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New Orleans is famous for its fantastic Mardi Gras parades. This morning we visited Blaine Kern's “Mardi Gras World,” which is the largest float-builder in New Orleans. The company also creates figures for amusement parks, restaurants, casinos and movie sets.
Mardi Gras World recently moved from across the river to a huge warehouse building located a couple of miles from the French Quarter. We took a taxi from our RV park. The taxi driver was not friendly at all, merely grunting in response to our greetings of “Good Morning!” and spending most of his time on personal cell phone calls (even cursing at his wife—yikes!).
At the entrance to Mardi Gras World.
We signed up for the tour so that we could see how the floats are constructed. While waiting for the tour to start, we walked around and looked at some exhibits that explained how the Mardi Gras celebrations started in New Orleans. There was also an assortment of colorful figures that have been used to decorate floats in the past.
Genevieve with the seahorse:
I discovered a hungry shark outside:
Genevieve came running “to save” me:
Ha! She just wanted to get eaten too!
Our tour began in a large room where we were allowed to dress up in costumes and put on one of four large masks.
To be honest, the costume selection was pretty dismal and consisted of a handful of extremely shoddy, worn-out items. Sebastian still had fun trying them on, and Genevieve liked the hats:
The big heads were a hit!
The masks were very heavy, with hard edges that dug painfully into our shoulder bones. Surely there must be shoulder pads or cushions that the actual wearers use to make them more comfortable during parades.
We watched a brief film about the Mardi Gras parades. We learned that the Mardi Gras colors are purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. Then our guide, Bill, doled out slices of “king cake,” which is baked with a tiny plastic baby figure hidden inside.
The plastic baby was traditionally intended to represent the baby Jesus. The cake is generally served at parties during Carnival, and whoever gets the piece with the baby is supposed to receive “good luck” (and is also responsible for throwing the next king cake party). Bill said that if anyone in our group found the baby, that person would receive a prize; however, we had no winners today.
Bill explained that there are approximately 50 Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. The parades last for nine days, starting before the actual day of Mardi Gras.
As we walked into the float construction area, we passed a line of masks.
One of the first floats that we looked at was sponsored by the Rex krewe. (The groups of people that come together to throw a party or sponsor a float are called “krewes.”) The theme was “fire”, and the big head being created was Prometheus.
Most of the float sculptures are currently made from styrofoam, which is much lighter than the paper-mache that was used in past years. A craftsman was sculpting the torches.
Another craftsman, Mark, was creating the designs that would go on each side. Mark’s father was a carpenter at Mardi Gras World, and Mark has been assisting and working on floats since he was 12 years old.
Another sculptor, Alex, was busy making a cow head from styrofoam. The head would be attached to the cow body, which was a male water buffalo in a previous float.
In creating new sculptural items, the artisans try to transform an existing work to save on resources and time.
For example, this horse could have stripes and be transformed into a zebra, or wings and become Pegasus.
The artisans use latex and acrylic paints, applied through air brush or paint brush. The first step is to paint the entire piece white, and then add the colors on top.
The floats go on top of tractors, which run with diesel or biodiesel fuel. The tractors have generators on the back to run the electric lights on the floats.
In preparation for next year's float, this bird received new feet made from styrofoam with a wooden internal structure.
Other colorful float creatures:
While some new floats are added each year, a krewe usually has at least one “signature” float that appears every year, often redecorated. Here is the signature float for the Orpheus krewe, founded by Harry Connick Jr.:
Bill showed us how people enter a float. The door is held shut with painted bent nails that rotate to allow the door to be opened. There are ropes that wrap around the people to hold them onto the float for safety.
A double-decker float loaded with people often weighs 30 tons.
Here is the float called “How the Rabbits Snared the Sun.”
This float is entitled “How Oil Springs from the Earth”:
These creatures were on the float “How the Elephant Got His Trunk”:
The Hermes Krewe was founded in 1939 and pioneered the use of neon lights on floats.
