The beating of drums and horns in the distance. Crowds swelling around you ready to burst from excitement. Horse hooves pounding against the asphalt. Fresh beads dangling from oak limbs. Mardi Gras is marching towards you.
Despite this year’s Carnival season being about as short as it can be at 35 days, it is still more of a marathon rather than a sprint (though some parts will definitely feel that way). Especially for first-timers, pacing is key.
One of the most important aspects of Mardi Gras is that, while private organizations invest a ton of money into putting on their parades, members of the general public participate for free. Parades are probably the most visible tradition of Mardi Gras with colorful floats, masked riders, and various trinkets that are thrown to the crowds. The old saying holds truth: it is the “greatest free show on earth.”
Once on the parade route, you will be besieged by everything from rogue beads and toddler ladders to possible wind and rain (as well as the sudden urge to use the bathroom). This is all part of the fun: standing on St. Charles Avenue (or other parade routes) mixing with your fellow humans and enjoying the competition of catching the best swag and glimpses of the floats, which are true works of art. Below, we’ve compiled a list of tips to help you to Mardi Gras mambo all the way to Ash Wednesday.
Mardi Gras Top Tips
Tip #1: Download a Parade App
Parade apps are the way of the Mardi Gras future (or perhaps present). Especially for those days when you are out on the parade route from morning ‘til night, apps are a handy way to check parade schedules. Need to go to the bathroom but worried the next parade might arrive any moment? Check the app to see how far away it is.
Additionally, sometimes parades fall behind schedule (tractors break down, it rains, etc.), and it helps to have a GPS map to stay updated on its status. The two main parade tracker apps are WDSU Parade Tracker and WWL’s Eye on Carnival Parade Tracker, both free. Another useful app during Mardi Gras (or any time) is the GoMobile app from New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA). NORTA runs modified routes and schedules during Mardi Gras: take a look here.
Tip #2: Walk, Bike, Carpool, or Park Legally
Mardi Gras season, especially the two big parade weekends, is also parking ticket season. If you have to drive, park legally (20 feet from corners, facing the direction of traffic, and not blocks fire hydrants). Arrive early to get a decent spot close to the parade route. Carpool with friends.
For anyone based downtown or within reasonable reach of the parade route, walking or biking is the best option. Remember that public transit is also impacted by parades with the St. Charles streetcar, for example, out of service two hours prior to and after the day’s parades.
Tip #3: Sidewalk Side or Neutral Ground Side?
Some people have a rather intense loyalty to one side of the street or the other during parades: the sidewalk side or the neutral ground side. The terms refer to the sidewalk on one side of the street and the larger grassy area opposite that where the streetcar runs. This is also a handy concept to provide directions to people trying to find you (additionally, you can download the apps Glympse or Friend Finder).
Tip #4: Marching Band Etiquette
Whenever a marching band nears your area of the parade route, their chaperones will ask (or make) you stand all the back to the curb so the entire band can walk through in formation. Please move back so no one in front gets whacked in the face by a giant bass drum beater.
Also, never EVER try to cross the street in the middle of a marching band. If you do, one of their adult chaperones will swiftly shove you back from whence you came. Remember, these bands consist of kids, sometimes as young as three years old. The chaperones’ first order of business is to keep them safe. So, respect the music, listen to these skilled kids, and cross the street when the whole band has passed you.
Tip #5: Catch, Don’t Throw
You will be assailed by flying beads, doubloons, moon pies, plush animals, bouncy balls, toilet brushes, and all manner of other fun items — keep your eyes peeled so you don’t get whacked! One main rule to remember though is to never throw anything back to a float: you can get in big trouble (and fined $250), damage a float, or even injure a rider. Best to stick with asking riders, “Throw me something, mister/sister!”
Tip #6: Carry Cash
This tip shouldn’t need much explanation. Carry cash, especially small bills, for any needs that arise (bathroom, beer, burgers, etc.).
Tip #7: The Loo
Remember that public urination is illegal and can get you thrown in jail. Instead of risking the possibility of missing the celebrations with your friends and family, go stand in line at Fat Harry’s, Igor’s, or any other establishment along the parade route (warning: lines can be quite long). Really want to be an adult? Head over to Sacred Heart’s Mater Campus (4301 St. Charles Ave.) and pay to use their porta potties for either $1/use or $5 which gets you a wristband for the day. Similarly, Irish House, also on St. Charles, permits use of the bathrooms for a small fee.
Another option is to download the Airpnp app on your mobile device. The app, created by locals, helps users locate a nearby bathroom for free or a nominal cost.
Tip #8: Sustenance
One of the benefits of Mardi Gras parades is that you can bring food and drink (unlike many other festivals with entry points) so you don’t have to be at the mercy of higher-priced-than-normal food and drink. If you are looking to save money, pack some sandwiches, snacks, and your beverage of choice into a backpack or cooler.
