Or: What’s the big deal about Mardi Gras parades?
Some people attend Mardi Gras and never see a single parade. That’s just a crying shame. What are they doing instead? They are usually holed up in a bar somewhere, drinking. While I can appreciate that alcohol is often a part of the festivities, if you just want to sit and drink you can do it at home. No reason to make travel arrangements to go all the way to New Orleans for that. See at least one damn parade!
A New Orleans parade is not what your idea of a parade is. A New Orleans parade is interactive. It’s energetic. It’s a contact sport. And I suggest you see what it’s all about. Different parades have different atmospheres, and even the same parade will feel different depending on where you are watching it. Parades are everywhere, from uptown New Orleans to the suburbs. You can experience them standing on the curb, crushed up against a barricade, sitting in viewing stands, looking off balconies, or in the final end point location at a Krewe ball (often the Superdome or convention center). You can catch them for a few minutes as you are walking to something else, or you can camp out all day to keep your perfect spot.
When most people talk about Mardi Gras parades they are usually thinking of the ones with the large floats carrying riders but there are “walking” krewes as well. These may be smaller but the people in them have just as much fun. These walking krewes are the only ones allowed to parade in the French Quarter – all others have standard routes in other parts of the city where the streets are large enough to accommodate the floats. (I don’t do history here; I just give you my wisdom from things observed over the years as a tourist, but there is plenty of parade, float, and throw history to be found if you are so inclined.)
So when you think of a parade you think of floats, bands, people on horseback, music, sirens, miscellaneous entertainment in between…right? Now supersize that idea AND add in things being thrown to you. At you. Hurled, in fact. Lots of things. Mostly beads but also cups, doubloons, stuffed animals, feather boas, hats, Frisbees, random stuff that lights up, etc…. You can’t even imagine. You’ll never be able to go to a “normal” parade again; it will be such a disappointment to you. You are thinking that who cares, you don’t really want any of that crap, and maybe you don’t. But as soon as you get close enough to a parade to catch things you will transform. Suddenly you will become a competitive 10 year old kid who would knock his grandma over for a string of purple plastic beads.
Location, location, location:
Many people have their favorite viewing spot that they stake out year after year. Some people are lucky enough to actually LIVE on a parade route (the mind reels), or have a hotel room on the route. Most of you will be coming from Bourbon and not want to walk too far so you’ll end up in the least desirable viewing location of all – Canal Street. I watched parades from a metal barricade on Canal for many years until I got my act together and found friends with better places, but Canal works just fine for most people who’d rather catch an occasional parade for a few minutes before going back to boozing. Any location with barricades is going to be hard to cross (both before and during a parade) so if you are on the wrong side and want to get back to your hotel you are in for a long wait or long walk to find somewhere without barricades to jump. Some cops will help you out and some will not. If you have a cop who tells you to wait until the parade is over, DO NOT ignore him and sprint across the street. You might get arrested and that’s just stupid for you. In fact, I think it’s safe to say when in New Orleans, do not go against any law enforcement officer’s instructions. They don’t have time to play with over-privileged and over-served tourists who think the rules don’t apply to them. Behave. Find a spot and make friends with the people standing around you. They can be your best allies or your worst enemies when it comes to catching throws. You want people who are willing to share when they get a batch of good stuff, and you should too. I’m short, so for me the perfect parade neighbor is a tall guy who likes the fun of catching stuff but doesn’t really care about keeping it. Don’t stand near kids. They get all the good stuff tossed to them and never share. Plus they are tiny and speedy and will grab stuff on the ground much faster than you can. PLUS you have to watch your mouth around them (a deal breaker for me) and you can’t get mad at them because…well…they’re kids. Pretty little teenage girls that weigh 90 pounds and look sweet as praline pie? Don’t stand near them either.
If you are serious about your parade revelry you will bring something to get you noticed by float riders. Most people who want to do this make signs or wear funky costumes. For night parades, think bright neon colors and things that light up. You want them to see you, make eye contact and decide to throw to you. I hang with some folks who get very elaborate with their signage and costuming, but sometimes I think that’s more for our own entertainment – a pizza box and Sharpie can make a fine sign that works too. What to write?
- The name of the krewe (Endymion RULES! Or HAIL BACCHUS for example)
- Something personal (My First Mardi Gras or Here from Australia)
- If you know a rider and what float they are on, make a sign with their name so they can find you
The most dangerous sign I’ve ever seen (because it was effective) was a giant bulls-eye with a hole cut in the middle for the person’s head to stick through. I think many riders took that as a challenge. DON’T do this unless you have outstanding medical and dental coverage. And even then, don’t do it. Beads hurt. You will learn this the first time you aren’t paying attention when a float goes by. Most riders try to make eye contact with someone they are throwing to, but sometimes they are just throwing.
Another Thing About Location:
Let’s say you do know someone riding in a parade and you want to make sure they see you on the route. They will be able to tell you their float number or title, maybe their location on the float, and what side of the float. They’ll say either sidewalk side or neutral ground side. Whaaaa? I’ll give you the best explanation not written by me:
“For those of you who are confused about the “sidewalk side” vs “neutral ground” side – these descriptions are based on when the parade is on St. Charles, uptown. For those who understand better the “driver side” vs “passenger side” (as if you’re riding in a car) – driver’s side=neutral ground side; passenger side=sidewalk side. ” From http://www.mapmardigras.com/krewe-riders.html
Do’s and Don’t:
- DO bring food and drink (especially if you are early to a parade)
- DON’T be that jerk who jumps in front of people with their giant sign every time a float comes by
- DO be nice to your neighbors and share when you get a bundle of beads
- DON’T throw anything at the float riders
- DO get a parade app on your smartphone (there are several – Google “Mardi Gras parade apps”)
- DON’T flash –not cool at parades
- DO scope out where a legal restroom is before you need it
- DON’T encroach on the marching bands ‘ space – you’ll get hit with a tuba or shoved by security
- DO pay attention to riders throwing to avoid injuries to your face!
- DON’T move people’s coolers or chairs, find your own space
- DO toss quarters to the guys carrying the fire – they are flambeaux carriers, a Carnival tradition and how the original night festivities were lit. These guys work hard and are very entertaining to watch.