Mardi Gras in New Orleans means different things to different people. Whether you are a visitor, a local, a writer, a dancer or a banker there is somewhere for you to fit in and to have the time of your life. And like any good venture in life, you get out of it what you put into it. So here is your guide to getting the most out of Mardi Gras.
1. The 101.
Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is both a single day and a season. The day falls, technically, the day before Ash Wednesday but people interchangeably use the terms Mardi Gras and Carnival to refer to the time period starting on Twelfth Night (January 6th) and concluding at midnight (sharp) the night before Ash Wednesday. What you need to know is that the real party lasts the final six days of Carnival. It begins in earnest the Wednesday before Fat Tuesday and increases in intensity until Mardi Gras Day when you are up and in costume by 8am very possibly a fragile shell of your former self.
The most important thing to know is that Mardi Gras is not a sprint. It is not even a marathon. It is an endurance race - one of those multi-day things that goes through the desert and if you get lost you'll have only your wits and an occasional flying rodent to sustain you. Pace yourself. It’s okay to turn things down. Don’t peak early and tumble down the other side.
2. The Po-Po.
The police you see in the street are overworked, overstressed, cold and tired of dealing with drunk people. That said they are also really fantastic at their job during Mardi Gras. They keep the peace, keep people safe and usually have a decent time. They will turn the other cheek to most transgressions but two that they will quickly make you regret are relieving yourself in public and fighting. Both will get you thrown in jail. It is important to know that if you do get tossed in the slammer you don't get out until after Mardi Gras Day. So find a bathroom and keep your hands to yourself.
3. Know where you belong.
Mardi Gras provides something for everyone. College kids, families, European visitors, single ladies, LGTBQ…but know your neighborhood divides:
Uptown is where the local families celebrate and they don't appreciate a load of obscenity and nakedness around their children. Be good to them and they will be good to you. It's easy to shake an invitation to a pot of red beans or a clean bathroom by being respectful and helping their kids catch beads. It's also easy to be the subject of some very angry neighborhood dads if you spill beer on Grandma and intercept little Joey's foam football.
The Bywater & Marigny: Mardi Gras Day is the day for the LGTBQ community. If you are any of those letters get to sleep early on Monday and be prepared to put your most fabulous foot forward on Tuesday morning at about 8am in the Bywater. Head to Mimi's and wait for the party to find you. You'll know it when you see it.
Frenchman Street: This is where to find music, restaurants and a lot of people. No parades but there is enough to keep you occupied. No kids here. 21+ only.
The French Quarter can be a super fun place to hang out if you are under 30. Plan to spend a lot of money on drinks stay on the main drag. Don’t forget that point about not upsetting the police. If you happen to still be lucid and in the French Quarter super late on Mardi Gras Day try to get up onto a balcony at 11:45pm. At midnight a thick line of police on horseback, followed by police on foot, followed by cars, followed by a clean-up crew make a sweep down Bourbon Street and make Mardi Gras vanish without a trace. It’s pretty cool to see.
4. Dress Code
If you are going to costume, which you TOTALLY should, make sure you mask has a hole to drink through. Also make sure you can easily use the bathroom in your costume. You need to commit to your fabulous alter ego -- no removing of wigs, even if they itch. No washing off of face paint until you are tucked in at home. Check the weather, dress appropriately and layer. Absolutely no purses.
Plan to walk everywhere and wear super comfortable shoes that you don't mind ruining. There is a lot of weird blurg on the ground and you are certain to step in it. If you think you are parked illegally, plan to be towed. The city has a huge collection of tow trucks and drivers who love this time of year.
6. All the small things
Tune your radio to WWOZ 90.7. Carry cash. Not too much. Leave your nice jewelry at home. Travel in packs. Don't be obnoxious. Keep Advil on hand. Drink lots of water. Carry a small pack of anti bacterial wipes. Never pass up a clean bathroom.
7. NOW….the good stuff
The parades! There is actually a guide to every official parade, its route and a little story about it. You can find that here. Now, install the WDSU parade tracker app on your phone so you know where to be and when. This will also help you know exactly how long you have to go find a bathroom before the parades start. You can’t make it to all 60 parades that roll through the Greater New Orleans area so pick a few and make them happen.
Try this out for a starter list:
NYX (pronounced Nicks). This is the newest all-female Mardi Gras Krewe founded in 2012 after soooooo many women wanted to join the highly revered Muses that they had to close their wait list. Nyx is applauded for diversity (as long as you are female) and their signature throw is a purse. There are 1200+ of these women and a lot of strong marching bands. They roll Wednesday evening (Feb. 11th) at 7pm following the Krewe of Druids. Krewe d'etat is a smaller parade with only 21 floats but it's satirical theme means it is often a favorite of critics. The captain and officers ride on horseback throughout the parade and The Dictator remains a secret until the day they parade. Members of the krewe dressed as walking skeletons hand out the papers and wooden doubloons at the parades. This one's funny and will definitely give you an education about what is frustrating locals at the moment. (6:30pm Friday, February 13th)
MUSES, Don't let the boys tell you the girls can't play! Muses rolled into town in 2000 and made the boys want to pack up their balls and go home. They continue as a Super Krewe in high demand with outstanding throws (one of the top catches at Mardi Gras is a Muses Shoe) and sarcastic themes and float titles. Plus, if you weren't sure, check this out: In 2013, the Honorary Muse was Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend an all white elementary school in the south. Bam. (Thursday, February 12th, 6:30pm)
ENDYMION This is one of the three Super Krewes so called because of their huge krewes, large floats, increasing use of technology for lights and music and celebrity Grand Marshals Endymion bosts the world’s largest Mardi Gras float at 330 feet long, holing 230 riders and cost $1.2 million to build. This parade goes through Mid City and is a huge, huge locals and family parade. Line up early for this one. It rolls at 4:15 but generally goes well into the night. (Saturday, February 14th.)
THOTH This is a huge day-parade that has been rolling for 67 years. It rolls on Sunday at noon and is a big hit with kids. There are 40 floats and the riders are boisterous neighborhood dwellers. (Sunday, February 15th)
KREWE OF TUCKS is a basically a rolling fratnerity house. Expect lots of potty humor. The kids love it! (Noon, Saturday, February 14th)
KREWE OF ORPHEUS is the most musical of the parades having been founded by Harry Connick Junior and being named after the musically-inclined son of Zeus and Calliope. This was also the first Super Krewe to allow both male and female riders and locals LOVE this parade. It is the last thing you do before you go to sleep the night before Mardi Gras Day. (6pm Monday, February 16th)
ZULU Probably the parade with the richest history, Zulu is known primarily as an African American Krewe although they have a diverse ridership of ethnicities and gender. They have 50 floats, 20+ bands and famously begin lining up on Mardi Gras day at 4am. FOUR A.M.! The catch of all catches at Mardi Gras is a Zulu Coconut. They hand it out, they aren’t allowed to thow it anymore. Shame. (Tuesday, February 17th, 8am)
REX, the King of Mardi Gras, has been parading longer than any other organization and the king of Rex is considered King of Carnival. Each year it is an older man who is prominent in the community (usually for social, business and philanthropic endeavors)and a lovely younger woman who is the daughter of a prominent family. This parade is a "Must See" but keep in mind the element of observation. The floats contain maskers in original costumes and elaborately decorated and hand-painted floats but they are notoriously stingy with throws. Appreciate it if you catch something. (Tuesday, February 17th 10am)
And that’s about it. Pace yourself, wear a costume, don’t pee in public. You’re golden! See you on The Route. And until you get here, turn this on and turn it up!