How Mardi Gras Works

Mardi Gras Parades

krewe of Orpheus parade krewe of Orpheus parade
The 2017 Krewe of Orpheus parade takes place in New Orleans. Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Proud residents who participate in the 70 or so parades leading up to Fat Tuesday claim that Mardi Gras parades boast the most imaginative themes, spectacular floats and outrageous costumes in the world. During the 12-day period leading up to Mardi Gras, the parades are held in the four-parish area of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard. Competition for the best floats is friendly but fierce! Parades start each day at 8 a.m. and continue until after sundown. Mardi Gras is officially over at the stroke of midnight on Ash Wednesday.

While some pre-season parades have become quite elaborate, local parish ordinances dictate that the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade season officially begins on the second Friday before Fat Tuesday.

There is no general theme for Mardi Gras, but each individual parade depicts a specific subject. The floats reflect the krewe's theme for that year, and masked members are costumed to illustrate the parade theme and the individual float title. Popular themes featured since 1857 have included historical events, children's stories, legends, geography, famous people, mythology and literature.

The most spectacular parades occur during the last five days of the celebration. This is when the larger parades (by clubs such as Orpheus, Bacchus, Zeus, Rex, Zulu and Bards) wind their way through the streets.

Less than a dozen clubs build original floats each year. Since the floats are used only once, these krewes have greater flexibility with the subject of their parade (and often produce award winners!). Most other krewes select from a pool of rental floats, and their themes tend to be generic in nature so that a float entitled "The Sheep in the Meadow" in a parade with the theme of "Little Bo Peep" might pop up a couple of days later leading another parade called "Favorite Nursery Rhymes." Floats are serious business though — in Orleans Parish, a city ordinance prohibits the use of the same float more than twice in the Central Business District during any given parade season!

The super-krewes — those featured in parades in the last three days before Fat Tuesday — might present a combined total of 110 floats, 90 marching bands and more than 350 units. Their collective 3,500 members toss more that 2 million cups, 3.5 million doubloons and 350,000 beads. They also invite guest celebrities to ride in their parades — stars such as Bob Hope, Dolly Parton, John Goodman, Kirk Douglas, Harry Connick, Jr. and the Beach Boys.

Almost all parades follow a standard format: The captain, or krewe leader, appears at the head of the procession, either on a special float, in a convertible or on horseback. Next come the officers, the king or queen, and, in some parades, the maids and dukes, followed by the title float and the floats that carry riding members.

The method of selecting Mardi Gras royalty varies from krewe to krewe. King of Carnival is chosen by the inner circle of the School of Design, the sponsoring organization for the all-important Rex parade. Some krewes hold random drawings to choose their king or queen, and most clubs charge the selected monarch a fee for the honor.