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The History and Tradition of Mardi Gras Floats and Parades in New Orleans

EVERYTHING TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEW ORLEANS CARNIVAL TRADITION OF PARADE FLOATS INCLUDING THE HISTORY, MARDI GRAS WORLD, AND DIFFERENT TYPES

Parade-goers wait on the sidewalks and neutral grounds every year, anticipating hundreds of extravagant floats to roll by. New Orleans is home to the country’s largest floats, some exceeding 300 feet, and the longest parades. From their humble beginnings to their present artistry, floats have shaped the tradition of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

The History of Mardi Gras Floats and Parades in New Orleans

In 1856, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the first krewe made up of Mobile natives, formed. Its first parade featured two horse-drawn floats borrowed from Alabama’s New Year’s Eve parade. Even Rex, Mardi Gras royalty, rolled with floatless parades for its first five years. By the 1930s, float artists began to build more extravagant mule-drawn floats. Although humble, New Orleans’ first parades paved the road for today’s theatrical floats, opening doors for local artists.

Kern Studios and Mardi Gras World

One artist, Roy Kern, changed the trajectory of New Orleans Mardi Gras floats forever. While painting signs throughout the Great Depression, Kern built recognition of his work and inspired his son Blaine to be an artist. In 1931, they made their first float together. Their work became well-known, and krewes began to ask Blaine Kern to design and build floats for their parades. By 1947, Blaine opened Kern Studios and made floats for Zulu, Rex, and other famous Krewes.

After traveling to Europe and studying under world-renowned float and costume makers, Kern brought new ideas to New Orleans. Kern Studios’ working studio, Mardi Gras World, became New Orleans’ largest float production warehouse, creating over 80 percent of the floats that roll. Today, 18 different krewes flaunt Kern Studios’ floats yearly.

What are Mardi Gras Floats?

Mardi Gras floats are tractor-pulled structures artists build and design to parade krewes around New Orleans during carnival season. Professional artists use wood, papier-mâché, paint, lights, and glitter to decorate each float to match the parade theme. Each parade has its own theme, usually inspired by mythology, news, entertainment, or history.

The result of year-long planning and crafting is New Orleans’ renowned parades, each showcasing over 40 distinctive floats. None of this would be possible without artists, krewes, and treasured traditions.

Types of Mardi Gras Parade Floats

Mardi Gras floats roll in several different styles. There are stationary ones called house floats and moving ones called rolling floats. Super, signature, and theme floats are the most common ones parade-goers will experience during Mardi Gras.

Stationary House Floats

In 2021, when New Orleans canceled Mardi Gras due to the pandemic, neighborhoods banded together to create house floats. Residents decorated their homes as floats to give locals the chance to celebrate safely. These efforts also supported float artists who were out of work.

Super or Mega Floats

Super floats hold over 200 riders and have over-the-top decorations like fiber optic and laser lights. Most super floats have two stories and are tandem, meaning several sections are connected.

Blaine Kern is known to have created the first super float, Papa Joe’s SS Endymion, which was 56 feet long. Today’s largest and longest super floats include:

  • Endymion’s Pontchartrain Beach
  • Orpheus’ Smokey Mary
  • Bacchus’ Bacchaneer
  • The Palace of Iris
  • Muses’ Bathing Muses, Mama Duck, and Duckies

Signature Floats

Signature floats make yearly appearances in parades and usually roll at the parade’s beginning. Each parade has its own signature float, like Orpheus’ Leviathan float and Bacchus’ Bacchasaurus.

Theme Floats

Theme floats depict the composition of the parade they roll in. Parades with political themes often feature floats with presidents. Mythological-themed parades like Bacchus or Orpheus feature gods and goddesses on their theme floats.

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