by Edward J. Branley, © 1994. Used by permission.
1.2 About this Document
2.1 What is Mardi Gras? Carnival?
2.2 What happens during Carnival?
2.3 What are the dates for Carnival 2005?
2.4 When should I make hotel reservations?
3. A Carnival Chronology
3.1 Preparing for Carnival
3.15 The King Cake
3.2 Twelfth Night
3.3 Balls and Dances
3.4 The Debutante Connection
3.6 The "Super Krewes"
3.7 Lundi Gras
3.8 Fat Tuesday
3.9 Ash Wednesday
4. A Carnival Tourist's Guide
4.1 Getting to New Orleans
4.2 Places to stay
4.3 Getting Around Town
4.4 Carnival Do's and Don'ts
5. Ed's Ultimate Fat Tuesday Walking Tour
6. French Quarter Survival Guide
1.1 CopyrightThis document is Copyright 1994 by Edward J. Branley. All rights reserved. Permission for non-commercial distribution is hereby granted, provided that this file is distributed intact, including this copyright notice and the version information above. Permission for commercial distribution may be obtained from the editor. SHARE THIS INFORMATION FREELY AND IN GOOD FAITH. DO NOT DISTRIBUTE MODIFIED VERSIONS OF THIS DOCUMENT.
1.2 About this DocumentThis document is a part of the on-going New Orleans Internet Mailing List's documentation project. We're trying to put together a comprehensive library of information for the net-surfer contemplating a visit to New Orleans, as well as the expatriated New Orleanian longing for a taset of home. Like the NOIML "Meta-FAQ" document, this guide contains a number of pointers to other documents in the NOIML library. For details on how to operate the Minas Tirith mail server, send a message to: email@example.com, and the NOIML Meta-FAQ document will be mailed to you. The Meta-FAQ contains lots of technical information and pointers to documents on topics other than Mardi Gras.
2.1 What is Mardi Gras? Carnival?"Mardi Gras" literally means "Fat Tuesday" in French. The day is called "Fat Tuesday" because it is the last day before Lent, the season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) during the forty days before Easter Sunday.
The tradition of celebrating on the day before Lent goes back at least to medieval times, when many kings and lords knighted young men and held feasts in their honor. Mardi Gras in New Orleans dates back all the way to the late seventeenth century, when the city was founded by by Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, and Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur de Iberville. In fact, one of the first New World locations that they named was Bayou Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras was celebrated throughout the period where New Orleans was under control of the French, then the Spanish, then back to the French. The English and their American descendants from the original thirteen colonies didn't take the Carnival season as seriously as the local residents, but the Americans didn't do anything to stop the celebration of Mardi Gras after the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 nor after Louisiana became a state. The Americans may have been officially in control of New Orleans, but the Creoles who made up the upper-crust of New Orleans society were primarily of French and Spanish descent, so the religious traditions of the Continent continued to dominate.
The Carnival season in the first half of the nineteenth century was not a calm, quite celebration. In fact, the citizens of New Orleans got so wrapped up in Mardi Gras that street masking was banned by the authorities by the 1830's. This didn't deter the hardcore participants one bit. By the 1840's, there was so much drunkenness and disorder in the city that there was strong sentiment for banning all public celebrations of Mardi Gras. Carnival was rescued, however, by six young men from Mobile. They formed the Mystick Krewe of Comus, a social club that staged the first New Orleans Carnival parade on the evening of Mardi Gras in 1857. Naming one of their number the king of the krewe (the word being deliberately spelled that way to show they were an elite society), they paraded through the streets of the French Quarter on two mule-driven floats. Others picked up on the notion of parading during Carnival, but the Civil War put a damper on public observance of Mardi Gras.
After the war, however, several other krewes formed and put on parades on the days leading up to Mardi Gras. By 1871, Comus had been joined by the krewes of Proteus and Momus, and a new group formed that year, known as the School of Design. The School of Design decided to stage their parade during the day on Mardi Gras, and they proclaimed that their king was to be Rex, the King of Carnival.
From the 1870's up to the present, new krewes continue to form, as groups of friends, neighbors, business associates, etc., decide they want to celebrate Carnival by parading through New Orleans. A moratorium on street parades was imposed by the New Orleans City Council in the 1970's, but the hard economic times of the 1980's as well as the controversy that erupted over the passage of an "anti-discrimination" ordinance aimed at Carnival krewes by the City Council in 1992 have opened up slots in the parade season's schedule, so new krewes are forming and parading.
The future of Carnival in New Orleans is a hotly debated topic, but one thing is for certain: there will always be a future for Carnival.
2.2 What happens during Carnival?The Carnival season officially begins on January 6th, which is Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. Twelfth Night is the date that marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the countdown to Lent. There are two official celebrations that mark the beginning of Carnival: The bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers, and the ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows along St. Charles Avenue. From January 6th on up to three weeks before Mardi Gras, Carnival organizations hold parties, dances and balls, mostly on weekends.
