Mardi Gras in New Orleans is famous around the world for its unparalleled street parties, wild celebrations, and across the board revelry, and the parades are an indispensable part of the city's rich and distinctive culture.
Parades are a huge part of the festivities, and there are dozens of them throughout the month of February leading up to the day of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which falls on February 25 in 2020. Parades are put on by local organizations called krewes, pronounced like "crews", which are exclusive groups made up of members. During the parade, each krewe has a signature "throw," or an item they throw out to the parade watchers. Attendees strive to collect throws, which can include beaded necklaces, custom-designed doubloons, and other eccentric tchotchkes.
Some krewes date back to the 19th century, during the first Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, while many others have appeared in more recent years. After a krewe finishes its parade, they often throw a lavish ball or party. Typically, an invitation is required to attend the party, but anyone can sit and watch the parades. They happen all over the city, but the most popular ones march through Uptown, the Garden District, and the French Quarter.
A few parades stand out as the biggest and most elaborate, and these groups are referred to as super-krewes; Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus are among those that have gained this elite status.
If you want to attend New Orlean's biggest Mardi Gras party, the Krewe of Endymion parade is the parade to see. Since 1967, this all-male super-krewe has put on the city's biggest spectacle, with over 3,100 participants and 37 floats. Endymion's parade always ends with a massive party for krewe members and their guests at the parade terminus, which brings out thousands of attendees. The parade is always on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, dubbed "Samedi Gras," or Fat Saturday.
The Endymion Extravaganza, as the post-party is known, has historically been held at the Superdome with headlining performers such as Steven Tyler, Kelly Clarkson, and Pitbull. The 2020 Extravaganza has been moved to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where the parade ends.
The Krewe of Bacchus, named for the Roman god of wine and revelry, lives up to its namesake with the annual Bacchus parade, held on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. This super-krewe boasts some of the largest floats of Mardi Gras, including its signature vehicles that make an appearance each year like the Bacchagator, the Bacchasaurus, and the Bachaneer.
The Krewe of Bacchus is perhaps best known for crowning a big name Mardi Gras King, a different celebrity each year who takes the helm as sovereign of the celebration. Some past kings include Bob Hope, Will Ferrell, and J.K. Simmons.
The Krewe of Orpheus was founded in 1993 by New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr. and his father. This Orpheus super-krewe is known for being one of the most accessible groups to join, and their post-parade party at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Orpheuscapade, is one of the only krewe balls that is open to the public. Visitors to New Orleans who want to experience a genuine Mardi Gras ball can purchase tickets from the Orpheus website.
The Orpheus parade takes place on the Monday before Fat Tuesday, and participants throw out sought-after items to parade watchers like stuffed dragons and signature doubloons. The trolley used in the opening of the movie "Hello, Dolly!" is one of the floats that always makes an appearance, as is the Smokey Mary, an eight-unit float in the form of a steam locomotive.
In 1872, the Krewe of Rex formed as a way to entice tourists to New Orleans, still reeling from the Civil War. Today, Rex is Mardi Gras' longest-running procession and the krewe responsible for many of the holiday traditions celebrated throughout the city. The official Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold were first donned by Rex, and the custom to throw out doubloons from parade floats was also started by this historic group.
The Krewe of Rex is an all-male group that picks one upstanding member each year to be the "Rex," or head of the parade. Because of the krewe's reputation in the city, the Rex leader is often referred to as the King of Carnival and traditionally receives a key to the city from the New Orlean's mayor. The Rex parade always begins in the morning of Fat Tuesday, as a way to kick off the celebrations for the culminating day.
Founded in 1882, the Krewe of Proteus is the second oldest group to parade in Mardi Gras. The chassis that the group uses to support their floats are still the original structures from over a century ago. The elaborate processions of Proteus can be seen on the Lundi Gras, or the Monday before Fat Tuesday, and begins just before the Orpheus procession.
Traditionally, the krewe kings were never revealed to the public, and Proteus continues that custom to this day. The king of Proteus rides through the parade inside a giant float in the shape of a seashell.
In Greek mythology, the Muses were the goddesses of art, song, and poetry who brought joy to every event they attended. Since 2001, the Krewe of Muses is an all-female group that has brought joy and art to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with its parade on Thursday before Mardi Gras in Uptown. The signature throw of these ladies is a cup in the shape of a high heel shoe, designed each year by a local member of the community.
The position of the honorary muse is awarded each year to a woman who embodies the qualities of the original Muses, and she rides in her own giant high heel shoe float. Past honorees include Solange Knowles, LaToya Cantrell, and Patricia Clarkson. The Krewe of Muses is also well-known in the city for their charity work and community outreach.
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is a historically black krewe that traces its roots back to 1909. The parade includes a host of iconic characters such as the Zulu King, the Big Shot, and the Witch Doctor, among many others. One of the most coveted throws of all the Mardi Gras parades is the painted coconuts hurled out by the Zulu krewe.
The Zulu parade is always the first thing on the day of Mardi Gras, traversing through uptown New Orleans on Tuesday morning. The krewe also throws a massive Lundi Gras Festival on Monday at Woldenberg Park that's free and open to all, featuring live music, delicious Cajun food, and the presentation of the parade characters.
Le Krewe D'Etat is a favorite since 1996 that rolls on the Friday before Mardi Gras. The group's aim is to revive the satirical style that was a part of the event's tradition, and its motto is “Live to Ride, Ride to Live.” Each year's theme is kept secret until parade day when members pass out D'Etat Gazette, which has descriptions of the floats and other krewe information and images.
Krewe D'Etat eschews the idea of a parade king and instead chooses a dictator each year, whose identity is never revealed to the public. The D'Etat parade is one of the most highly anticipated events of Mardi Gras, and the krewe always lampoons a politician, business mogul, or other public figures during their procession.