Elaborate costumes, screaming crowds and police escorts — this must be what it feels like to be a rock star.
No, I'm not on tour with Lady Gaga. I'm in Biloxi, Mississippi for Mardi Gras, the yearly Fat Tuesday celebration that preceeds Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season. And on this warm, sunny February Tuesday, the people of Mississippi's Gulf Coast are preparing for a giant party.
Mardi Gras parades may be most famous in New Orleans, but the tradition originated in Alabama and has spread to cities all along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida. After New Orleans, Biloxi has one of the biggest Mardi Gras parades in the region, with more than 120 floats and a crowd of more than 100,000 onlookers. And while the idea of Mardi Gras has been tainted by some Big Easy debauchery, the festivities in Biloxi (and most other destionations) are safe and family-friendly.
That doesn't, however, mean that they are boring. Walking around the float staging area today before the parade began, I saw a motley assortment of characters loading up onto colorfully decorated floats. The cast ranged from the elaborately costmed King and Queen of Mardi Gras to pirates, soldiers, Angry Birds, bananas and many more. These folks are all affiliated with the various local businesses and "krewes" (social clubs) that sponsored floats in the Mardi Gras parade. In the hours before the parade began, they loaded untold millions of plastic beads onto their floats (as well as food and drinks), and pumped up music from on-board loudspeakers to help set a festive mood.
The real fun began when the floats took off down the parade route. The Mississippi Gulf Convention and Visitors Bureau enters a float in the parade each year, and invited me to join them and some other journalist as a participant in the parade. So I climed to the top of our double decker float, claimed my spot on the left side, and warmed up my throwing arm.
To describe the experience as exciting would be a severe understatment. From the time our float turned the first corner on the parade route, we were met with the enthusiastic screams of thousands of revelers. Of course, they weren't exactly screaming for us, but for the colorful strands of beads that we tossed out into the crowd. It's amazing how much excitement a strand of beads can stir up in the most unlikely of people. All along the parade route, we passed an endless number of people who eagerly clamored for our beads. The thrill seemed to transcend normal social barriers, uniting people of every age, sex, race and social circle into one giant party.
And so for two hours, I threw my heart out, launching hundreds or thousands of strands of beads into the crowd — in such an energetic atmosphere, it's impossible to keep count. Some parade-goers attracted my throwing attention with interesting costumes and funny signs. Others simply made me take notice with their wild hand-waving and enthusiastic screams. Many times, the person who caught the beads that I threw would shoot me a smile, a wave or a wink of gratitude. It's a fun and rewarding feeling.
At the end of the two-hour parade, my throwing arm was sore, and I wore a permanent smile plastered on my face. If you ever get a chance to ride a Mardi Gras float, you simply must do it. And anyone looking for a great mid-winter party should begin making plans to attend Mardi Gras in 2013.
Revelers loading up a parade float
A line of beads at my throwing station
Visitors check outthe floats before the parade begins
The Gulf Coast's 2012 King of Mardi Gras
Float riders get in to the spirit of Marid Gras
An elaborately decorated Mardi Gras float