What I Didn’t Know About Mardi Gras

Family-friendly Mardi Gras?

Call me naïve, but until multiple visits to Louisiana, I had no idea that family-friendly Mardi Gras celebrations existed. I thought that Marti Gras was an adult-rated, hedonistic New Orleans-only ritual. I envisioned insane partying, bead-throwing debauchery and XXX costumes. 

Sure, I knew that Mardi Gras–French for ‘Fat Tuesday’–started as a religious holiday. Fat Friday is thought to be the one final day to “let it all hang out” before Lent. Or as they say in NOLA*, “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (Let the good times roll.) I did not know that there were other versions—family-friendly Mardi Gras celebrations—outside of New Orleans.

*NOLA = New Orleans, LA

What is Mardi Gras?

Cute woman with face painted white and smiling red lips under clownish umbrella is kid-friendly Mardi Gras, not scary
Kid-friendly Mardi Gras Street performer at the 2013 Krewe of Harambee MLK Day Mardi Gras Parade in Shreveport - Some rights reserved by Shreveport-Bossier: Louisiana’s Other Side

Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is celebrated the day before Lent begins. Lent always starts on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter. Lent is the season when the pious give up meat, favorite foods or otherwise abstain from pleasure until Easter morn.

That makes Fat Tuesday the time to clean out the cupboards and eat–or drink–all you’re going to fast from in the coming weeks.

Mardi Gras happens all around Louisiana, not just in NOLA

Small plastic baby sits on top of frosted cake with arms outstretched. The baby Jesus is traditionally baked inside the cake for a fun kid-friendly Mardi Gras tradition
A small plastic Baby Jesus (Christ the King) is traditionally baked inside the Mardi Gras ‘King Cake.’ The cake is frosted in the Mardi Gras color: purple, green and gold.

During my visits to Louisiana, I was surprised to find throughout the state so many family-friendly Mardi Gras parades and Carnival celebrations, each with its local flavor. Parents have a plethora of choices of Mardi Gras for Kids including fun ‘King CAkes,’ a Mardi Gras tradition.

Many Mardi Gras Parades: One Common Denominator

People dressed in white, pink and red stand on sidewalk with raised arms - waiting for someone riding on a family-friendly Mardi Gras float to throw a prize
Spanish Town Mardi Gras, a family-friendly Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Although each regional Mardi Gras celebration is unique, there is one common denominator: you, as part of the audience, are expected to participate. Making the interactive experience a perfect Mardi Gras for Kids.

“Mardi Gras is not a spectator sport,” cautions Mardi Gras expert Robert Trudeau. You must participate. According to Trudeau, in medieval Europe, flowers and sweets were tossed to onlookers during orderly street parades. In contrast, raucous behavior, including throwing eggs and flour, mocking authorities, and dressing as the opposite sex was also acceptable. Today, beads are tossed from parade floats to merrymakers on the street who “earn” the beads by performing crazy antics.

BTW, Robert Trudeau is author of How to Mardi Gras: An Introduction to Carnival, Parades, Krewes, Food, Music, Costumes, Cajuns, Creoles. You can click to Amazon to read more about this enjoyable book.

Mardi Gras for Kids: Zest For Shenanigans

Huge flot with beef cow passes by sidewalk crowd with many hands reaching upwards for "throws"
Shreveport-Bossier kid-friendly Mardi Gras Some photo rights reserved by Shreveport-Bossier: Louisiana’s Other Side

Protestants in Shreveport-Bossier in the northwest corner of the state, have borrowed the Catholic Mardi Gras tradition. Zeal and zest for shenanigans are still essential elements of the northern Carnival season, but Mardi Gras organizers emphasize family fun.

Many Shreveport-Bossier family-friendly Mardi Gras Carnival celebrations include parades that take place in the afternoon during daylight hours, kid-themed parades, and major parade routes with alcohol-free “family zones.”

Kid-friendly Mardi Gras

One of the biggest neighborhood Mardi Gras parades in Louisiana, The Krewe of Highland XIX Parade in Shreveport, is known for its unique and quirky “throws.” Besides beads of all sorts, those on the dramatically decorated floats throw Spam sandwiches, Moon Pies, tacos, spaghetti with meatballs and hotdogs complete with mustard and ketchup.

Flying Meatballs at Shreveport-Bossier's Mardi Gras for Kids and Adults

Kids on the ground and kids on parents shoulders reach for "throws" during Mardi Gras for kids
Krewe members toss beads, candy and other throws during the 2013 Krewe of Harambee MLK Day Mardi Gras Parade in downtown Shreveport, Louisiana. The parade rolls through downtown Shreveport each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, usually at 1 p.m. Shreveport-Bossier courtesy photo.

“That’s not something that you’ll see [flying meatballs] in any other Mardi Gras parade,” touts Brandy Evans, Vice President of Communications at the visitor bureau in Shreveport-Bossier. Contemplating whether I would be brave enough to catch a flying hotdog or meatball, Brandy explained that the spaghetti and meatballs, created by a gourmet chef, are in Ziploc bags and that the hot dogs are wrapped in tinfoil when thrown.

What’s cool is that whole neighborhoods come out, making the parade a three-mile-long family block party.  Onlookers arrive from all over the country to join the family fun.

Mardi Gras in the Heartland

Author is dwarfed by huge, 1/4-block-long float in the shape of an alligator
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey stands next to her favorite Mardi Gras float in Alexandria, LA

Audience participation on the sidewalk is also part of Mardi Gras fun in Louisiana’s heartland. The secret to success is eye contact with the thrower.

“If someone on a float sees a child, they will throw to the child,” details Kelli West formerly of Alexandria and Pineville. In other words, you won’t have to bare body parts to get a “throw” in this family-friendly Mardi Gras parade. The military-proud community supports several Mardi Gras parades suitable for all members of the family.

Kid-friendly Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Kid-friendly Mardi Gras can be found throughout Louisiana. Many communities are proud to hold Mardi Gras for kids

According to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, families should head to Uptown NOLA, which is the best location for families to use as their base during Mardi Gras. While there is no lack of excitement, this part of the parade route is more restrained than celebrations held downtown.

Mardi Gras, also known as the Carnival season, is in full swing now and ends at midnight on Tuesday, February 25.

A version of this story first appeared  in UNSTOPPABLE Stacey’s travel column published in Pinewood News in February 2015.  The article was updated and revised this week.

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As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, she will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the ever-increasing costs of keeping this travel blog active. Thanks for reading.

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