About three weekends before Mardi Gras, the parades begin. From the second weekend before Mardi Gras up to Fat Tuesday, there is at least one parade each night in the city, Metairie, or on the West Bank. The entire celebration culminates on Fat Tuesday, with the entire city taking the day off to eat, drink, parade and party. Carnival officially comes to a close promptly at midnight on Fat Tuesday, when the police begin clearing the streets of the French Quarter. On a more civilized level, Carnival officially closes with the meeting of the courts of Rex and Comus at the ball of the Mystick Krewe of Comus.
2.3 What are the dates for Carnival 2005?Fat Tuesday for 1995 is Februrary 8th. Parades in New Orleans and Metairie will begin on the evening of Friday, January 28th. Most visitors from out-of-town usually come to the city on the Friday or Saturday before Mardi Gras, so they can see the big parades that weekend, participate in the Lundi Gras celebrations on the Monday before, and the big day.
2.4 When should I make hotel reservations?It's too late to get a room at just about any hotel in the downtown area or the French Quarter. If you want to come to New Orleans for Carnival 1995, your best bet would be to try the motels in the surrounding areas, such as Kenner, Metairie, Slidell, and the West Bank. If you're really desparate to get a room downtown, you can contact the hotels and see if they have any cancellations. I've heard stories of folks getting lucky because a couple got divorced, someone was injured in a skiing accident, and other incidents that forced them to cancel their trip to New Orleans. These are few and far between, however.
3. A Carnival ChronologyThe following is a detailed chronology of what happens prior to and during the Carnival Season. Each of these will be released as a separate file to the New Orleans Mailing List, and will be available through the list's mail server (firstname.lastname@example.org).
3.1 Preparing for CarnivalThe preparation period for the 1995 Carnival season began the day after Mardi Gras, 1994. Revelers haven't caught their breath, debutantes haven't recovered from the whirlwind of parties and balls, and drunks haven't even been released from Central Lockup when krewe captains and individuals alike begin thinking about the next year.
Travel planning is the first big planning step taken right after Carnival. Many regular Mardi Gras visitors make their reservations for the next year as they're checking out for the current one. Same goes for restaurants -- you want reservations at Commander's for next year, this year is the best time to make them. The weekend before Fat Tuesday through Ash Wednesday is the busiest time of the year for the New Orleans hospitality industry, with hotel occupancy rates at 98-100%. There was some concern this year that the casinos on the Gulf Coast were cutting into the number of people staying in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, but this won't happen at Carnival time. If 5% of last year's hotel guests go out to Biloxi, 5% more people will take their place for Mardi Gras.
For the people who put on Carnival, the initial preparation stage is to do a de-brief on the season that just concluded. Krewe captains meet with their officers and evaluate all aspects of the parade, discuss which bands they want to ask back next year, evaluate the performance of the police, and the behavior of the krewe members. After this is done, many will take a week or two off from Carnival, then things start back in earnest. The next step is to decide on a theme for next year's parade. For krewes that own their floats, this is a simple process. The captain and other officers meet with the artists from the company that builds their floats to kick ideas around. The School of Design usually chooses a historical or literary theme for the Rex parade. Others choose themes based on current events, movies, songs, etc. Krewes that rent their floats have a more difficult time putting a theme together. They have to wait until their float company puts together its rental pool, then see which ones can be assembled to make a parade. The other difficulty New Orleans krewes who rent has is a city ordinance that permits floats from being in only two parades in the city during a Carnival season. Some krewes use all of the floats from another krewe's parade, so they have to wait for that krewe to complete their plans before even starting theirs. Zeus in Metairie is an example of this. They parade on Lundi Gras evening with the floats Endymion used in the city the Saturday night before.
While the captain and the krewe officers work on the theme and floats, the float lieutenants are busy handling membership recruitment. New members are usually brought into a krewe when a current members resigns, or dies. Each individual float lieutenant is responsible for filling holes in their float's complement. There's always turnover in krewe membership, although it's often quite slow for the more popular krewes. Endymion and Bacchus are said to have membership waiting lists of over a thousand people each! Still, people get transferred to other cities, or they die, etc., so there is always a bit of on-going membership recruitment. It's important for a float lieutenant to get their members together as early as possible so orders for costumes, etc., can get put in on time. Much of the krewe-related throws and such have to be ordered from the far east, so this all requires a great deal of advance planning.
Getting all of this together obviously requires a great deal of money, so fundraising is also an important part of a krewe's preparation for Carnival. The arrival of casino gambling in Mississippi and Louisiana has forced many krewes to change their fundraising strategy radically. Many krewes have relied for years on the proceeds from bingo games. Many of the area's regular bingo players now head out to the riverboats or over to the coast to play slot machines. As a result, krewes are having to be more creative in terms of fundraising events, and some have also been forced to raise their membership dues a good bit. Fundraising is one of those year-round projects; the more events you have, the more money you can bring in. Krewes still have arrangements with area bingo parlors to sponsor different nights of the week, but they're having to branch out into raffles, mini-fairs and other events.
