Mardi Gras, Out of Season
Guess what? I’m speaking at TravelCon 2020 in New Orleans! Use SPEAKER50 to get $50 off.
My first trip to New Orleans was for Mardi Gras, a move that many locals recommend avoiding. But I have no regrets — it was an amazing experience. In fact, when I returned for my second trip, I was feeling a little nostalgic for all the colorful chaos. That, combined with the fact that it was one of the only tourist attractions my resident sister had yet to check off her local bucket list, is what led us to Mardi Gras World for a behind-the-scenes tour of the magic.
I won’t lie — our cheesy attraction alarms were on full blast when we pulled up at the nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of the city, and we arrived for the tour with arms skeptically crossed. And our eyebrows only raised higher when the first stop was to a dressing room full of kitschy costumes where we were instructed to take photos. I don’t know why this struck me as unappealing rather than amazing, like most dress up opportunities do, but it didn’t matter, because we skipped the whole thing to run back out to the parking lot and deal with the parking situation. Note to future New Orleans visitors: try to grab one of the free shuttles to and from the French Quarter if Mardi Gras World makes it onto your itinerary. The $10 fee for parking is kind of insulting considering the vast, multiple-football-fields-in-size empty lot it will be sitting in.
But back to the tour — we returned just in time to be ushered into our seats for a movie that turned out to be incredibly informative and interesting. I’d never taken much time to consider the history of Mardi Gras, and enjoyed a little peek into what’s behind all the beautiful traditions that makes it merry, not to mention the details of float construction and delicate parade logistics. Did you know that early floats were pulled by mules and build on the beds of old garbage trucks?
When the credits rolled and the lights flipped on, we were each given a piece of King Cake to sample — despite a week of Mardi Gras celebrations, it was my first time sampling the rainbow-hued dessert. I loved it. And then, we were unleashed into the warehouse.
This is where the tour, for me, took a turn for the fabulous. This was no storage space — it was a real, working art studio where the floats of Mardi Gras were coming to life just feet away from our camera shutters. I was amazed by how simple the construction was. I would have assumed every high tech method available was put into these incredible pieces of art — but nope, most were pretty basic paper maché affairs.
You could tell the artists that called this place their office were a humorous, fun-loving bunch. And as a former art school survivor myself, I loved that this place existed to create jobs for so many New Orleans creatives.
It seemed like we were catching the end of a busy workday, and the next tour, the last of the day, found the studio empty. If you want to make sure to see the artists at work, I’d recommend making it for one of the earlier tour times.
Eventually we moved on from the active studio area into a vast storage space for former float pieces, many of which would eventually be deconstructed and given new life. For example, while we were visiting, a planet was being stripped and repainted as a soccer ball.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was excitedly squeezing Olivia’s arm every time I recognized a component of a float from a parade we’d watched together. Our own inanimate version of spot-the-celebrity. The crazy part? This is just one of fifteen warehouses full of similar sculptures!
Our guide impressed me not just for her bottomless well of Mardi Gras-related knowledge but also for the impressive way she answered the bewildered questions of tour guests who just couldn’t quite grasp the spirit of the celebrations. “Krewes are non-profit organizations who’s aim is to spread joy and have fun,” she explained patiently, as the Midwestern tourists tried valiantly to get to the bottom of why New Orleans residents would willingly spend thousands of dollars simply to belong to a krewe and throw a massive party that celebrates… nothing! “It is a gift to the community,” she reasoned, trying a different angle.
It reminded me of similar attempts I’ve made to explain because we can events like Burning Man and The Mermaid Parade to skeptics. Yes, they are expensive. No, there is no religious significance. Yes, they are amazing.
And as we examined the stationary floats up close, in the daylight and generally in conditions that the chaotic parades would never allow for, we appreciated their detail on another level. We also learned a lot — including the stunning revelation that New Orleans does indeed have some rules. Apparently, safety standards for the floats are strict. Safety ropes on the balconies determine the number of people on the float, and the size indicates what number of on-board bathrooms are required.
We couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like to see Mardi Gras from the bead-throwing side.
By the time we were exiting through the gift shop, we were totally sold on Mardi Gras World. Artists and engineers alike will be inspired by the logistics and creativity that goes into these masterpieces, and NOLA-lovers will love the behind-the-scenes look at one of the city’s greatest celebrations. But for any traveler, it’s a super fun and colorful place to reminisce about a past Mardi Gras — or daydream about a future one!
blurry, but wholly un-deletable
Have you ever been surprised by what you thought would be a cheesy tourist attraction?
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I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.
This looks like SO MUCH FUN!! I love learning about events and getting a peek at the behind the scenes of what goes into making something come to life (I’m one of those people who will actually sit and watch the hours of bonus features on movies). I love that you recognized some of the ones you had seen in person!
You would definitely love this place then, Marni! Definitely add it to your list for future trips to New Orleans 🙂
That sounds really cool!
