Internet MardiGras Guide

4.1 Carnival Do's and Don'ts

New Orleans is like most big cities in that there are always things you just don't do, neighborhoods you just don't venture into, etc. The city didn't get the nickname "The City That Care Forgot" for no reason, however; lots of people tend to forget basic traveler's common sense when they're here for Mardi Gras. The bands, the parades, the drinking, and the overall festive mood of the city all combine to make a recipe for problems if the visitor doesn't remember that they're guests here. We try to take care of everyone as best as we can, and you can help out a bit if you remember these "Dos and Don'ts":

Before Your Trip

DO plan your trip well in advance.

The biggest disappointment you'll hear from potential visitors to New Orleans is the folks who start planning their trip to the Crescent City for Carnival around Christmas. By then, all of the hotels are booked, and they're lucky if they can get into a Comfort Inn in Kenner. Gone are those visions of hanging out on a Bourbon Street balcony, strolling down Royal Street to a nice little guest house or hotel, etc. The rule of thumb is that the best time to plan for a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras is Ash Wednesday the year before if you want a room in a hotel on Bourbon. If you want a balcony in a place like the Royal Sonesta, you may have to wait for either a corporation to go bankrupt or an individual to die. If just getting a good downtown room is what you're after, start checking around in August or September.

DON'T come to New Orleans for Carnival unless you have a place to stay.

New Orleans is not a good place to be homeless. It can get cold in January and February, and you don't want to be out on the streets when it's close to freezing. Additionally, the cops take a dim view towards sleeping in public places. In short, this just isn't a good city to plan on just showing up and crashing. You'll most likely end up in jail.

DO try to book a hotel in walking distance to parades.

Hassling with a car around a parade route can really ruin your parade experience. Better to book a hotel in the thick of things than one where you have to drive any at all to actually get to the parade. Most people don't see hotels like the Marriott or Sheraton on Canal as being a truly romantic place to stay when coming here, but they're perfect for parades. You walk out of the lobby, you're on the parade route. Walk two blocks downriver, you're in the Quarter. Catch the Magazine St. bus a couple of miles upriver, you're in position to see parades Uptown. Get a room in the Sheraton out in Metairie, you've got to drive the car into town, park it mucho blocks away from the route, and hoof it from there. If you've got the bucks to stay in a downtown hotel, go for it.

DON'T count on public transportation during Carnival.

Beware of the blurbs that say things like "just minutes from the Quarter by bus or streetcar" when you're reading those little brochures and ads about small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. The estimates are accurate for any other time of the year, but all bets are off at Carnival time. Transit routes are shortened, re-directed, sometimes even cancelled outright. You may find that you have to walk an extra six blocks just to catch a bus that will take you where you want to go if you're near a parade route. Double-check with someone who lives here before making your reservations.

While You're Here

DO learn your way around the city a bit before venturing out to a parade.

Pick up a map of the city and get to know street names and locations before heading to a parade. If you get confused as to where you're going, you could run into problems. The people you'll be asking for help are either going to be tourists like yourselves, or locals who have had a bit too much to drink. You won't get much help from the police for something simple like directions; they've usually got their hands full with more pressing matters at this time of the year. If you're staying downtown or in the Quarter, get a good map of the area, like the MapEasy Guide to New Orleans. It's got illustrations of key sights and such, which will help you keep from getting turned around. One of the bad features to the layout of New Orleans is that our high-crime areas are often quite close to the tourist areas.

DON'T park a car illegally within two blocks of a parade route.

Parking fines are a fairly sizeable portion of the city's operating budget. If you park too close to a corner or a fire hydrant within two blocks of a parade route, you're almost definitely always going to get a ticket, and there's an extremely good chance you'll be towed away. The police and fire departments are very conscious of what it takes to get emergency vehicles from one place to another with a parade going on, and that means keeping side streets clear. Of course, you never want to park on a parade route two hours before a parade passes, or you'll always be towed away. In addition to avoiding strictly illegal parking spaces, you want to take care that you don't block driveways in neighborhoods around parade routes. I'm not saying that New Orleanians are an evil, spiteful group, but you can imagine how you would feel if some inconsiderate dolt from out-of-town in a rental car blocked access to your home.