Being a member of a krewe's court is also a major expense, either for the member or for a young lady's family. While many krewes have different methods for choosing their king, the queen and court are almost invariably chosen by the captain and his officers. Preference is given to member's daughters who are of the right age (usually 17 to 22). Of course, a certain level of competition enters here, placing the captin and officers in a no-win situation. Choosing the court is actually a little bit easier for the "society" or "old-line" krewes, since the number of debutantes is fairly limited, and there are several opportunities for the ladies to each be a queen of a ball. It's the "non-society" krewes where the in-fighting gets heavy, since the fathers are normally only in one organization.
Many krewes do not exist simply to put on a parade one evening during Carnival season; they're year-round social clubs. Krewes will hold dances, crawfish boils and other social gatherings through the summer and fall. These events usually bring in a little extra profit helps fill up the krewe's coffers, while giving the members and their families an opportunity to get together. Many krewes hold a "Coronation Dance" in the fall, where the queen and maids for the coming year are presented, and the king is chosen. Krewes that hold such a dance often choose their king by lot from the members of a more exclusive "king's club." Any member who wants to be king can pay a premium in addition to his membership dues, and becomes a member of the king's club. On the night of the coronation dance, all of the names of the king's club members are placed in a hat or bowl and are drawn one at a time. The last name in is the king. This method serves several purposes: it brings in a little extra money, it guarantees that a member will only be chosen if they want to (and can afford to) be king, and eliminates in-fighting among krewe members for the honor.
Several krewes have also gone into the "ball business" in the off-season. New Orleans attracts many large conventions in the spring and fall, when the weather is relatively mild. These folks want to get a taste of what Mardi Gras is all about, so the organization holding the convention will contract with a krewe to present their ball one evening at a hotel. This is great fun for the krewe, since the king, queen and court get a chance to wear their costumes once again. It's also a great fundraising opportunity for the krewe, since they can charge the organization holding the convention a good bit of money for staging a ball.
By the time the fall rolls around, the only main item left to do is to line up the bands and marching groups for the next year. This has to wait until the school year starts, since the bulk of the marching groups in a parade are junior- and senior-high school bands. Many of the better high school bands will get offers from two parades held on the same night, so it's important that the schools fix their line-ups for the season early, giving the krewes enough time to contact alternates. Marching in parades is an important fundraising tool for the schools, so they take the process very seriously.
As the weather begins to turn from extremely hot to the more moderate temperatures of the fall, the heat begins to turn up on Carnival preparations. By August or September, hotels have hit the 90% or better mark for hotel occupancy. Companies and large families who rent out houses or apartments along St. Charles Avenue or in the Quarter begin to have trouble finding a place if they wait past September. Krewe members meet for costume fittings and to place orders for doubloons and other krewe-logo throws. The city and parish governmental agencies responsible for coordinating Carnival begin to hold meetings with krewe officers, school band directors, the police, and others to discuss plans for the coming season. By Thanksgiving, just about everything is in place, and ready to shift into high gear after Christmas. Some krewes will hold a Christmas social or dance, and some even hold their ball during the Christmas season, even though the official start of the Carnival season isn't until January 6th.
By the time the kids and grandkids are opening presents on Christmas morning, the stage is set, and it's then just a matter of implementing the plans. The floats are on schedule, the throw will arrive in a week or two, and the doubloons are just about done. Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras guide has gone to press, and the Times-Picayune is ready to roll their Carnival insert one week prior to when parades begin. Popeye's has coached all of their managers on how to order extra food to accomodate hungry parade-goers, and band directors at schools beg the rest of the teachers to go easy on tests and homework during the two weeks of parades. Cops cram as much time as they can in with their families, because the sixteen hour days are about to start. With the exception of the hotels, restaurants, and bars in the Quarter, New Year's is just a family holiday, and everyone waits in anticipation of the year's biggest party.
3.15 The King CakeFor the next several weeks, New Orleanians will celebrate the Carnival season in two main ways: going to balls and dances held by Carnival krewes (the organizations that hold the parades), and by eating lots of king cakes. In fact, since balls are essentially private, invitation-only affairs, eating king cakes is the main Carnival activity between Twelfth Night and the start of parades.
OriginsThe King's Cake has its roots in pre-Christian religions of Western Europe. It was customary to choose a man to be the "sacred king" of the tribe for a year. That man would be treated like a king for the year, then he would be sacrificed, and his blood returned to the soil to ensure that the harvest would be successful. The method of choosing who would have the honor of being the sacred king was the King's Cake. A coin or bean would be placed in the cake before baking, and whoever got the slice that had the coin was the chosen one.