This older mummy figure is very heavy because it is made of fiberglass.
King Kong is also made from fiberglass.
Queen Kong and Baby Kong, however, are made from styrofoam.
Here is the Leviathan dragon.
The floats became so big over the years that they no longer are allowed in the French Quarter, which has narrow streets and overhanging balconies and galleries. Since the 1970’s, the parades have been routed down wider streets, such as Canal Street.
This is the signature float for the Zulu krewe. The signature “throw” for the Zulus is a coconut; however, the Zulus are now prohibited from actually tossing the coconuts, and must hand them to people.
With this large dragon, the tail goes up and down from someone sitting inside and pressing their feet against a lever.
Mardi Gras World has about 75 permanent employees, with 50 artisans. Many extras are hired part time during the months between Christmas and Mardi Gras.
One of my favorite creatures was this green, ancient “pagan” symbol:
Sebastian found a new friend in the gift store and added “Gator” to our journey. "Gator" rode on Sebastian's lap in the shuttle bus on the way back to the French Quarter:
It was lunchtime. We just had to try “the best po-boy’s in New Orleans,” so we headed for Johnny’s (as recommended by Trisha yesterday on our cemetery tour). On our walk, we passed the Bienville statue and noted that there was a priest and a Native American, in descending height, behind the figure of Bienville.
The buildings around us had such beautiful colors:
We navigated our way through the streets to arrive at Johnny’s:
I think that Trisha may be right—the food was absolutely delicious. Sebastian, Genevieve and I all had fried calamari po-boys, and Ben had a hot sausage po-boy. Our calamari po-boys were piled high with freshly cooked, tender pieces of calamari rings and tentacles (my favorite); the bread consisted of a small crispy French loaf with a delicate airy interior. On a scale of 1 to 10, Genevieve gave her po-boy a “999 zillion.” The long line of customers out the door, with both locals and tourists, speaks to how good this place is, and the prices were very inexpensive.
We then walked down the river to find the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park Visitor Center. The Park offers a Jr. Ranger program, and Genevieve and Sebastian were excited about learning more about jazz music and earning another badge.
While searching, we found these delightful statues.
We finally found the visitor’s center, only to discover that it was closed on Mondays. The Park offers an on-line method of obtaining a Jr. Ranger badge, so I told Genevieve and Sebastian that they could earn the badges once we returned home.
We walked back to the RV park. This balcony was covered in many beautiful plants:
Some homes had a decorative “burglar buster” above the driveway gate.
At the RV park, Ben did his weight lifting exercises in the pool.
The children were up after 11 p.m. last night, so they were short on sleep by 3 hours. After their fun in the pool, they took a nap in preparation for another late evening tonight. Ben and I joined them.
During our naps, the rain began pouring, accompanied by bright streaks across the sky and loud rumbles. The rain continued for several hours, so we took a taxi to dinner. We had reservations at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen this evening.
Because the restaurant was so popular, I was expecting something a bit “touristy.” Instead, we were surprised to find superb food and excellent service. My stuffed soft shell crab had heavenly flavors. The meal was definitely pricey, but worth the splurge.
After dinner, we headed to the Preservation Hall for a jazz performance with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Walking through the French Quarter:
We found the right street:
We were lucky to get seats up front (thanks to Ben who decided to wait in line early while Genevieve and I went searching for post cards). There are only a few benches, and the rest is standing room only.
The walls were decorated with memorabilia and artwork:
The performers played some great jazz.
We sat about four feet from the trombone player, and I watched his trombone slide come within inches of the children’s faces—but no accidental whacks. I caught Genevieve moving her fingers to the beat, like she was playing the piano, and Sebastian had his own rhythmic foot tapping. We all enjoyed the concert.
The rain had stopped, so we sauntered back along Bourbon Street, listening to the various live bands through the open doors of the bars. Genevieve remarked, “New Orleans is a happening town!” We all were smiling—yes, indeed.
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