It’s a Mardi Gras World – Visiting New Orleans and Eating King Cake

Walking down the French Quarter’s famous Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Two years ago, I took a fascinating tour of Mardi Gras World, a popular tourist attraction in New Orleans where I learned the history of Mardi Gras and saw the magnificent floats built by artisans who toil all year long to create them. This year, Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, February 16, 2021. (Read to the end to discover how you can celebrate with New Orleans from the comfort of your home)

On the tour of Mardi Gras World, I learned a lot about the Carnival season. According to our tour guide, Mardi Gras has its earliest beginnings in France during the 12th century, when Catholics celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany.

The season officially kicks off every year on January 6, which is the day Louisiana bakers start selling their famous King Cakes. The cakes are covered with green, purple and yellow sprinkles – the colors of Mardi Gras – shaped in an oval, with delish white sugar icing. Baked inside is a plastic “baby.” More about that later.

You‘ll get to taste a slice of the famous King Cake at Mardi Gras World

King Cakes are typically served during Mardi Gras season, but after Fat Tuesday, you’ll be hard pressed to find another until next season. However, says our tour guide, “New Orlean’s Mardi Gras World is the only place in Louisiana that has access to King Cakes year round.”

You can take a tour of the factory where artisans create props for the Mardi Gras floats and parades.

Mardi Gras lasts between one month to two months long depending on the Easter calendar. Because Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 23 and April 25, to figure out the start of the season, take Easter Day and count back 47 days. That date is beginning of Mardi Gras season – aka the notorious Fat Tuesday. During the last two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, the streets of New Orleans are the site of different Mardi Gras parades.  

In a typical year (and this is surely not that), dozens of parades are crammed into two weeks. In some cases there are multiple parades per day rolling down the streets of New Orleans, and multiple parade routes. Bacchus and Endymion are two of the biggest parades of the season, but “there’s a specific group of parades that are considered “uptown parades,” the ones across the Mississippi River are called “west bank” parades, and even the suburbs of New Orleans have some. We have 54 total,” our guide explains.

The props are made from paper mache and can be used over and over again, by painting and reconfiguring them.

The guide explains how the parades work each year: “Anyone can start their own Mardi Gras krewe, all you would have to do is have floats in your parade, and up to nine marching bands or walking groups. A lot of people want to be part, and you can keep adding floats until you reach the maximum number – which is 32 floats in a parade.”

“To be part of a krewe {which are the groups that work together to create a parade}, you’re looking at dues between $300 to over $1,000 per person. To be float riders, you have to pay $1500 at least to buy the items you’re going to throw off of your float. Some people throw some really nice stuff off the float! To this day our parades are 100% commercial free,” our guide says.

“Here at Mardi Gras World, we have our krewe. We also make all these props, and our factory is the largest in the world. It’s the only one open to the public.”

Some floats designed, built and painted at Mardi Gras World are huge and can carry dozens of riders.

“Beyond Mardi Gras, we work with all the big time parades, producing about 500 props that change from year to year. Not to mention we make stuff for Disney World, Universal Studios, Six Flags, and we make the giant Chick Fil-A cows you see on the billboards. When you see those signs, think of us,” she says.  

Mardi Gras World was founded in 1947 by Blaine Kern, who studied in Paris to learn the craft of float design and building. The warehouse opened to the public after the Worlds Fair in 1980. “That’s when people were first welcomed here to see the types of props we are creating.” our tour guide concludes. “Now, welcome to Kern Studios!”

After our tour, we were each given a slice of King Cake. Our tour guide warned us if you happen to get the “baby” in the King Cake, then you’re expected to treat for next year’s King Cake. Phew, I didn’t end up with the baby, but I sure did love the cake! Since the rest of the holiday involves eating a whole lot of King Cake, some say that’s how “Fat” Tuesday got its name. 

At Mardi Gras World you can see the artists at work painting the props for the parade floats.

It’s an unforgettable experience to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras. FYI – if you happen to go to a parade, bring along a big trash bag to bring home your trinkets. Some of the things thrown into the crowds include toys, stuffed animals, doubloons, medallions and especially strands of colorful beads. If you can’t go during the season, be sure to visit Mardi Gras World to learn more about this special event!

Celebrating Mardi Gras Virtually in 2021: This year’s Carnival Season will have a new look, with many virtual events you can enjoy at home. Here’s the scoop:

While parades and large gatherings are banned to keep everyone safe during COVID this year, New Orleanians have come up with virtual and alternative celebrations, proving that nothing stops this sacred Carnival tradition. I personally am excited about the King Cake Zoom Cooking Classes!

While you’re watching the festivities, try making The Sazerac — a mix of rye whiskey, bitters and absinthe — New Orleans‘ official cocktail! @visitneworleans

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Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.

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