When Christianity extended its influence and began overshadowing the religions that came before it, many of the local customs were not outright abolished, but instead were incorporated into Christian tradition and given a new spin Catholic priests were not predisposed to human sacrifice, so the King's Cake was converted into a celebration of the Magi, the three Kings who came to visit the Christ Child.
The King Cake and New Orleans CarnivalThe King Cake tradition came to New Orleans with the first French settlers and has stayed ever since. Like the rest of Mardi Gras during those early days, the king cake was a part of the family's celebration, and really didn't take on a public role until after the Civil War. In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers held their ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the TNR used the bean in the cake to choose the queen of the ball. This tradition has carried on to this day, although the TNR now use a wooden replica of a large king cake. The ladies of the court pull open little drawers in the cake's lower layer which contain the silver and gold beans. Silver means you're on the court; gold is for the queen.
With the TNR making a big deal over the king cake in the society circles, others in the city started having king cake parties. These parties particularly among children, became very popular and have also continued to today. The focus of today's king cake party for kids has shifted more to the school classroom than the home, however. Up through the 1950s, neighborhoods would have parties. One family would start the ball rolling after Twelfth Night, and they'd continue on weekends through Carnival. Whoever got the baby (the coin or bean had changed to a ceramic or porcelain baby about an inch long by then) in the king cake was to hold the next party. You can still hear stories from folks who were kids during the Great Depression of what their mommas would do to them if they came home with the baby from a king cake party, since so many families were short on money then.
The King Cake TodaySchools and offices are the main sites for king cake parties these days. Someone will pick up a cake at the bakery on the way downtown and leave it out for everyone to grab a piece, or mom will send one to school on a Friday for the kids to share. You an always tell the locals from the transfers in any given office because the local knows what to do when he or she gets the baby. The foreigner just drops it on the counter or some such, and possibly might not even bring the next cake. Sacrilege.
The modern-day king cake buyer has a lot of advantages over those folks that came over from France with the LeMoyne brothers once upon a time. Not only do bakeries get into the king cake business this time of year, but also the donut shops, so it's hard to escape them. Of course, most donut shop king cakes are fried, so they're essentially just giant donuts. Some of them aren't all that bad, but it's a different taste from a baked cake.
The classic king cake is oval-shaped, like the pattern of a racetrack. The dough is basic coffee-cake dough, sometimes laced with cinnamon, sometimes just plain. The dough is rolled out into a long tubular shape (not unlike a thin po-boy), then shaped into an oval. The ends are twisted together to complete the shape (HINT: if you want to find the piece with the baby, look for the twist in the oval where the two ends of the dough meet. That's where the baby is usually inserted.) The cake is then baked, and decorated when it comes out. The classic decoration is simple granulated sugar, colored purple, green, and gold (the colors of Carnival). King cakes have gotten more and more fancy over the years, so now bakeries offer iced versions (where there's classic white coffee cake glaze on the cake), and even king cakes filled with apple, cherry, cream cheese, or other kinds of coffee-cake fillings.
Prices range from two to three dollars for a small traditional cake to close to twenty for a large filled one. A more-or-less standard slice of king cake is about three inches wide. The ceramic babies have been replaced with plastic ones, but many places now sell both pink and brown babies. Haydel's Bakery usually has a limited supply of a ceramic baby that they include with the cakes (though not baked inside). Many bakeries will honor requests for custom-made cakes that have more than one baby. I know kindergarten teachers who always orders a cake with a baby for each slice, so none of the kids is left out! That type of cake is also great for practical jokes at the office.
Who makes the best king cakes is one of those questions like who makes the best po-boy, or is Morning Call now unacceptable because they've moved out to Metairie. Remember your manners whenever you enter into discussions on religious topics. Everyone has fond memories of a place in the neighborhood, and some folks are loyal to even the Real Superstore. My personal favorites are Randazzo's (locations in Chalmette, Metairie, Terrytown and Slidell), and the late McKenzie's (McKenzie's, although no longer with us, was ubiquitous; if you don't know about McKenzie's, you're not from New Orleans ... or at least not from New Orleans and not of a certain age). Yes, I always did enjoy the much-maligned "traditional" king cake from McKenzie's, even though it only had granulated sugar as a topping and no filling. Brings back memories from when I was a kid. There are tons of other places in the metro area doing king cakes, so it's almost impossible to review them all.
King Cakes via Mail-OrderFor years now, those who are unable to be with us here in New Orleans for Carnival have been able to share the Carnival spirit by ordering a mail-order king cake. Many bakeries are now in the mail-order business, including my two favorites. As I buy other cakes throughout the season, I'll post additional phone numbers to the NOIML, as well as adding them to a file that will be available on the mail-server. In the meantime, here are two good starts for ordering a king cake:
- Randazzo's: (800) 684-CAKE (2253) Fax (504) 271-5064
- Prices: medium traditional (iced): $22.95, medium filled: $26.95. Call them at +1.504.271.7611 for other sizes and combinations.
