Mardi Gras Krewes and Parades
This post is about New Orleans Mardi Gras Parades and about the krewes and dance troupes that organize and/or participate in them. We’ll help you understand how parades are put together, plus the different kinds of parades, which ones are happening while you’re in town, and how to have the best possible time at a parade. You may also be interested in our Mardi Gras for Beginners post.
A krewe – pronounced like “crew” – is a social club, and many of them are involved in making Mardi Gras parades. They’ve been part of Carnival in New Orleans since 1856, when the Mistick Krewe of Comus was founded to create the first organized parade. We were celebrating Mardi Gras long before – since 1702! – but the season as we know it today, with parades as the main event, starts then. Comus had secret traditions, laws, and membership, and their rule of always parading in masks is still part of Carnival today – float riders are required by law to wear a mask. Today, some krewes still behave like secret societies, while others are social aid clubs, and some are more like adult fraternities and sororities. Some krewes meet just once a year on Mardi Gras, while others hold events throughout the year.
The krewes that produce large float parades tend to be most famous. But if you’re in New Orleans during parade season, you’ll see a lot more than just that. Parades exist on a spectrum from huge “superkrewes” to what some people call “microkrewes.” Superkrewes produce the five biggest parades – they have the most and largest floats, each decorated like a Broadway set, and their throws are plentiful, varied, and sometimes downright high-tech (think not just beads, but beads that light up – plus cups, stuffed animals, noisemakers, frisbees, and more). At the other end of the spectrum, parades created by “microkrewes” are much smaller and DIY; floats may be involved, but more often these are walking parades, with participants showing off a costume.
Here are a few examples of krewes that produce Mardi Gras parades, arranged in order from superkrewe to “microkrewe.”
Named for the nine Greek goddesses of the arts, Muses is an all-female group and one of the five superkrewes. Besides impressive floats and plentiful throws, the calling card of the Muses parade is their signature throw – decorated shoes. Hand-decorated by the riders themselves, Muses shoes are probably the most sought-after items distributed by Mardi Gras parades. The krewe’s social media even invites those who received a shoe to identify themselves and reconnect with the rider who made it. In keeping with this symbol, the krewe’s beads also often have high-heel-shaped pendants, and one of their floats is itself a giant, glowing shoe.
Rex represents older, traditional Mardi Gras parades, produced by wealthy New Orleanians who often have multiple generations of membership. Their floats are works of art, but not as large or as high-tech as the superkrewes. Annual themes for their parades come from mythology, literature, and the arts. Their signature throw is a stuffed white bull – the “boeuf gras” – which represents the sacrificial animals that would have been part of the Roman holidays that led to Carnival.
Named for the Roman god of wine, Bacchus is one of five “superkrewes” – the parades with the biggest and most high-tech floats and often the most impressive throws.
Zulu formed early in the 20th century as an all-black krewe at a time when krewe membership was typically restricted to wealthy white men. Where many older krewes draw their imagery from European antiquity, Zulu uses African art to inspire their floats and costumes. Their signature throws are painted coconuts.
In the eyes of most New Orleanians, Krewe du Vieux is the start of parade season. Krewe du Vieux is one of the few parades rolling through the French Quarter today, and it takes its name from “Vieux Carré,” another name for the French Quarter. Krewe du Vieux consists of small floats alternating with walking groups in coordinated costumes. The floats satirize the year’s news, local and otherwise, and their sense of humor is best called “raunchy.” Throws are fewer at parades of this scale, but you can still expect to go home with some beads.
Riffing on the name of the Krewe of Bacchus, one of the superkrewes, the Krewe of Chewbacchus is a loosely organized hive of sci-fi and fantasy fans. The krewe is built of many smaller groups – subkrewes – with names like the Leijorettes, the Mystic Krewe of Evangelical Pastafarians, and the Death Star Steppers. Their aesthetic is DIY – mostly it’s about costumes, but you’ll see some small, homemade floats (a decked-out shopping cart or pickup truck or something like that). They also hand out bandoliers – wearable sashes with velcro on them, to which you can attach the many custom throws the krewe members hand out.
Since not all New Orleanians can afford or care to be a part of building the enormous float parades, some krewes operate on a smaller, DIY scale. Another variation on the Bacchus name, the Krewe of Barkus fills the streets of the French Quarter with costumed dogs. (The parade also contains a small Krewe of Meoux contingent, whose members literally try to herd cats.)
Click here to learn more about the other 90+ krewes.
Some groups, rather than produce their own parade, participate in several throughout the season. In the spaces between floats in the larger parades, you’ll see high school and university marching bands and dance teams, adult dance groups, stilt walkers, horseback riders, and more. Some of these groups would be considered krewes in their own right – like the 610 Stompers (see the video below), the Krewe of Rolling Elvi, or the Sirens.
Mardi Gras falls on a different date each year, though always on a Tuesday. (Mardi Gras 2018 is February 13.) Most parades happen in the three weekends leading up to Mardi Gras. Each parade has its own annual time slot – for example, the Krewe of Muses parade always rolls on the Thursday before Mardi Gras.
The announced times are, let’s say, good intentions – parades are often delayed, and the reason can be anything from a tractor breakdown to a member of a dance krewe stopping along the route to propose marriage.
Despite popular conception, most parades don’t venture onto Bourbon Street or into the French Quarter at all. (Walking parades do tend to take place in the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods.) Most, however, do go along the edge of the Quarter, so there are very few that a visitor to that part of town wouldn’t find within walking distance. The most common float parade route begins in uptown New Orleans, mostly along St. Charles Avenue, then continues into the business district, and finally turns onto Canal Street on the edge of the French Quarter, ending at the Morial Convention Center. A few parades run completely different paths. You can find a schedule for most of the 2018 parades here.
