Have you ever wanted to experience Mardi Gras? Me, too. As it happened, however, life (i.e. other travel plans) meant we would be in New Orleans 10 days too late.
As with most things in Louisiana, Mardi Gras came with the French settlers. Records from as far back as the early 1700s describe masked balls and parades in New Orleans. In 1806, the party had become so raucous that the powers that be decided to lay down the law. This was of course ignored – you’re not going to stop having fun just because it’s illegal, are you… A few years later, the authorities saw the error of their ways and lifted the ban. However, to ensure the parties didn’t go on all year long, a law was passed limiting the season to the period between 1 January and Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras).
And so it remains today: the carnival season begins on the Twelfth Night of Christmas (6 January, Epiphany), and through the weeks that follow, there are processions, masquerades and king cake parties. Then, as a final blast of frivolity before Lent, everything culminates with a no holds barred celebration on Fat Tuesday.
The celebrations are organised by krewes, a whopping 54 of them. In some krewes, the members decorate their own floats, but the vast majority leave it in the capable hands of Blaine Kern Studios, Mardi Gras float designers and -builders since 1947. Their Mardi Gras World is one of 18 warehouses containing well, everything Mardi Gras.
Welcome to Mardi Gras World
While we couldn’t join in the fabulous festivities, we could still get a taste of this classic New Orleans tradition. Let’s take a behind-the-scenes look at where the magic happens: welcome to the float den at Mardi Gras World.
As we slowly make our way through, preparations for next year’s Mardi Gras season is in full swing. The giant warehouse is brimming with floats, sculptures, props, masks, costumes – from the bizarre to the beautiful. There’s the clang of workmen’s tools, the smell of the artists’ paint, and most of all the colours: every imaginable shade, every nuance on the colour spectrum is represented.
Mardi Gras World offers a short film on the history of the carnival, the opportunity to dress up, and a tour of the large warehouse where the magic happens. And, there’s king cake.
Sometimes, when I’ve been in Paris in the beginning of January, I’ve bought a galette des rois to take home and serve to friends and family. This is an old, religious tradition, associated with Epiphany. The Parisian version contains a figurine hidden inside the cake; whomever gets the trinket is king for a day and must, according to custom, buy the next galette.
In New Orleans, the king cake tradition harks back to the 1870s. Iced with the colours of Mardi Gras: green, purple and gold, the hidden figurine inside is a tiny plastic baby, representing baby Jesus. If you get the baby, be prepared to throw the next king cake party. The taste? Well, with all that icing it’s a sweet affair. Surprisingly, though, Cat, my 11-year-old who prefers dried fish snacks to sweets, took a liking to king cake, and kept looking for it on restaurant menus.
If you can’t make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, set aside a couple of hours to browse Mardi Gras World; it’s a fun and family-friendly experience in the Big Easy.
Want to visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras?
The dates changes annually, depending on the dates of Easter – which, as I’m sure you all know – is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Next year, Fat Tuesday (also known as Shrove Tuesday) falls on 4 March and in 2015 it’s on 17 February.
Don’t let anyone fool you into buying a ticket for Mardi Gras. It’s simply a street festival, completely free of charge. Neither is there any official Mardi Gras-souvenirs for sale. No one organisation is an official sponsor of the festivities.
Mardi Gras World practicals
- Mardi Gras World is located near the port of New Orleans, on the Mississippi river, walking distance from the city centre and the French Quarter. There’s also a free shuttle bus for a rainy (or lazy) day.
- The entrance fee is USD 19.95 (discounts for children, students and seniors), and includes a throw (bead necklace) for an entrance ticket, a short, interesting film on the history of Mardi Gras, a chance to don a costume or two, a guided tour through the warehouse, a piece of king cake, and the opportunity to go crazy with your camera for as long as you want.
Disclosure: In New Orleans, we were guests of New Orleans CVB. As ever, we’re free to write about anything we want.
If you visit the US in January, consider adding the Children’s Gasparilla Festival in Tampa, Florida to your itinerary. The festival shares the Mardi Gras spirit, only the festival is alcohol free and quite kid friendly. We got to attend this year and were blown away by the floats, the fun and the people. I never appreciated Tampa or its rich Cuban history until we attended this event.