3.2 The Twelfth Night -- The Official Opening of Carnival SeasonThe Feast of the Epiphany is a day of closure for most Christians in the United States. It's traditionally the day when the visit to the Christ Child by the Three Wise Men is celebrated, marking the end of the Christmas season. The tree and decorations come down, and household life returns to a more normal routine, as the kids go back to school until Easter break.
The scenario is a little bit different in New Orleans. While the rest of the country is breathing a collective sigh of relief that the holidays are over, New Orleanians are just getting their second wind to begin The Big Party -- Carnival. It all begins on Twelfth Night, January 6th, with the bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers, and the Uptown streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows.
The Twelfth Night Revelers have held the official kick-off to the Carnival season since January 6, 1870. Theirs is not the traditional tableau-style ball held by other krewes. The members of the krewe mask, but the centerpiece of the celebration is the the ladies of the court are selected. A giant king cake is rolled out onto the floor of the ballroom, and the ladies selected to be maids of the court all gather around. Each is given a piece of the cake, and those pieces contain one gold and several silver beans. The young lady who receives the gold bean is named the queen, and the others become the maids of the court. The cake originally was a traditional king cake, but the logistics of making sure that the right lady was chosen queen prompted the krewe to switch to a wooden replica what looks more like a classic wedding cake.
This giant replica is wheeled out onto the floor by masked krewe members who are dressed like bakers, all in white with chef's hats on their heads. The bottom layer of the cake has small drawers in it, and the ladies of the court are arranged around the cake, each one in front of a drawer. They open the drawers and pull out their beans. From a strictly fashion standpoint, the queen of Twelfth Night is not as well-dressed as her counterparts from other krewes; all of the court wear simple white dresses, since they don't know which one will lead th way that evening. After the queen and court are selected, the ball proceeds in the traditional manner, with presentations to the king and queen, call-out dances, then general dancing. The ball itself ends around midnight, but the parties continue well into the morning.
While the men of the Twelfth Night Revelers are still getting dressed for their ball, which begins promptly at 9:00pm, the Phunny Phorty Phellows are already rolling on their streetcar ride from the car barn on Willow Street down Carrollton and St. Charles Avenues to Canal Street, then back to the barn. The Phunny Phorty Phellows is a group of primarily thirty- and forty-something folks who decided some years ago to renew the tradition of riding through the streets announcing that the Carnival season has begun. The Twelfth Night Revelers' ball is a private invitation-only affair; the Phunny Phorty Phellows ride the streetcar route hollering out at those they meet along the way. Of course, there's no rule that says that one cannot imbibe a bit of the grape while riding along the streetcar route (there's a designated driver, after all), so the Phellows do indeed have a merry time.
By the time the streetcar is parked back in the barn, the Phellows (there are lots of women Phellows, by the way -- no sexist organization, this one) have disembarked, and the Twelfth Night Revelers have chosen their queen, the rest of us are counting the days to our krewe's functions, the first king cake someone brings to the office, or the first parade in our neighborhoods. By day, New Orleans is more-or-less a normal place to live, but by night, the city won't be calm and quiet until Ash Wednesday.
3.3 Balls and Dances
3.4 The Debutante Connection
3.6 The "Super Krewes"
3.7 Lundi Gras
3.8 Fat Tuesday
3.9 Ash Wednesday
4. A Carnival Tourist's GuideA guide to getting to and around New Orleans, along with tips to make your Carnival adventure an enjoyable one. These are also under construction, and will be released as articles to the New Orleans Mailing List.
4.1 Getting to New Orleans
4.2 Places to stay
4.3 Getting Around Town
4.4 Carnival Do's and Don'tsNew Orleans is like most big cities in that there are always things you just don't do, neighborhoods you just don't venture into, etc. The city didn't get the nickname "The City That Care Forgot" for no reason, however; lots of people tend to forget basic traveler's common sense when they're here for Mardi Gras. The bands, the parades, the drinking, and the overall festive mood of the city all combine to make a recipe for problems if the visitor doesn't remember that they're guests here. We try to take care of everyone as best as we can, and you can help out a bit if you remember these "Dos and Don'ts":
Before Your TripDO plan your trip well in advance.
The biggest disappointment you'll hear from potential visitors to New Orleans is the folks who start planning their trip to the Crescent City for Carnival around Christmas. By then, all of the hotels are booked, and they're lucky if they can get into a Comfort Inn in Kenner. Gone are those visions of hanging out on a Bourbon Street balcony, strolling down Royal Street to a nice little guest house or hotel, etc. The rule of thumb is that the best time to plan for a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras is Ash Wednesday the year before if you want a room in a hotel on Bourbon. If you want a balcony in a place like the Royal Sonesta, you may have to wait for either a corporation to go bankrupt or an individual to die. If just getting a good downtown room is what you're after, start checking around in August or September.