Carnival parades in New Orleans aren’t quite like parades in other parts of the United States. Here are a few bits of local tradition that will help you learn fast, have fun, and go home rich in prizes and free from injuries.
Decide where on the route you want to be. On the standard St. Charles Avenue parade route, there are three distinct areas with different experiences. First, the uptown part of the route has a crowd of mostly locals, including children. Many people claim a spot for their family and friends that they’ll hold onto until the end of parade season, where they’ll set up a tent, ladders, chairs, ice chests, and barbecues. Second, once the parade passes Lee Circle, it enters a part of the business district, near Lafayette Square, where audience risers are left standing all season. Other than bringing your own chair, this is the only seating on the route, and it’s also the only area you’d have to pay for access to. The last part of the route is Canal Street, where most visitors watch the parades. Crowds here are bigger and police barricades stand between the parade and the observers.
Be ready for throws. Parades in New Orleans are judged as much by their throws as by their floats. Those watching the parade will wave and make noise to get the riders’ attention, and some even have a poster (popular choices include “it’s my birthday,” “first Mardi Gras,” and puns on the parade name). Besides strings of plastic beads, riders also throw plastic cups or doubloons (plastic coins) with the name of the parade and the year’s theme on them.
And some parades have a special signature throw – so don’t be shocked if you see shoes, coconuts, or other oddities being given out, too. (For an idea of the more popular and more crafted signature throws, do an image search of “Muses shoe,” “Zulu coconut,” or “Nyx purse.”) These will usually be handed to the lucky recipient, but most throws are actually thrown. While catching throws in the air is usually ideal, doubloons, being too small to catch, are the exception – step on them where they land, then pick them up. Going straight for a doubloon on the ground with your fingers is an easy way to get your hand stepped on.
Balance drinking against safety. It is legal to drink on parade routes, although not out of glass containers. (And handing a beer to a float rider can definitely earn you some good swag.) But bear in mind that with so many things flying through the air, coordination is key – and keeping both hands free isn’t a bad idea, either.
Befriend your fellow parade-goers. Even though people go home with different amounts of throws, it’s best not to think of parades as competitive. For the most part, locals watching a parade will observe some basic rules – for example, if you catch something in the air or if a rider points at you before throwing, it’s yours. Unofficial rules like these are meant to keep the event friendly – the value of the plastic wears off after you leave the parade route, but new acquaintances in town can last a long time. Offer some good beads you just caught to someone’s kid, and you’re golden.
If you’re with kids and dubious about going to parades – most of them are PG-rated, especially if you watch them uptown on St. Charles Avenue. Stereotypical ideas of Mardi Gras behavior – flashing and whatnot – happen in the French Quarter and are mostly done by tourists. Watching where the locals watch will put you in the company of many other families. As far as the parades themselves, the “adult” humor in float design, when it happens at all, is more likely to be political than raunchy (with the exception of Krewe du Vieux, which is emphatically both) – meaning it’s the sensitivities of grownups, not of kids, that are more likely to be tread upon. New Orleans Kids has a useful family guide for enjoying Mardis Gras.
Expect to miss a few jokes. Louisiana and New Orleans politics, local culture, and Mardi Gras tradition are all somewhat esoteric subjects, and also fair game for Carnival humor. Don’t feel left out – it just means you’re sharing the street with locals. Ask a neighbor! You still may not get it afterward, but it’s a great icebreaker.
As much as Carnival is a season for spontaneity, a bit of planning can make a huge difference in keeping your stay lighthearted and enjoyable. A few tips on that front:
Pack for varied temperatures. Winter in New Orleans can turn from short sleeves to sweater weather overnight – and just like humidity makes hot feel hotter, it makes cold feel colder. Check the forecast for your whole trip before you go.
Leave some room in your luggage. Going to parades will get you all kinds of souvenirs, and if you want to bring even some of it home, leave some extra space!
Bring a costume. Our guides are asked constantly where visitors can get a costume for Mardi Gras day. Costuming (“masking”) is one of the biggest parts of the Mardi Gras tradition and many locals spend weeks on one or more costumes in advance. It’s not quite like Halloween – you don’t exactly have to BE something – but all the same, costume shops, thrift stores, and the like have all been picked over for the good stuff in advance. Do some image searching online for inspiration, make a thrift/craft store trip at home, and build something before you depart. You’ll never get the glitter out of your suitcase, but it’s totally worth it to be participating and not just witnessing the big day. (Bear the aforementioned temperature variability in mind.)
Know the parade schedules and routes. Even if you don’t plan to attend a particular parade, planning around them is key, since they block traffic and public transit. If you’re flying into or out of New Orleans on a parade day, there are many hotels that a cab simply can’t reach during certain hours. Some planning in advance to take these limits into account can make a huge difference.
When parades are near, cars are the last resort. Besides the aforementioned traffic jams, it’s also illegal to park on parade routes for three hours before and after scheduled parade times. Given that New Orleans is often confusing for new drivers, better to avoid a car entirely if walking or biking is an option. (Bring comfortable shoes, plan for soreness, and rent a bike far in advance!) Even public transit can be of very limited use this time of year – though outside parade hours, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar and the #11 Magazine Street bus are still available to get you between the Uptown and downtown areas.
Don’t rely on cell phones. Crowd size at parades can mean poor cell signal, so decisions about where to meet up with someone, for example, should be made the old-fashioned way.
Remember that, for locals, Mardi Gras is the biggest day of the year. If you’re here on Mardi Gras day itself, good luck finding almost any kind of business open – apart from hospitals, bars, the police department, some French Quarter restaurants, and gas stations, almost everyone shuts down to let employees go out and participate. Stock up in advance.