New Orleans, LA

Where Mardi Gras Lives All Year

Rene Cizio

Being in New Orleans during Mardi Gras is a rare thing. So not many get to experience the exceptional and unique experience of a Mardi Gras parade.

Floats at Mardi Gras World are not like floats you’ve ever seen before. If you grew up anywhere else in the world as I did, your idea of a parade float probably involves paper or plastic-colored flowers shaped into semi-recognizable figures made by high school students.

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Imagine instead what a float could look like if it used state-of-the-art technology, big budgets, and top-notch craftspeople with a lifetime of skill dedicated to float making. Now, I’m interested.

MARDI GRAS WORLD

The world is housed in a massive warehouse on the outskirts of town. I gave them $22, and they gave me a strand of purple Mardi Gras beads and a piece of King Cake.

Fun fact: King Cake is a ring of sweet cinnamon pastry that’s covered in lots of icing and purple, yellow, and green sugar and icing. Hidden inside is a baby, Jesus. The person who gets the baby wins a prize and rights to party hosting for the following year, or something like that. It’s a New Orleans tradition during Mardi Gras season.

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“This is your ticket,” the lady behind the counter said as she handed them over. “Just wear the beads when you’re in the warehouse.” The cake, she may have suspected, wouldn’t last that long.

MARDI GRAS MOVIE AND HISTORY

Through the back of the gift shop, the tour begins with a 15-minute video. It’s about the history of Mardi Gras. I usually despise being forced to watch video of any sort. But this one was entertaining, historical, and helped me better understand the float-making process. Plus, I had cake.

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The original parades were small and not as elaborate as they became. But, as time went on, interest grew, the krewes expanded, and the floats became more extravagant.

Fun fact: A krewe is a social organization that puts on a parade and parties or balls during Carnival season in New Orleans.

As time went on, the demand for bigger spectacles grew as did the need for creative people. Several companies in and around New Orleans now specialize in float making. There are also companies for all things accompanying Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It’s estimated to be a $1 billion annual business for the city.

IN THE WAREHOUSE

The warehouse is set up in phases to show how floats go from concept to reality. First, there are offices and work areas. These are littered with paint cans, toys, sketching pencils and pads, and big boards where people might gather and ideate. Here they sketch ideas and creative concepts.

Once approved, they enlarge their drawings with projectors onto blank walls of Styrofoam, layering sheets of foam, so it is thick as a boulder but as light as air.

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The Styrofoam, glued together into thick slabs, is carved with electric bread knives and hand saws into the shapes and designs of the imagination. They’re sculpted as intricately as any marble worker might carve them. After they have the shape, they cover it with papier mâché and paint it before attaching it to the floats. In one area a laser Styrofoam cutter for intricate, detailed work cuts foam like a surgeon leaving dust in its wake.

MARDI GRAS FLOATS

Mardi Gras floats are not like any float you’ve ever seen in a parade in any other city. These are the most elaborate and fantastical floats you’ve ever imagined. Many even have lights and mechanized, moving objects, in addition to the costumed makers tossing “throws” from the float.

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Fun Fact: Throws aren’t just beads. Throws can be doubloons (plastic “coins”), cups or other trinkets like sunglasses, handmade gifts, stickers, or a wide variety of small items. Often they’re not “thrown” but rather handed to those nearest the front of the parade.

PREVIOUS YEAR’S PARADE FLOATS

The bulk of the warehouse was used as storage for old float parts, pieces, and characters. It was fun to see the vast, random collection of giant characters. I saw Miss Piggy, The Terminator, Roger Rabbit, Elvis Presley, Buddha, Buzz Lightyear, Chucky, King Kong, and many others. Each was larger than life, once having adorned some float according to the theme for that year.

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WHEN THE PARADES GO MARCHING IN

There are close to 20 parades that roll through New Orleans during Carnival and on Mardi Gras. They’re hosted all over the city in the weeks during Carnival leading up to Mardi Gras. They range in size and type and spectacle. There are parades for dogs and some with floats made from shoe boxes. Others where no beads are tossed, and all the throws are handmade and adult themed. As the big day grows closer, the floats become bigger.

Even for the miniature parade the crowds gather and cheer, enjoying this entirely unique New Orleans event. The parades are a celebration of many things, but to me, they’re creativity personified. They’re so lively, so festive; you don’t want it to end. In fact, they have a name for that. A second line is a group of spectators who join the parade by walking behind it after it passes.

But, if you can't make it during festival season, you can always get a little bit of Mardi Gras feeling at Mardi Gras World.

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Solo nomad writing about travel and experiences www.middlejourney.com

Detroit, MI
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