The parade season is a 12-day period beginning two Fridays before Fat Tuesday. Early parades are charming, neighborly processions that whet your appetite for the later parades, which increase in size and grandeur until the spectacles of the superkrewes emerge during the final weekend.
A popular preseason night procession, usually held three Saturdays before Fat Tuesday, is Krewe du Vieux. By parading before the official parade season and marching on foot, Krewe du Vieux is permitted to pass through the French Quarter. The themes of this notoriously bawdy and satirical krewe clearly aim to offend puritanical types.
Watch for Le Krewe d’Etat, whose name is a clever, satirical pun: d’Etat is ruled by a dictator rather than a king. Another favorite is Muses, an all-women’s krewe that parades down St Charles Ave with thousands of members and some imaginative, innovative floats; their throws include coveted hand-decorated shoes.
Mardi Gras weekend is lit up by the entrance of the superkrewes, who arrive with their monstrous floats and endless processions of celebrities, as flashy as a Vegas revue. On Saturday night the megakrewe Endymion stages its spectacular parade and Extravaganza, as it calls its ball in the Superdome. On Sunday night the Bacchus superkrewe wows an enraptured crowd along St Charles Ave with its celebrity monarch and a gorgeous fleet of crowd-pleasing floats.
On Mardi Gras morning Zulu rolls along Jackson Ave, where folks set up barbecues on the sidewalk and krewe members distribute their prized hand-painted coconuts. The ‘King of Carnival,’ Rex, waits further Uptown; it’s a much more restrained affair, with the monarch himself looking like he’s been plucked from a deck of cards.
Mardi Gras is a citywide costume party, and many locals take a dim view of visitors who crash the party without one. For truly fantastic outfits, march with the Society of St Ann on Mardi Gras morning. This collection of artists and misfits prides itself on its DIY outfits, which seem to have marched out of a collision between a David Bowie video and a '60s acid trip. The creativity and pageantry on display really needs to be seen to be believed. Other parades that feature great homemade costumes include the Box of Wine parade, the Chewbacchus parade and the Red Beans & Rice procession.
Gambit Weekly (www.bestofneworleans.com) publishes a Carnival edition during February or March, depending on the date of Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras New Orleans (www.mardigrasneworleans.com) is an excellent website for details of the festivities.