A Weekend Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans

A New Orleans parade float prop

As luck (for me) would have it, my sister moved to New Orleans a couple of years ago to live with her oldest, Kat. I’ve always wanted to go to Mardi Gras there, so I put a trip for Mardi Gras in my plans, and my daughter Katie agreed to come with me. We had booked our AirBnb a year before the trip and it was only a couple of blocks away from my sister. Planning is everything.

I had a lot to learn about going there for Mardi Gras. First of all, there is not one or two parades, but multiple parades going on all over the area throughout the weeks leading up to the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. There are sometimes several parades in one day, with one parade leading the next. The Uptown parades are walkable from my sister’s house. We did not go to the French Quarter parades, or even set foot in the French Quarter on this trip. Both Katie and I had been there before.

Kat advised us not to come on the final weekend of Mardi Gras, which was a huge surprise to me. The crowds are massive and the cost of everything is higher. With Southwest Airlines not behaving as it used to, we may have had more difficulty with our flights. Both Katie and I were glad that we followed her advice.

On Friday night, our first night, we were down on the street after dinner and it was around 11:30 PM before we left. I didn’t even notice the time passing! It was pure fun to watch, wave at the people on the floats, and try to catch whatever they threw down. I got socked in the nose with a massive wad of beads and I didn’t even mind. Well, not too much.

By the end of the night, we’d had quite a haul. Katie and Kat are here modeling their beads, and Katie (on the left) is also wearing her new hula hoop. I was wearing quite a few beads myself.

The goodies that the floats toss out are called “throws”. The beads are just a start, and some of those may have various decorations or lights on them. Katie received some very nice glass beads, plus three hula hoops throughout the weekend. There are also hats and headbands, sunglasses, cups of all sorts (New Orleans dinnerware), bubbles and toys, Kleenex and chapstick, balls and frisbees, bags of snacks, stuffed animals, and other odd things like a manicure set and a bamboo spear with feathers and a rubber tip. I’m sure I’m forgetting something. The people on the floats keep an eye out for the kids, and will try to throw them the nicest toys. It would be fun to be a kid at a Mardi Gras parade.

Katie’s treasures, and this was after just the first evening.

It wasn’t time for bed yet after the parades. We had to have a bite of King Cake back at the house first.

Haydels is one of the best bakeries in New Orleans to purchase your King Cake. It is a blend of coffee cake and cinnamon roll.

The name comes from the Biblical three wise men who brought gifts for the baby Jesus. Traditionally, King Cake is eaten between January 6, the day of their visit, to the eve of Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. A baby is placed inside the cake. Supposedly if you find the baby in your piece, you will have good luck and will be “king” for the day. I also heard another version in New Orleans, which is that you have to buy the next King Cake. My piece of cake had the baby! I don’t know when I will be back to buy everyone another cake.

We watched just one parade on Saturday afternoon. I enjoyed that one because the groups in each float were the military, police, veterans, EMT, and firefighters organizations. Some of the groups were interesting, such as the Women of the Armed Forces and World War II veterans. I didn’t see any veterans on the float, though. They are all probably too old to be riding around on a float by now.

An EMT float in Saturday’s parade

Saturday was cold, and by the time this parade was over, it was starting to drizzle. Another parade was coming, but we abandoned it in favor of a coffee shop, and then found some little shops to explore over on Magazine Street. Strangely enough, we found a small Alligator Museum. It is one man’s lifetime collection of all things alligator. You could purchase your own little alligator in the gift shop.

Also found on Magazine Street:

And a homage to Mardi Gras:

A nice warm bowl of pho at a Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Tran, was wonderful in this weather.

On Sunday we were back out on the parade route on St. Charles with lawn chairs, lunch, and empty bags to hold our throws. The day was sunny and as it warmed up as it went on.

There was even a float where you could toss your beads or hoops back, if you didn’t want them:

Having lived in St. Louis for so long, I was excited when the Clydesdales and the Budweiser beer wagon came along.

Of course, no parade would be complete without marching bands, pom squads, and twirlers. There were plenty of those. You could even get your own group together, put on some crazy costumes and dance music, and boogie down the street.

Even the houses and trees in New Orleans dress up in their beads for Mardi Gras:

We had a little time on our last day in New Orleans, so we Uber’d over to the Riverfront Mall for a beignet at one of Cafe DuMonde’s satellite coffee shops. There, we also got a look at the Mississippi River and strolled through some of the stores.

Our destination this morning, though, was Mardi Gras World, and from the mall it was a short walk. My sister and I had a picture taken next to this handsome gentleman in the waiting area:

Mardi Gras World is a working studio where most of the Mardi Gras floats are made. Several generations of the Kern family have been creating them since 1932. It has been open for many years so that everyone can get a behind-the-scenes look. First we were shown a short movie about Mardi Gras and the studios. We were given a slice of King Cake since it was Mardi Gras week – hooray! The tour then proceeded to the warehouse and studio.

Inside were floats aplenty in all stages of construction. The various decorations on a float are called “props”. A float prop is pictured at the top of this blog, and there are a couple of small ones below:

The props are made with layers of styrofoam which are glued together with insulation foam. The prop artist will carve it into shape, and then it is decorated. A prop can be redecorated several times, as the head above has been.

Behind the props is a float in progress

There are also props and floats that are made from fiberglass and reused unchanged every year. We had seen this one on the parade route, from the Krewe of Cleopatra, and it was already in the warehouse for next year.

Plenty of props in all phases of construction

A New Orleans Krewe is a social group. Krewes are a New Orleans tradition that go back all the way to 1856. Mistick Krew of Comus was the first one, and it still exists. A Krewe creates the parade and also has a ball. It can cost a lot of money just to join a Krewe. The group needs the funds to purchase all of the throws, which can run into the thousands of dollars. Besides Cleopatra, on Friday night we had seen the Krewe of Oshun and the Krewe of Alla parades.

I have heard that the French Quarter parades can get a little rowdy. The streets are narrow and the crowds can press in. The Uptown parades which we attended are more family friendly. For us, it was nice that we could just walk a few blocks down to the parade route whenever we wanted to go.

Now that we are in the season of Lent, the parades are over in New Orleans. But you can be sure that everyone is already working on next year’s parades. Fat Tuesday is February 13, 2024. It will be early in the year, so dress warm if you come!

Next time – across the Gulf to Boca Chica Beach and SpaceX