The floats have to have on-board bathrooms? Seriously? That’s crazy! I would never have guessed that.
I know you share my appreciation for a well-done tour, Amanda — I really think you would like this one!
Had no idea that Mardi Gras floats were so ornate! They’re really beautiful! And I never would have guessed they are required to have on-board bathrooms!
Yeah, Olivia and I both commented how great it was to see them sitting still, in great lighting. Very different than appreciating them in action at the parades. It’s not something you realize you missed until you are doing it!
Ah that is so cool! I would love to make one of those! The engineer-me wants to design and build one and the artist-me wants to paint it!
I totally wanted to grab a brush and start painting. What an amazingly cool job!
i too was pleasantly surprised by mardi gras world. & would have been more so if i’d taken this tour. we did the 15 min run-through but it was still amazing!
something else i expected to be cheesy but was in fact awesome: ALCATRAZ!
I actually didn’t even know that was possible — I thought you HAD to do the tour. But I’m actually glad that I thought that. It was awesome and the tour guide was surprisingly good for someone wearing a headset.
To echo other comments – ON-BOARD BATHROOMS! I’d always wondered how they could drink so much for so many hours with no breaks. Makes so much sense…
Haha, love that that’s what has caught everyone’s attention 🙂
I love cheesy tourist attractions but this looks really interesting. I’m always a fan of learning about the history and origins of cultural events. It’s also insane to think about how much work goes into this celebration. And, wow, there are 15 of those warehouses around the city?! That’s amazing.
It just makes me shake my head and LOVE New Orleans all the more for it. So much effort in the pursuit of a good time — my kind of people!
United States is an amazing country, you can see so many things. But Koh Tao always captures your heart, Alex.
True, but I adore my time at home as well 🙂
Gorgeous! I had never thought about how much energy gets put into parade floats.
Yet another reason I should to New Orleans soon 🙂
Definitely add this to the list when you do!
Great to see so much colour brought into the world (I particularly loved the point about it being purely for joy, nothing religious at all)!
Somewhere I think will have to be for another Americas trip…
Indeed. It’s the same thing I love about New York’s (much smaller scale!) Mermaid Parade. Just for the fun and the creativity!
I’ve never been to New Orleans, but when I go this is definitely on my list.
My cheese-factor… Harry Potter studios in England. I couldn’t NOT go. Cheesy though it may have been, it was incredible to see the costumes and sets up close. I also liked that your tickets were timed so it was never overly busy. Even my non-Harry-Potter-loving husband enjoyed it. How we’re married without a shared love of Potter is beyond me!
Ah, you will like my upcoming post on Universal Studios and the Harry Potter paraphernalia there, then… 🙂
this looked amazing. How nice to find out a little about the history of mardi gras and to see these amazing pieces. The colours in the photos are quite beautiful.
In answer to your question, ‘Yes.’ The Making of Harry Potter. Warner Bros Studio tour. Thought it would be cheesy but it was magnificent and special. I’d recommend it to anyone visiting the UK and London. The article is on my blog if you’re interested. 🙂
You’re the second person to mention that in this comment thread! Love it 🙂
Wow, the work and creativity that goes into the floats is incredible! I love how colourful everything is. I’ll definitely have to make it to Mardi Gras one day.
I hope I will be lucky enough to experience one again someday, Grace!
Um, Bibleland in Florida was even cheesier than I expected! I especially loved the irony of tourists videotaping “Jesus” dragging the cross.
But you have to admit that the room-size and to-scale model of Jerusalem was pretty cool.
Yes, the multiple-times-per-day resurrection was pretty entertaining, and not for the intended reasons!
I don’t think I could handle actual Mardi Gras. This tour sounds more my speed! I mean, you don’t even have to flash anyone! 😉
Ha, the flashing thing is actually kind of funny. When I was researching Mardi Gras every single thing I read was really explicit about YOU DON’T HAVE TO FLASH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO, IN FACT MAYBE JUST DON’T. And while I did see a few boobs on Bourbon Street, I can’t emphasize how out of place it would have been at the family-friendly parades I attended!
Ooh – I am bookmarking this for my upcoming US trip! Here’s to a healthy dose of cheese – it stops us from taking ourselves too seriously I reckon 🙂
Indeed! The day I’m too cool for a cardboard cutout photo-op is a day I’ll be deeply disappointed in myself 🙂
THAT. IS. SO. FLIPPING. COOL.
Sometimes checking out cheesy tourist attractions is a lot of fun. While in Japan we went to Disneyland and had a blast. Sure it was a total tourist destination but we had a great time.
Mouse ears and all? Speaking of which, I actually have a Disney post coming up next week 🙂
I love that you have shots behind the scenes. Most mardi gras posts I have read always shows how they joined. It is nice to see everything in a different perspective.
It really was — and it made me excited to attend Mardi Gras all over again someday!