers have strong preferences about setting up there or across the street. Some even wear t-shirts declaring allegiance to Neutral Ground Side or Sidewalk Side.
- Ladders: These are so cool! At Iris and Endymion (the biggest parades we attended) we encountered rows upon rows of kids about 6-feet high, each sitting in a rectangular box attached to the top of a wooden ladder. What a sight! A few ladders were plain, most had decorative paint, and some were completely tricked out with things like loot chutes, flip down compartments, wall-to-wall carpeting, safety straps, cup holders, wheels (for easy-rolling to and from the parade), and plexiglass or chicken wire guards to protect small-fry from flying beads. We even saw a playpen mounted on mini-wooden scaffold. We could still easily see the parade; ladders are supposed to be 6-feet back from the curb, so folks can sit or stand in front of them.
A few more parade-related traditions grabbed my attention; one was subtle. I’ve gotten so used to seeing our world for sale, it took awhile to realize that I never saw business logos on floats. For good reason since Mardi Gras parades can’t have corporate sponsors. Krewes finance their floats through member dues, merchandise sales, and fundraising - quite an undertaking!
The aftermath of a big parade is a sight to behold with broken beads, beer cans, cups, plastic bags, and a boatload of other trash lining the streets. Our small area was difficult to take in, and same scene was repeated along the entire 5-mile parade route. How would the neighborhood recover? We left Endymion Saturday night at 9pm and then drove the parade routs at noon on Sunday; the transformation was awe-inspiring with only a few isolated spots of garbage, perhaps where parked cars blocked the way. Hats off to all the clean-up crews who work into the wee hours picking up 50–100 tons of trash a night!
Since I mentioned trash tonnage, it’s time to reveal one tradition that’s gone by the wayside. For many years New Orleans rated the success of Mardi Gras and Carnival season based on the weight of trash produced. Loose numbers may still be reported, but it seems the city wants to move away from the potential double whammy of encouraging littering and discouraging recycling.
How do you know Mardi Gras is officially over? At the stroke of midnight on Fat Tursday, a wedge of mounted police sweep through the French Quarter on Bourbon Street followed by officers on foot, EMS, firefighters, and cleaning crews. I doubt I’ll ever witness this in person, but I wonder if the party really ends, or if it’s largely ceremonial as this article indicates. It’d be a sight to see regardless.
Advice from a newbie
I’ve been to a New Orleans Mardi Gras exactly once, so take the following comments in context. And my list isn’t exhaustive of course; refer to this site for a spot-on set of recommendations.
- Pace yourself: Many will warn Mardi Gras is a marathon not a sprint and the advice applies equally to sightseeing, drinking (!), and parade-going. We originally planned to see six parades but were wrung out after the fifth and opted for a quiet stroll through the French Quarter instead.
- “Research” krewes: For each of the parades we saw, I found it fun to know a titch about each krewe’s history and their coveted throws.
- Try a few parades: Each has its own flavor. We saw five including Babylon, Muses, Centurions, Iris and Endymion. Centurions was mellow and had the smallest crowds standing just 1-deep, where Endymion was packed with 15-deep at its peak. In general, as a krewe increased in size and stature, so did their throws. Everyone had a favorite parade and mine was Muses. Their throws were unique and the floats clever and funny - loved them! Anne’s highlight: she got to see St. Aug’s marching band twice, first in Muses and then Endymion.
- Wear something festive: You might get more throws if you draw a rider’s attention.
- Take a bag or backpack: Even if you don’t think you’ll need it. We had a backpack and could have used another for jackets and loot.
- Parades are LONG - plan accordingly!: The big, popular parades are gonzo. Endymion started at 4:15pm and the tail-end passed us about 7:45pm. When we tried to leave our parking area at 8:30pm, roads were gridlocked and the normally 10-minute drive took and hour. Including time to find parking and settle in, our parade outing spanned over 7 hours and we had reserved parking, allowing us to arrive relatively late. Big time commitment! In comparison, we spent 3 1/2 hours all-in for the Iris afternoon parade.
- Consider the WHOLE parade when making plans: While a parade might have passed you, it could still have a long way to go. We stood near the beginning of Endymion's 5-mile route and the tail-end passed us at 7:45pm, but the head of the parade didn’t reach the Superdome (its ultimate destination) until 9:45pm.
- Expect delays: Every parade we saw had at least one significant pause. Delays can occur when a tractor breaks down (though there’s usually a spare tractor driving in each parade for this reason), a float gets snagged on a tree, there’s a medical emergency for a rider or spectator, etc.
- Park wisely: Routes are long and streets get shut down. For Iris, the parade ran east along St. Charles, and we needed an escape route to the north. We parked in a neighborhood a few blocks west and north of the parade starting point and had no issues.
- Pay attention when floats pass: Projectiles can come hard and fast from 20–30 feet away, and we saw unopened bags of beads hurtling through the air more than once. Ouch.
- Think about bathrooms: For one parade, you could be out 6 hours or more. Take TP and wipes for port-o-potties, ask advice from locals (so you don’t have to resort to port-o-potties), and take your ID and cash in case you duck into a bar. Some bars charge a flat fee for in/out privileges while others offer up their bathrooms for free; IDs can be checked at entry even if you’re not drinking.
- Watch the sidewalks: They’re a major tripping hazard due to tree root damage. I had a couple close calls while trying watch the parade while walking. Not smart!
- Give some of your throws away: You’ll get plenty! One of our tour guides joked that we’d catch 75 pounds of beads and would need to do “bead editing” before heading home. I assumed that was a gross exaggeration but if we’d hit a couple more parades, we’d have reached his number.
- Donate your throws: Between six adults, two of whom only went to one parade, we raked in 45 pounds of beads, and that number doesn’t include beads and keepsakes we took home, or toys and trinkets we gave away. Mardi Gras isn’t known as “The greatest free show on earth” for nothing! We gave that 45 pounds of beads to Gay’s sister; she was riding a Trucks float and would re-throw our throws (a common practice). We could have also donated them to the Arc for recycling.
That’s all she wrote folks. Hope you get to experience a Mardi Gras parade someday. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
This post is part of a Trip Summary: New Orleans Mardi Gras