Whether you call it Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, they’re all the same: the day before Ash Wednesday, the official start of Lent. On this day, revelers let it all hang out for one grand party before beginning the 40 days of fasting and prayer before Easter.
The question rages on to this day: Who held the first Mardi Gras in America? Was it New Orleans or Mobile, Alabama? It all depends on who you talk to and where they’re from. It’s safe to say that Mardi Gras as we know it today wouldn’t be the same without either one. Since they began celebrating Mardi Gras, the two cities expanded from a single day to 2 weeks long and created new traditions and rituals that each city shared with one another while keeping their own unique stamp on the party.
Today, this festive time of year has spread across the South like wildfire, especially along the Gulf Coast, where the holiday was first celebrated. You can now see ornate paper-mache floats rolling down the streets with masked riders tossing trinkets of candy, Moon Pies, and those coveted and colorful beads in cities across the country.
Pick your city along the Gulf Coast and you’re sure to find a fun and festive celebration of the holiday. Laissez les bons temps rouler (“let the good times roll”) at one of these eight festive Gulf Coast Mardi Gras celebrations.
1. Busch Gardens — Tampa, Florida
A fun celebration for the entire family takes place at one of the largest theme parks in Florida, Busch Gardens, but instead of celebrating for just 2 weeks – and to avoid the perpetual question everyone asks of “when is Mardi Gras this year?” – they celebrate from January through March. That should cover it.
The park’s restaurants serve up traditional New Orleans beignets and spicy Cajun cuisine such as jambalaya and gumbo. Parades roll down the streets with brass bands blaring music that will make you want to dance. Just watch out for those flying beads.
- Mardi Gras celebrations take place on weekends, Friday through Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.
- Busch Gardens offers a variety of ticket packages suitable for any budget.
2. St. Andrews Mardi Gras — Panama City, Florida
Each year, over 50,000 people flock to the historic St. Andrew Bay on the Florida panhandle for the annual 3-day Krewe of St. Andrews Mardi Gras celebration.
Over 30 colorful floats and 14 krewes (or mystic societies) take to the streets for a lively party that is filled with music, food, and fun. Oh, and lots of beads and doubloons.
The family-oriented celebration begins Friday at 4 p.m. with a festival that lasts the entire weekend and is crammed wall-to-wall with music, food, and activities for young and old including a kid’s parade.
The main parade takes place on Saturday at 2 p.m. On Sunday, bring your pet dressed in their festive Mardi Gras colors for the pet parade.
- Parking is always a challenge during any Mardi Gras celebration, but at St. Andrews, you can reserve a spot close to the actions – though it will cost you.
- For the best view of the parade, consider purchasing a VIP ticket that includes exclusive catering, a private bar, and more.
3. Panama City Beach Mardi Gras And Music Festival — Panama City Beach, Florida
The Krewe of Domonique Youx’s mystic society and the city of Panama City Beach let the good times roll with their annual Mardi Gras and Music Festival that is staged at the Pier Park Shopping Mall and Aaron Bessant Park.
The party is a 2-day family-friendly event that kicks off on Friday with a float tour on Pier Park. It’s a chance to get up close to the spectacular ornate floats that will be featured in the parade the following day.
Friday is a day for the kids with a children’s parade and fun zone packed with activities before the music fest swings into high gear with bands and an authentic Second Line Parade where you can dance down the street behind a wailing brass and drum combo.
The following day along the shimmering white beaches of the Gulf, the Celebration Stage at Pier Park gets rocking with non-stop music followed by the Krewe of Domonique Youx’s Mardi Gras Parade through Pier Park. It all culminates at dusk with a gigantic fireworks spectacular.
Be sure to download the parade route map. It will help you navigate to the festival stages and find the best place to view the Mardi Gras parade.
4. Mobile’s Eastern Shore Mardi Gras – Daphne And Fairhope, Alabama
Mardi Gras madness spills over across the bay from the city dubbed the “Mother of Mystics” (Mobile) to the towns Daphne and Fairhope – who continue the revelry with their own 2-week celebration with parades and gala balls.