If you don’t mind paying slightly higher prices, take advantage of the Domino’s cart or head to any number of restaurants up and down the parade route (be prepared to stand in line). Additionally, Sacred Heart’s Mater Campus (4301 St. Charles Ave.) is set up carnival-style with booths selling domestic beer, gumbo, red beans and rice, hot dogs, nachos, candy, hot chocolate, coffee, and daiquiris.
Tip # 9: Dress for Comfort
Mardi Gras is early this year, so it is bound to be cold (though in New Orleans you can never quite be sure). Hopefully, your dad was an L.L.Bean-wearing boy scout at heart and taught you how to dress to survive an ice age. If not, you’ll need:
- Thick wool socks
- Comfortable boots or tennis shoes
- A layer of long underwear (you’ll thank me later)
- Long-sleeve shirt
- Several layers of outerwear
- Gloves (I repeat, gloves!)
You don’t need to take it to the level of Randy in A Christmas Story or else you wouldn’t be able to catch anything, but you want to be warm. And don’t forget to check for rain!
Tip #10: What’s the Deal with the Ladders?
Ladders serve the dual purpose of claiming your territory on the parade route and of giving your kids a boost to see the parades from on high. Legally, ladders must be set six feet back from the curb and cannot be chained together. Hint: if you stand behind a ladder you can sometimes catch some good leftovers — riders love throwing to kids!
Tip #11: Public Decency
Mardi Gras is mostly a family affair. True, some of the parades like Krewe du Vieux tend to be adult-themed, but celebrations are generally not what you see portrayed in the movies (hint: keep your clothes on). Disrobing in any way is illegal.
Tip #12: Costumes are Encouraged!
Dressing in costumes — big wigs, purple, green, and gold suits, tutus, and Perlis Mardi Gras polos — is definitely encouraged. You’ll find people in lively garb all season, but Mardi Gras day itself is when people really tend to go all out. Where the costumes really get wild are in and around the Marigny. You’ll see some of the most bizarre and creative outfits such as live king cake babies and street names personified.
Tip #13: The Throws You Want
At least for me, every time my fingers lock onto some trinket sailing through the air, I get this huge rush of endorphins, regardless of whether it is a plain old strand of beads, doubloons, or something more unique. Many of the larger Mardi Gras krewes have signature throws that are often custom-decorated items for which people are practically willing to give up their first born. You should be so lucky to get a glittered purse from the Krewe of Nyx, a bedazzled shoe from Muses, a sparkling toilet brush from Tucks, or — perhaps the most cherished item depending on whom you ask — a coconut from Zulu on Mardi Gras Day. These are items that locals proudly display on their mantles. Ask nicely, and you may receive. Just don’t mow down any children.
Tip #14: Get Parader Status Without the Commitment
Participating in Mardi Gras is often a lot of work for krewe members — practices, dues, and year-round commitments can all go hand in hand with riding in a parade. But you can still get parader status without joining a krewe: Disco Amigos allows anyone over age 21 to march in select parades like Nyx and Tucks for just $50 (plus the cost of your sweet ’70s costume, of course).
Tip # 15: Lagniappe Packing Suggestions
A backpack is the best way to go, partially because you can wear it while parade watching. Fanny packs are also excellent ways to hold on to your valuables instead of leaving them on your fold-up camping chair a few feet away. Speaking of, camping chairs are recommended to pass the time between parades. Additional smart packing suggestions are wet wipes, Hot Hands to put in your gloves and socks, a water bottle, and a raincoat (pending rain). Remember that if you bring tents or grills, they, like ladders, must be at least six feet from the curb.
Tip #16: Branch Out
St. Charles Avenue parades are the iconic Mardi Gras image: huge tractor-pulled floats, throw after throw tossed to shouting and waving crowds, and the fire engine closing out each parade. Everyone should experience this. However, an alternative side to the parades includes several smaller walking parades that pass through the Marigny and French Quarter, like Krewe du Vieux and krewedelusion (Jan. 23) and the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus (Jan. 30).
Tip #17: Have Fun!
Mardi Gras is all about letting loose and having a good time. Someone else caught the sleeve of cups aimed for you? Let it go — there’s plenty more where that came from.
Bonus Tips: Mardi Gras Balls
Carnival season is also a time of private balls where kings and queens are crowned and rule over their loyal subjects. Luckily for the average person, who may not be a member of these exclusive old-line clubs, many krewes have balls that are open to the public, for a price. Balls that sell tickets include Bacchus, Orpheus, and Endymion (plus several LGBT balls). These three have huge blowouts with live music and each of the parades passing through.
While you’re at the ball, might we suggest…
Ear Plugs — For the bigger balls that have large-scale professional entertainment, bring ear plugs– it can get pretty loud.
Proper Dress Code — This is more important for some balls than others. Lots of the big krewes require formal dress, meaning floor-length ball gowns and tuxedos (or tails). Others, especially the more artsy krewes, are more lax. Do your research. For those balls where the parades are actually part of the balls, ladies should consider bringing flats.
Go with a Group — Mardi Gras balls are always more fun with a large group!
Happy Mardi Gras!