Love your photos of your girls and I’m so glad we “met.”
Family Travels on a Budget
Thanks for this, Karen. Must admit I didn’t know much about Tampa, seem to always have been on the east coast of Florida. The Gasparilla festival sounds fun. And of course Florida in January sounds very nice. I’ll keep it in mind.
I did not appreciate that the Mardi Fras festival tied in with Shrove Tuesday. I guess you can tell I haven’t followed Mardi Gras very closely. Still it would be fun to see the parade and a behind the scenes look at the floats. There are some pretty wild colours.
Love the story of the King Cake. Maybe you can make it for Cat.
It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon, Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras itself seems a little too far on the wild end of things for my liking, but Mardi Gras World looks amazing! I would love to get a close up look at some of those amazing floats. Somehow I don’t think you get a true appreciation for them as they whiz past during a parade.
I’ve heard it can get a bit wild, but there seems to be so many events (and many parades), I think one can find something to suit everyone.
I really loved Mardi Gras World when I visited. It is a sensory overload for sure–not to mention an embarrassment of riches for photographers.
Thanks for this great behind-the-scenes tour, Sophie. I’m surprised that there isn’t one official sponsor. Almost unheard of with a festival that’s so large. Kudos to New Orleans.
Yes, I quite like that too – that no one ‘owns’ it.
Dang! I was in New Orleans a couple months ago but didn’t know about Mardi Gras World. It looks very interesting. I’ll definitely check it out next time.
Hope you do 🙂
I’ve always been leery of celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans before I had kids and even more so with kids in tow. This has got to be the next best thing. I love that you can get up close to the colorful floats and it’s kid-friendly. One of these days, we’ll make it to New Orleans and definitely adding this to places to visit.
Fun play ground for kids and adults 🙂
I had no idea they start preparations so early, but it makes sense since some of the floats are so elaborate and there are so many of them. I only visited New Orleans once and it was a business trip that was less than pleasant, so I’m ready to go back. During Mardi Gras would be nice, but Mardi Gras World looks like a nice idea the rest of the year.
Know what you mean, business trips can be so hectic, I feel lucky to get even an hour to explore on my own sometimes.
Never heard of Mardi Gras World but it seems like it would be a great behind-the-scene experience! I do love all the colors that come with Mardi Gras.
I had never heard of Mardi Gras World either. A very New Orleanian experience 🙂
such lovely festival. attending this festival is my childhood dream. thank you for the visual tour.
Hope you get a chance to attend some time.
I’ve always wanted to see the Mardi Gras, and this post certainly hasn’t lessened my appetite.
I’d like to see it, too. Very different from what we’re used to up here, from what I hear. We should gather up lots of people and make a Scandinavian contingent at Mardi Gras some time 🙂
Love this! Should have known MG came from the French – so decadent. I’m not the biggest fan of king cake though, too sweet for me…
Yes, too sweet for me too.
That’s so funny — I, too, am not a big sweets person, but I love king cake. Maybe because while I don’t really like cake or cookies, I love icing. You really made these photos pop wow.
Colourful festival, colourful cakes 🙂
I never thought I would enjoy Mardi Gras but the king cake and floats sound like reasons in themselves to go.
I’d love to see the parades.
What colourful images, Sophie! A must visit destination, then…
I think so 🙂
Wow! This is something I’ve always wanted to experience. I was lucky enough to get to the Rio Carnaval parade this February. You can’t beat a massive street party!
Rio during carnival would be fun – and possibly a little scary 🙂
I am not sure how I missed this….clearly I will be going back! Fantastic photos. Looks out of this world.
Thanks. It was a fun place.
[…] As many of you know – I had a great time in New Orleans, ticking items off my NOLA bucket list, one item at a time! Saw some parades, taste tested my way around town and generally lived it up. What I want to know is how on earth did I miss Mardi Gras World? I will have to go back as Sophie’s photos clearly show: Mardi Gras World is where the magic happens! […]
new orleans is something else, isn’t it? i was there for paddy’s day many years ago and it was CRAZY! but good crazy 🙂