For the 50+ Traveler

The carnival season in Lake Charles, Louisiana, starts with the Twelfth Night celebration, where the royal courts of more than 50 krewes are introduced. The season continues through the Fat Tuesday celebrations on February 25, culminating with the Krewe of Krewes Parade.

These celebrations may sound similar to the ones happening in New Orleans at the same time, but the festivities in Lake Charles -- the second-largest Mardi Gras festivities in Louisiana -- have their own charm and appeal. While the focus in New Orleans is primarily on the parades, Lake Charles hosts events you won’t find in NOLA, including a royal gala open to the public, a fun chicken run, and a day dedicated to children.

I was invited to experience Mardi Gras in Lake Charles last year on a press trip hosted by Visit Lake Charles. We had a chance to ride on a float, toss beads in a parade designed just for kids, sit front-and-center at a fancy costume gala, learn to Zydeco dance (and try out our new skills at a party during the main parade!), visit a Mardi Gras museum, and decorate a king cake.

These unique offerings and family-friendly events are just some of the reasons to consider heading to Lake Charles for Mardi Gras.

You Can Learn To Zydeco Dance

If you haven’t taken up this Cajun dance style yet, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to learn in Lake Charles.

We were glad to have an afternoon lesson with Harold Guillory so that we could show off our new dance moves at the Mardi Gras festivities. Guillory, known as “the Zydeco Man,” was charming and energetic, infusing us insecure newbies with his love for the Zydeco dance style.

Here’s a video of our group learning the dance and another with Guillory demonstrating how it’s done. Though I hadn’t danced in years, the dance lesson was one of the highlights of my visit.

The Parades Offer Something For Everyone

Lake Charles takes pride in its family-friendly Mardi Gras festivities. Although New Orleans also offers some family-friendly events, Lake Charles has an entire day designated for kids, including a fun children’s parade.

Our group was invited to travel on a float during the Children’s Day Parade. Designed for the young and young at heart, the event is a purple, green, and gold parade that travels for miles; children and families line the streets to catch the beads, candy, and other treats thrown from the floats. Seeing the children smile when they’d catch the strings of beads made the event even more special, and we enjoyed trying extra hard to get the beaded necklaces to children who didn’t have as many draped around their necks.

There are more than a dozen parades held during the Lake Charles Mardi Gras season, but one especially stands out: the Mardi Gras Lighted Boat Parade, where you can line up along the seawall and watch the glowing boats sail past on Lake Charles.

The Krewes Parade in Lake Charles.

The season builds up to the Krewe of Krewes Parade, a 4-mile event featuring costumed krewes tossing beads, cups, doubloons, and other items to the crowds. Our group -- by this point so fully immersed in the celebrations that we had named ourselves the Krewe des Voyageurs (travel writers) -- enjoyed a delicious buffet of Cajun food and king cakes before stepping outside for live music, Zydeco dancing, and finally, the Krewe of Krewes Parade. I wasn’t as daring as others in catching beads, but the people standing nearby would happily toss me theirs when I missed a catch.

The Mardi Gras parade schedule shows the dates, times, and routes of all the parades.

The Royal Gala in Lake Charles.

The Royal Gala Is Splendid -- And Open To The Public

On the night of Lundi Gras, the Royal Gala delights visitors at the Lake Charles Civic Center Coliseum. I’ve never seen anything like this event, an evening of elaborate costumes and gowns, glitter and flashing lights, and partying and parades. At the Royal Gala, all of the area Mardi Gras krewes show off their royal court costumes.

In other cities, like New Orleans, the krewes’ costumes can only be seen at the Mardi Gras balls -- and unlike in Lake Charles, these balls are not typically open to the public.

The Iowa Chicken Run in Louisiana.

The Iowa Chicken Run Is The Quirkiest Event You’ll Ever Attend

On Fat Tuesday, citizens of Lake Charles head to nearby Iowa, Louisiana, for the Iowa Chicken Run, an event unique to the area.

The parade rides through town, making occasional stops to let a chicken loose for the children to chase. Then the long parade of floats travels out into the surrounding rural areas, collecting ingredients for a gumbo pot, going miles before coming upon a house with residents waiting by the road for beads and candy to be thrown.

It's a daytime party on wheels that ends with a gumbo pot and a Zydeco dance party at the local Knights of Columbus hall.

The Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu.

You Can Visit The Largest Collection Of Costumes In The South At The Mardi Gras Museum

You can experience the glitz and glamour and the costumes and history of Mardi Gras at the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu. You’ll find a similar museum in New Orleans, but the museum in Lake Charles is home to the largest display of Mardi Gras costumes in the world. Located in the Central School Arts & Humanities Center, the museum also houses the largest collection of costumes in the South.

There are six rooms, each with a different story to tell. First, you’ll learn how Mardi Gras originated. Then you’ll see the costumes and learn about the design process. Finally, you’ll learn about the history of king cakes and visit a room dedicated to Mardi Gras parades and parade floats.

While at the museum, we got to taste a king cake, a rich, brioche-style braided cake with layers of filling -- cinnamon, cream cheese, and fruit are popular -- and a toy baby placed inside. Finding the baby in your slice is considered a harbinger of good luck and prosperity, and one member of our group found the toy inside her piece. After the tasting, we were invited to decorate our own cakes, which we shipped home. After sampling so many cakes during Mardi Gras, it was a special treat to have a custom cake to share with friends at home.

Eating crawfish at the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point.

You Can Discover Local Food And Culture

Aside from the Mardi Gras festivities, there’s plenty of fun to be had in Lake Charles. I recommend visiting the Bayou Rum Distillery, the largest private rum distillery in the country; tasting Cajun/Mexican fusion at Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp; stopping by the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point for an interactive experience playing along with a Zydeco band, learning the best places to spot alligators, and tasting Cajun and Creole cooking; taking a tour of the Charpentier Historic District; and sampling boudin at LeBleu’s Landing.

Headed to New Orleans after all? Check out these eight little-known attractions and these 12 totally free things to do in the city. If you want to hear some great jazz music while you're there, be sure to stop by some of these venues.