DO go out to the parade route early if you want to be in the first two or three rows of people.

Parade routes are deceptive places; they look almost deserted an hour before the parade passes, but they fill up to the point of ridiculous fifteen to twenty minutes before the parade gets there. Unaware visitors take a look at the empty neutral ground space around Carrollton and Canal Streets an hour before a parade and figure they have time to grab a quick bite at Mandina's. They come out of the restaurant to find a sea of people. If you want the front row spot, stake it out as soon as you see it! For Endymion, this often means going out in the morning of the day of the parade. On Mardi Gras, many people get out before dawn to get spots on the St. Charles Ave. neutral ground.

DON'T mess with any chairs or ladders that are out along the parade route. This is definitely the best way I know of to start a fight at Carnival. Locals will put out ladders for the kids and chairs for the old folks long before a parade passes. They'll set all of the stuff up, then head back into the house until just before the parade. Some unsuspecting tourist comes along and pushes the chairs back to the second or third row, figuring that since there's nobody there, it's open space. Next thing you know, the tourists are squatters in the middle of an extended family, who often go out of their way to make the tourists feel unwelcome. If anyone on either side has been drinking, the potential for a fight is real. The cops don't try to settle such disputes on the street; they take everybody to jail and let a judge do that later.

DO feel free to imbibe and enjoy your favorite beverages of all kinds.

I don't want to sound like a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to drinking during Carnival. In fact, some of my best Carnival memories are a bit fuzzy as the result of over-indulging. (Remind me to tell you about the night we had a parade party at my folks' house in Metairie and I got to know a bottle of Sauza tequila very well...) Public drinking has never been a big deal in New Orleans. Public drunkenness, on the other hand, is a different story. If you're just having a good time, your two main worries are getting sick and getting lost. If your idea of getting drunk is to give others a hard time, you'll probably end up in jail. The New Orleans Police Department has a very high tolerance threshold when it comes to rowdy behavior, but they're also quick to shut you down if you cross the line.

You'll also want to keep the "open container" law in mind. In New Orleans, it's legal to drink alcoholic beverages on the street, but not from glass containers or cans. If you're drinking a longneck in a bar, you need to pick up a plastic "go-cup" on the way out and transfer your beer to it. Same goes for those fancy drinks like the hurricane at Pat O'Brien's. The open container law is normally ignored during Carnival; you're not going to get in a lot of trouble if you're pulling a wagon with the kids (or an ice chest) in it and you have a cold can of Dixie in your hand. The worst that may happen is that a cop will tell you to go get a cup of some kind for the beer. If, on the other hand, you want to get into an argument with a police officer on the street, and you're holding a bottle of cheap wine in your hand, the officer just may take notice of this misdemeanor violation and take you to Central Lockup to cool off.

DON'T urinate in public.

Sounds like I'm telling you something obvious? Well, you'd like to think so. It's amazing how many people will put down four or six beers without a thought as to where they're going to get rid of 'em later. They walk around the Quarter for a while, then their bladders give them a real wake-up call. Most restaurants in the Quarter just aren't going to let you walk in and use their restrooms, and the ones at bars will most likely be crowded. Nature's calling, and many people just answer the call on the next tire they see, or in that doorway down the street. This is very bad strategy. You don't want to end up like the drunk woman who ended up on the TV show "Cops" getting arrested for relieving herself on the side of St. Louis Cathedral. The cops were asking her questions like "How'd you like it if I came up to Memphis (her home town) and urinated on Graceland?"