Both towns have several mystic societies including the Maids of Jubilee, Apollo’s Mystic Ladies, and the granddaddy of them all on this side of the bay, the Knights of Ecor Rouge, who roll elaborate parades to the delight of revelers lining the streets shouting, “throw me something, mister!” in hopes of snagging some trinkets.
One highlight of the Eastern Shore celebration is the Mystic Mutts of Revelry, one of the first parades created especially for pets and their owners where they can dress up in costumes and parade through the streets of Fairhope. There is a small fee to join the parade, but all proceeds help the Haven, one of Baldwin County’s no-kill animal shelters.
- The latest parade schedules and routes can be found online.
- A good source for all information on Mardi Gras madness in the Mobile area is the Mobile Mask website.
- And while you are in the area, head across the bay to Mobile to visit the Mobile Carnival Museum to learn of the history of Fat Tuesday celebrations and view spectacular trains worn by past Mardi Gras queens.
5. Dauphin Island Mardi Gras — Dauphin Island, Alabama
The first is hosted by the Krewe de la Dauphine and rolls down the island’s main street the Saturday 2 weeks before the Mobile celebration.
The following Saturday, it’s the People’s Parade, during which everyone gets to join in the fun and experience what it’s like to be in a Mardi Gras parade. If you’re really ambitious, you can create your own float for the procession.
There are two ways onto the island. One is via the Dauphin Island Bridge, but the best way is by taking the Mobile Bay Ferry from Fort Morgan across Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island. The ferry departs about every 45 minutes (one way) and you can drive or walk on.
6. Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras – Lake Charles, Louisiana
Of course, the biggest and most popular Mardi Gras celebration happens each year in the Crescent City, New Orleans. If want to experience an authentic NOLA parade without the crowds, then check out the Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras celebration in nearby Lake Charles.
The city is serious about their Mardi Gras starting the celebration 2 months before Fat Tuesday!
Put on your tux and ball gowns, grab a mask, and get your tickets for one of the many Mardi Gras balls that dot the city’s calendar. Sample some of the best gumbo in Louisiana at the World Famous Cajun Extravaganza and Gumbo Cook-off, and of course, grab a spot for one of many, and I mean many, parades that take to the streets throughout the celebration.
Lake Charles has a spectacular Mardi Gras exhibit at the Imperial Calcasieu Museum that you need to check out while in the area. The exhibit features displays of gowns, costumes, krewe banners, and more. Each year, the museum hosts an open reception for the public with free admission to view the display. Visit their website for details.
7. Mardi Gras Galveston — Galveston, Texas
Over 15 traditional Mardi Gras parades put on by local mystic societies roll down the streets during the 2-week celebration, but Galveston adds some unique and fun parade twists of their own to the mix like the Zaniest Golf Cart Parade, the Krewe of Barkus and Meoux Parade for pets, a fire truck parade, a Jeep parade, and the Funky Uptown Umbrella Parade.
The Sunday before Fat Tuesday, the atmosphere turns Latin with Fiesta Gras! Non-stop Latin music fills the air from the day’s two parades and a central stage.
- Tickets are required for Fiesta Gras! The best view of the parades – and best parties – are in the balconies that line the parade route. Get a ticket and party with your friends. The balconies offer cash bars, music, and a guaranteed good time.
- After a night of celebration, you will probably want to spend the night. Many local hotels offer special Mardi Gras packages.
8. Beaumont Mardi Gras — Beaumont, Texas
The town of Beaumont near the Louisiana state line knows how to let the good times roll with their annual Mardi Gras weekend. Actually, it’s more than that — it’s four days packed with fun, folly, music, and merriment.
The family-friendly celebration kicks off the Thursday before Fat Tuesday. Throughout the weekend, two stages will be rocking downtown Beaumont with local and national musicians and bands while revelers line the streets for throws during one of the twelve parades.
Besides the traditional mystic society parades, there is a motorcycle showcase parade, a parade for the kids and pets, and an umbrella parade. Oh, and don’t forget the amazing carnival food that adds to the festive atmosphere.
Hours for Mardi Gras Beaumont are Thursday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m, Friday 6 p.m.– midnight, Saturday noon–midnight, and Sunday noon–8 p.m. The parades, concessions, and kid’s activities are free, but you will need to purchase a wristband for the concert stages and carnival rides.