DON'T come to New Orleans for Carnival unless you have a place to stay.
New Orleans is not a good place to be homeless. It can get cold in January and February, and you don't want to be out on the streets when it's close to freezing. Additionally, the cops take a dim view towards sleeping in public places. In short, this just isn't a good city to plan on just showing up and crashing. You'll most likely end up in jail.
DO try to book a hotel in walking distance to parades.
Hassling with a car around a parade route can really ruin your parade experience. Better to book a hotel in the thick of things than one where you have to drive any at all to actually get to the parade. Most people don't see hotels like the Marriott or Sheraton on Canal as being a truly romantic place to stay when coming here, but they're perfect for parades. You walk out of the lobby, you're on the parade route. Walk two blocks downriver, you're in the Quarter. Catch the Magazine St. bus a couple of miles upriver, you're in position to see parades Uptown. Get a room in the Sheraton out in Metairie, you've got to drive the car into town, park it mucho blocks away from the route, and hoof it from there. If you've got the bucks to stay in a downtown hotel, go for it.
DON'T count on public transportation during Carnival.
Beware of the blurbs that say things like "just minutes from the Quarter by bus or streetcar" when you're reading those little brochures and ads about small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. The estimates are accurate for any other time of the year, but all bets are off at Carnival time. Transit routes are shortened, re-directed, sometimes even cancelled outright. You may find that you have to walk an extra six blocks just to catch a bus that will take you where you want to go if you're near a parade route. Double-check with someone who lives here before making your reservations.
While You're HereDO learn your way around the city a bit before venturing out to a parade.
Pick up a map of the city and get to know street names and locations before heading to a parade. If you get confused as to where you're going, you could run into problems. The people you'll be asking for help are either going to be tourists like yourselves, or locals who have had a bit too much to drink. You won't get much help from the police for something simple like directions; they've usually got their hands full with more pressing matters at this time of the year. If you're staying downtown or in the Quarter, get a good map of the area, like the MapEasy Guide to New Orleans. It's got illustrations of key sights and such, which will help you keep from getting turned around. One of the bad features to the layout of New Orleans is that our high-crime areas are often quite close to the tourist areas.
DON'T park a car illegally within two blocks of a parade route.
Parking fines are a fairly sizeable portion of the city's operating budget. If you park too close to a corner or a fire hydrant within two blocks of a parade route, you're almost definitely always going to get a ticket, and there's an extremely good chance you'll be towed away. The police and fire departments are very conscious of what it takes to get emergency vehicles from one place to another with a parade going on, and that means keeping side streets clear. Of course, you never want to park on a parade route two hours before a parade passes, or you'll always be towed away. In addition to avoiding strictly illegal parking spaces, you want to take care that you don't block driveways in neighborhoods around parade routes. I'm not saying that New Orleanians are an evil, spiteful group, but you can imagine how you would feel if some inconsiderate dolt from out-of-town in a rental car blocked access to your home.
DO go out to the parade route early if you want to be in the first two or three rows of people.
Parade routes are deceptive places; they look almost deserted an hour before the parade passes, but they fill up to the point of ridiculous fifteen to twenty minutes before the parade gets there. Unaware visitors take a look at the empty neutral ground space around Carrollton and Canal Streets an hour before a parade and figure they have time to grab a quick bite at Mandina's. They come out of the restaurant to find a sea of people. If you want the front row spot, stake it out as soon as you see it! For Endymion, this often means going out in the morning of the day of the parade. On Mardi Gras, many people get out before dawn to get spots on the St. Charles Ave. neutral ground.
DON'T mess with any chairs or ladders that are out along the parade route. This is definitely the best way I know of to start a fight at Carnival. Locals will put out ladders for the kids and chairs for the old folks long before a parade passes. They'll set all of the stuff up, then head back into the house until just before the parade. Some unsuspecting tourist comes along and pushes the chairs back to the second or third row, figuring that since there's nobody there, it's open space. Next thing you know, the tourists are squatters in the middle of an extended family, who often go out of their way to make the tourists feel unwelcome. If anyone on either side has been drinking, the potential for a fight is real. The cops don't try to settle such disputes on the street; they take everybody to jail and let a judge do that later.
DO feel free to imbibe and enjoy your favorite beverages of all kinds.
I don't want to sound like a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to drinking during Carnival. In fact, some of my best Carnival memories are a bit fuzzy as the result of over-indulging. (Remind me to tell you about the night we had a parade party at my folks' house in Metairie and I got to know a bottle of Sauza tequila very well...) Public drinking has never been a big deal in New Orleans. Public drunkenness, on the other hand, is a different story. If you're just having a good time, your two main worries are getting sick and getting lost. If your idea of getting drunk is to give others a hard time, you'll probably end up in jail. The New Orleans Police Department has a very high tolerance threshold when it comes to rowdy behavior, but they're also quick to shut you down if you cross the line.
