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Mardi Gras floats often satirize political events: this one is a comment on a recent Chick-fil-A flap. (Photograph by Emily Slack)

Six Things You Don’t Expect at Mardi Gras

When it comes to Mardis Gras, tourists are usually surprised to find that traditions dictate when to party, what to wear, and how to behave. From crowded parties to wild costumes, the revelry may appear chaotic, but locals know there’s a method to the madness.

1. Costumes

Many visitors expect to see parade kings and queens in ornate costume. Donning these plumed garments as part of a krewe court (parade group) is a badge of honor for New Orleans natives.

That being said, whether you’re from near or afar, everyone is invited to wear a costume on Fat Tuesday. Revelers often wear official Mardi Gras colors — purple, green, and gold — and throw on a mask or another Carnival-themed accessory at the parade.

2. Greased Poles

This year marked the 43rd annual greasing of the poles. No, it’s not what you think.

Before Mardi Gras weekend festivities commence, French Quarter businesses must prepare for the crowds in one surprising way — greasing street level poles so people cannot climb up to private balconies.

The tradition started at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, where costumed women and celebrity pole greasers lather petroleum jelly on the hotel’s pillars to prevent outside interloping.

3. Ladders

Mardi Gras has earned a reputation as a raucous event, but it’s actually quite family friendly. If you have kids in tow, head Uptown, or to any number of residential neighborhoods in the city to experience an atmosphere not unlike a state fair, complete with cotton-candy vendors and face painters.

Tourists are often surprised by the funny-looking homemade stands for children. Picture a ladder with a bench attached to the top that children sit in — kind of like a big high chair with wheels on either side.

4. Scandalous Floats

Floats often mock pop culture. And while many of them are outlandish and outrageous, most toe the family-friendly line. This year, for example, there is a float mocking the British Royals’ recent scandals (like nude pool games).

But be warned: There is one parade that is meant for adult eyes only. The Krewe Du Vieux is more risqué, so it runs earlier in the Carnival season — at night, and in the French Quarter. Its satirical themes and bohemian expression make it a Carnival staple…for grown ups.

5. Walking Krewes  

Not every one in a krewe rides on a float. Groups costume together and walk (or dance) in several parades. They also enjoy meandering through the city at will during Carnival. While some walking krewes are decades old, new local favorites like the 610 Stompers play on the silly spirit of Mardi Gras.

6. Endless Fun

Though Carnival spans several weeks, it comes but once a year.

Carnival starts on Epiphany (January 6 this year) and ends on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. The dates surrounding Mardi Gras change every year, just like Easter, according to the vernal equinox.

Carnival gets increasingly more exciting in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. But the party eventually does end: at midnight, when Lent begins. So while you can always have a good time in New Orleans, don’t expect Mardi Gras if you show up late to the party.

Caroline Gerdes is a Nat Geo Young Explorer and a New Orleans native. Follow her story on Twitter @CarolineCeleste.