Next to violent crime, urinating in public is a real serious hot button for both cops and residents of the Quarter alike. I've known several people who have been arrested for this very foolish act. If you know you'll be drinking, factor restrooms into your Carnival strategy. If you don't, hold it in. Let it out, and you run the risk of being hosed down by the Quarter property owner whose house you're going on, getting arrested by an unamused cop, or being videotaped by someone who thinks you're just plain ignorant.

DO get into the spirit of things!

Have a good time. Enjoy what's happening around you. Wear a costume on Mardi Gras. Eat and drink to your heart's content. Then eat and drink a little more. Explore the city by day, go to parades by night. Catch the Nevilles at Tip's or the House of Blues. Gamble a little bit at one of the riverboat casinos. What's important is that you have a good time.

DON'T talk back to police officers. The New Orleans Police Department are the best crowd-control cops in the world. They know exactly where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable behavior during Carnival. They're able to switch gears from their day-to-day routine and apply a totally different set of standards during a parade. The problem is that they do this while working two and a half weeks of 16-hour days. That can make anyone's mood a bit on the dark side. Most cops hate Carnival; your revelry is their agony. They're willing to make the sacrifice, however, because they know their kids are having a good time, and they know what it means to the city. You don't want to jerk a cop's chain at a parade, however. If a police officer tells you to do something, do it. If he wants you to move along, move along. If he wants you to pull your shirt down and stop exposing your breasts to guys up on balconies, do it. There's no street-lawyer discussions at Carnival time -- you do it their way or you go to jail. And, for God's sake, don't ever strike a cop at a parade. Get into a fight with a cop and you'll end up hospitalized. Guaranteed. The NOPD aren't looking for trouble; they don't have to. It finds them. They know that, so they're going to put an ignorant tourist who gets out of line in jail as quickly as possible so they can go back and be on guard for the real trouble.

DO try to catch the stuff thrown from floats.

Carnival parades ain't the Tournament of Roses or the Cotton Bowl parades. We don't just admire the beautiful artistry of the floats and the pretty girls who ride them. In fact, the riders of most of the floats are men and women of all ages out to have a good time. They'll reward you handsomely for coming out to their parade by throwing you anything from necklaces of plastic beads to cups, to metal coins (doubloons) commerating the parade, to even ladies' panties with the krewe's logo emblazoned on the butt. Catching stuff is part of the parade experience. Get into it; it's fun.

DON'T bend over to pick up trinkets or doubloons. Unless you're a seasoned Carnival veteran, the general rule of thumb here is simple: If you drop what you're trying to catch, don't bend over to pick it up. You may get bumped in the rear, sending you sprawling on all fours, or hurtling into the person next to you. Reach down to grab a doubloon with your hand and you may find a foot stomping on it. If you miss something, let it go. There'll always be another float coming.

DO respect any barricades, ropes, etc. that separate the street from neutral grounds and sidewalks.

Barricades and ropes put up by the city are a clear line that shouldn't be crossed. It's one of those things that's just unacceptable. You may end up getting in a hassle with a cop, or worse yet, with the chaperone of a high school band whose daughter is one of the cheerleaders coming down the street.

DON'T try to pick up anything in the street when a float is coming.

Floats are big. They're heavy. They'll hurt you if one rolls over you. If you've had a couple of beers, your reaction time isn't what it is normally. You may think you have enough time to grab that doubloon before the float gets here, but it's closer than you think. Hardly a year goes by where there isn't one person hospitalized because they were hit by or rolled over by a float.

DO bring the kids to see parades!

Kids love parades. Locals bring out ladders and attach seats to the top so the kids can sit up and get a good view. Even if you don't have a ladder, put your kid on your shoulders and they'll be able to see the floats and catch the stuff. Buy 'em a bag of caramel corn from a vendor before the parade gets there, walk up and down the parade route a block or two and let them see all of the people. We're all acting like kids anyway, so the kids will fit right in.

DON'T lose sight of them for a minute!