You'll also want to keep the "open container" law in mind. In New Orleans, it's legal to drink alcoholic beverages on the street, but not from glass containers or cans. If you're drinking a longneck in a bar, you need to pick up a plastic "go-cup" on the way out and transfer your beer to it. Same goes for those fancy drinks like the hurricane at Pat O'Brien's. The open container law is normally ignored during Carnival; you're not going to get in a lot of trouble if you're pulling a wagon with the kids (or an ice chest) in it and you have a cold can of Dixie in your hand. The worst that may happen is that a cop will tell you to go get a cup of some kind for the beer. If, on the other hand, you want to get into an argument with a police officer on the street, and you're holding a bottle of cheap wine in your hand, the officer just may take notice of this misdemeanor violation and take you to Central Lockup to cool off.
DON'T urinate in public.
Sounds like I'm telling you something obvious? Well, you'd like to think so. It's amazing how many people will put down four or six beers without a thought as to where they're going to get rid of 'em later. They walk around the Quarter for a while, then their bladders give them a real wake-up call. Most restaurants in the Quarter just aren't going to let you walk in and use their restrooms, and the ones at bars will most likely be crowded. Nature's calling, and many people just answer the call on the next tire they see, or in that doorway down the street. This is very bad strategy. You don't want to end up like the drunk woman who ended up on the TV show "Cops" getting arrested for relieving herself on the side of St. Louis Cathedral. The cops were asking her questions like "How'd you like it if I came up to Memphis (her home town) and urinated on Graceland?"
Next to violent crime, urinating in public is a real serious hot button for both cops and residents of the Quarter alike. I've known several people who have been arrested for this very foolish act. If you know you'll be drinking, factor restrooms into your Carnival strategy. If you don't, hold it in. Let it out, and you run the risk of being hosed down by the Quarter property owner whose house you're going on, getting arrested by an unamused cop, or being videotaped by someone who thinks you're just plain ignorant.
DO get into the spirit of things!
Have a good time. Enjoy what's happening around you. Wear a costume on Mardi Gras. Eat and drink to your heart's content. Then eat and drink a little more. Explore the city by day, go to parades by night. Catch the Nevilles at Tip's or the House of Blues. Gamble a little bit at one of the riverboat casinos. What's important is that you have a good time.
DON'T talk back to police officers. The New Orleans Police Department are the best crowd-control cops in the world. They know exactly where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable behavior during Carnival. They're able to switch gears from their day-to-day routine and apply a totally different set of standards during a parade. The problem is that they do this while working two and a half weeks of 16-hour days. That can make anyone's mood a bit on the dark side. Most cops hate Carnival; your revelry is their agony. They're willing to make the sacrifice, however, because they know their kids are having a good time, and they know what it means to the city. You don't want to jerk a cop's chain at a parade, however. If a police officer tells you to do something, do it. If he wants you to move along, move along. If he wants you to pull your shirt down and stop exposing your breasts to guys up on balconies, do it. There's no street-lawyer discussions at Carnival time -- you do it their way or you go to jail. And, for God's sake, don't ever strike a cop at a parade. Get into a fight with a cop and you'll end up hospitalized. Guaranteed. The NOPD aren't looking for trouble; they don't have to. It finds them. They know that, so they're going to put an ignorant tourist who gets out of line in jail as quickly as possible so they can go back and be on guard for the real trouble.
DO try to catch the stuff thrown from floats.
Carnival parades ain't the Tournament of Roses or the Cotton Bowl parades. We don't just admire the beautiful artistry of the floats and the pretty girls who ride them. In fact, the riders of most of the floats are men and women of all ages out to have a good time. They'll reward you handsomely for coming out to their parade by throwing you anything from necklaces of plastic beads to cups, to metal coins (doubloons) commerating the parade, to even ladies' panties with the krewe's logo emblazoned on the butt. Catching stuff is part of the parade experience. Get into it; it's fun.
DON'T bend over to pick up trinkets or doubloons. Unless you're a seasoned Carnival veteran, the general rule of thumb here is simple: If you drop what you're trying to catch, don't bend over to pick it up. You may get bumped in the rear, sending you sprawling on all fours, or hurtling into the person next to you. Reach down to grab a doubloon with your hand and you may find a foot stomping on it. If you miss something, let it go. There'll always be another float coming.
DO respect any barricades, ropes, etc. that separate the street from neutral grounds and sidewalks.
Barricades and ropes put up by the city are a clear line that shouldn't be crossed. It's one of those things that's just unacceptable. You may end up getting in a hassle with a cop, or worse yet, with the chaperone of a high school band whose daughter is one of the cheerleaders coming down the street.
DON'T try to pick up anything in the street when a float is coming.
