When people ’round our parts think “New Orleans”, once they get past the memories of Hurricane Katrina, the next thing that pops into their head is Mardi Gras. Other cities and countries may honor the grand finale of every annual “Carnival” multi-part holiday, but the way it’s talked about, you’d think “Mardi Gras” was French for “New Orleans party”. For all I know, maybe it is.
Anne and I don’t drink, party, observe Carnival, or socialize while our clothes are missing, but we thought it wouldn’t hurt to look into the prettier, safer element of those shindigs: the famous parades and their scintillating floats. So that’s what lured us to Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
This year’s trip began as a simple idea: visit ostensibly scenic New Orleans. Indianapolis to New Orleans is a fourteen-hour drive. Between our workplace demands and other assorted personal needs, we negotiated a narrow seven-day time frame to travel there and back again. We researched numerous possible routes, cities, and towns to visit along the way in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. We came up with a long, deep list of potential stops, but tried to leave room for improvisation…
Mardi Gras World is a mile from the National WWII Museum. A mile’s not far under normal circumstances. We decided to walk. I figured it would give us the chance to see more random New Orleans. Who knew what fun surprises would be on store for us. It was daylight, so the boogeymen hordes would be asleep or hiding under rocks to keep cool.
We forgot the part where we were in the deep South during summer, and had no idea that all shade between the two attractions had been banned by city ordinance. All we saw on our boiling death march was the sun, empty storefronts, highway undersides, a couple of shady-looking dockworkers, and New Orleans’ gleaming Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, their counterpart to our Indiana Convention Center. Wizard World New Orleans calls this place home, among other events.
The front of the Center is one (1) kilometer long and we walked the full length of it, partly because that side had some nominal shade. To pass the time, I tried to hallucinate a crowd of happy cosplayers surrounding us. It didn’t help.
Fun trivia: Mardi Gras World offers free shuttle service with paid admission. Call them from several convenient locations pictured in their brochure, including but not limited to the National WWII Museum; come enjoy the Museum; then call them one more time to whisk you away to your next destination. The shuttle A/C is likewise free. Highly recommended for any tourists smarter than me.
Once we passed the Center on foot, Mardi Gras World was around the corner. We arrived at their front doorstep minutes before Anne would have strangled me while the last drops of moisture evaporated from her system. I paused for photos while she charged inside for asylum.
The Kern family has been in the float-making business since 1947. They opened Mardi Gras World in 1984 as a year-round display space, storage warehouse, and functional workspace where staff artists fulfill orders for the next year’s Mardi Gras floats, sculptures, decorations, and what-have-you. It’s not as big as the Convention Center or the National WWII Museum, but we’re not talking a strip-mall Ripley’s franchise, either.
Before your tour begins, you’re free to wander the gift shop, pick up New Orleans souvenirs, flip through some jazz CD compilations, read through books about New Orleans, buy bottled drinks for immediate chugging, try on Mardi Gras hats or glasses or boas, or marvel at costumes once worn by actual people.
Before you’re allowed to run willy-nilly inside the warehouse, a tour guide sequesters you in a sort of screening room/playroom where you can pose with a few token decorations or try on Mardi Gras costumes previously worn by strangers. You can go modest and tasteful…
…or you can GO BIG.
The guide showed us a brief film intro, made sure we knew that not every single aspect of Mardi Gras is about naked debauchery, and confirmed the parade doesn’t go through the heart of the French Quarter because of those narrow, drunken streets. Also, all visitors receive a free slice of king cake, which is cinnamon-based and superior to most forms of children’s birthday cakes. I’m familiar with the concept because my coworkers have a king cake brought in for every Mardi Gras, but I’ve always opted out because no one would tell me why. Now that I’ve finally had it explained to me, I’ve lost the ignorance defense. Rats.
Out in the main areas, actual artists are on the clock using their talents to make the next Mardi Gras parade even better.
Next thing you know, you walk several hundred more feet and you’re surrounded by floats, past and future. The various “krewes”, the teams that ride in the parades and commission these floats, have names that sound like Greek myths or secret societies — e.g. Proteus, Rex, Bacchus, Endymion, and so on. My ears perked up momentarily when our guide mentioned one, Orpheus, that was founded by Harry Connick, Jr., and his dad.
Each float costs $30,000-$50,000 to produce and can come with built-in bathrooms. Float decorations are reused or recycled where possible, sometimes repainted and repurposed to play the parts of different characters as needed. If you’re interested in being in the parade yourself, every krewe has a long waiting list and a high price tag for participation. I’m told a ten-year wait for an $800 spot isn’t unusual.
Scattered around Mardi Gras World are dozens and dozens of heads, faces, and other parts of famous characters from stage, screen, animation, and the printed page who’ve all graced New Orleans with their presence at past Carnivals. Alas, we’ve run out of time and space tonight, but here’s a benign teaser image:
What other familiar faces and objects did we see? Find out in our next exciting adventure! Be here tomorrow for “Everything Floats Down Here”, or “Dope Floats”!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]