There are over half a million people on Canal Street alone on Mardi Gras. Don't ever take your eyes off of your child. If you do get separated, make sure you've got a good picture of the child, and go straight to a cop. They're good at handling lost kids, and will help you out. Children don't get kidnapped at Carnival parades, but they do get lost. Keep your cool, find a cop, and you'll have your child back in your arms before you know it. DO enjoy the more risque' and wild atmosphere of the Quarter.

Anything goes on Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. Literally. Short of totally obscene behavior and public urination, expect to see just about anything. Take it all in, take as many pictures as you want, walk around, eat, drink, have a good time. The key to seeing the Quarter is to keep moving. The cops don't like it when groups gather for any reason, because they're worried that someone will get crushed or hurt. Human traffic backs up when it's not kept moving. Keep walking and you'll experience a wild time. Avoid those who are not out to have a good time (whether the person is a drunk or an evangelical Christian trying to save you). Don't drink so much that you can't keep moving -- that's one of the lines you can't cross. Stay within range of your designated bathroom, and you'll have a great time.

DON'T expose body parts (other than your chest) in response to "Show Your Tits!"

It's become quite the tradition for young (and not-so-young) ladies to be rewarded with beads and trinkets by guys hanging out on balconies in the Quarter when they expose their breasts to the crowd. Don't venture into the Quarter on Mardi Gras if the sound of a bunch of guys yelling "Show Your Tits!" offends you. If you're female and do decide to show the world your assets, make it quick. The cops aren't going to put you in jail for indecent exposure, but they will put you in jail for obstructing traffic if you dance around topless and draw a big crowd. Flashing is OK; stripping isn't.

Of course, this is the nineties, and that means that women have made great strides in terms of sexual equality. Over the last couple of years, we've seen a number of women yell back at guys who are encouraging them to show their breasts. They want the guys to flash something of their own. Bad idea. I wouldn't say that the NOPD are an outright sexist organization, but the cops don't want a bunch of guys mooning (or worse) the crowd.

DO enjoy the family atmosphere of Mardi Gras in the Uptown area.

Mardi Gras on St. Charles and Napoleon Avenues is a good bit different than what's happening in the Quarter. This is where families spread out blankets on the neutral grounds and have picnics. People even bring out playpens to lay down the little ones when it's nap time. With Zulu starting at 8:30, then Rex at 10:00, then almost one hundred truck floats following Rex, Mardi Gras on St. Charles is an all-day affair. It's a time for families to relax and have a good time, catch some stuff, and enjoy the parades. If all you've ever heard about are the wild times your co-workers have had in the Quarter when they come to Mardi Gras, remember that there are a lot of family folks who are a good bit more subdued than that. It's not hard to find 'em -- just go in the opposite direction from the Quarter.

DON'T expose any parts of your body outside of the French Quarter.

Showing your tits is OK on Bourbon Street; it's *not* OK on St. Charles Avenue. Simple as that. The guys on the floats may want you to pull up your top before they'll throw beads. You're in the family zone once you leave the Quarter, and the cops will be less tolerant of you getting naked.

When You Get Home

DO tell us all about your trip on or the New Orleans Mailing List.

One of the bad things about being a local is that I don't get to stay in hotels during Carnival. I head back to the house when the parade's over. I don't eat breakfast out every day during parade season, and I've got to work during the day. Let us hear your trip experiences, good and bad. Everyone will learn from them.

DON'T bad-mouth a restaurant unless you also complained to the management.

It's a simple rule: if you didn't complain to the waiter or the maitre'd, I don't want to hear about your bad dining experience. Our restaurants aren't going to improve unless you tell them what they did wrong. I don't own a restaurant, so there's nothing I (or anyone on the list, for that matter) can do about the situation. If you've taken your gripe to the source, then I'm willing to listen. We can compare notes to see if this is a trend, or if you just hit a usually-good place on an off night.

Pro Bono Publico!

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