Floats are big. They're heavy. They'll hurt you if one rolls over you. If you've had a couple of beers, your reaction time isn't what it is normally. You may think you have enough time to grab that doubloon before the float gets here, but it's closer than you think. Hardly a year goes by where there isn't one person hospitalized because they were hit by or rolled over by a float.
DO bring the kids to see parades!
Kids love parades. Locals bring out ladders and attach seats to the top so the kids can sit up and get a good view. Even if you don't have a ladder, put your kid on your shoulders and they'll be able to see the floats and catch the stuff. Buy 'em a bag of caramel corn from a vendor before the parade gets there, walk up and down the parade route a block or two and let them see all of the people. We're all acting like kids anyway, so the kids will fit right in.
DON'T lose sight of them for a minute!
There are over half a million people on Canal Street alone on Mardi Gras. Don't ever take your eyes off of your child. If you do get separated, make sure you've got a good picture of the child, and go straight to a cop. They're good at handling lost kids, and will help you out. Children don't get kidnapped at Carnival parades, but they do get lost. Keep your cool, find a cop, and you'll have your child back in your arms before you know it. DO enjoy the more risque' and wild atmosphere of the Quarter.
Anything goes on Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. Literally. Short of totally obscene behavior and public urination, expect to see just about anything. Take it all in, take as many pictures as you want, walk around, eat, drink, have a good time. The key to seeing the Quarter is to keep moving. The cops don't like it when groups gather for any reason, because they're worried that someone will get crushed or hurt. Human traffic backs up when it's not kept moving. Keep walking and you'll experience a wild time. Avoid those who are not out to have a good time (whether the person is a drunk or an evangelical Christian trying to save you). Don't drink so much that you can't keep moving -- that's one of the lines you can't cross. Stay within range of your designated bathroom, and you'll have a great time.
DON'T expose body parts (other than your chest) in response to "Show Your Tits!"
It's become quite the tradition for young (and not-so-young) ladies to be rewarded with beads and trinkets by guys hanging out on balconies in the Quarter when they expose their breasts to the crowd. Don't venture into the Quarter on Mardi Gras if the sound of a bunch of guys yelling "Show Your Tits!" offends you. If you're female and do decide to show the world your assets, make it quick. The cops aren't going to put you in jail for indecent exposure, but they will put you in jail for obstructing traffic if you dance around topless and draw a big crowd. Flashing is OK; stripping isn't.
Of course, this is the nineties, and that means that women have made great strides in terms of sexual equality. Over the last couple of years, we've seen a number of women yell back at guys who are encouraging them to show their breasts. They want the guys to flash something of their own. Bad idea. I wouldn't say that the NOPD are an outright sexist organization, but the cops don't want a bunch of guys mooning (or worse) the crowd.
DO enjoy the family atmosphere of Mardi Gras in the Uptown area.
Mardi Gras on St. Charles and Napoleon Avenues is a good bit different than what's happening in the Quarter. This is where families spread out blankets on the neutral grounds and have picnics. People even bring out playpens to lay down the little ones when it's nap time. With Zulu starting at 8:30, then Rex at 10:00, then almost one hundred truck floats following Rex, Mardi Gras on St. Charles is an all-day affair. It's a time for families to relax and have a good time, catch some stuff, and enjoy the parades. If all you've ever heard about are the wild times your co-workers have had in the Quarter when they come to Mardi Gras, remember that there are a lot of family folks who are a good bit more subdued than that. It's not hard to find 'em -- just go in the opposite direction from the Quarter.
DON'T expose any parts of your body outside of the French Quarter.
Showing your tits is OK on Bourbon Street; it's *not* OK on St. Charles Avenue. Simple as that. The guys on the floats may want you to pull up your top before they'll throw beads. You're in the family zone once you leave the Quarter, and the cops will be less tolerant of you getting naked.
When You Get HomeDO tell us all about your trip on rec.travel or the New Orleans Mailing List.
One of the bad things about being a local is that I don't get to stay in hotels during Carnival. I head back to the house when the parade's over. I don't eat breakfast out every day during parade season, and I've got to work during the day. Let us hear your trip experiences, good and bad. Everyone will learn from them.
DON'T bad-mouth a restaurant unless you also complained to the management.
It's a simple rule: if you didn't complain to the waiter or the maitre'd, I don't want to hear about your bad dining experience. Our restaurants aren't going to improve unless you tell them what they did wrong. I don't own a restaurant, so there's nothing I (or anyone on the list, for that matter) can do about the situation. If you've taken your gripe to the source, then I'm willing to listen. We can compare notes to see if this is a trend, or if you just hit a usually-good place on an off night.
Pro Bono Publico!
5. Ed's Ultimate Fat Tuesday Walking Tour
6. French Quarter Survival Guide
The Carnival FAQ was written by Edward J. Branley, copyright 1994.
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)