The Rules of Mardi Gras

The Rules of Mardi Gras
Photo by Lee Curran

We are approaching peak Carnival Time! There’s a whole slate of parades to watch in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, and things to keep in mind while gearing up for the revelry.

Here we list both informal guidelines here as well as a few actual rules — i.e. ordinances related to Mardi Gras. The laws are meant to keep everyone safe and give everyone a fair chance of catching some good throws. Knowing them will also help you avoid getting arrested or fined, having to move your setup during the parade, and being (rightfully) judged by the fellow revelers.

Personal Effects Must Be 6 Feet from the Curb

It’s totally OK to bring a backpack or cooler to a parade, but remember to store them a little off the curb. Those first few feet of grass or sidewalk are meant for everyone trying to enjoy the parade and catch beads. Also, occasionally, the parade floats have been known to jump the curb; your personal effects could be damaged in the event this happened. This rule also applies to ladders.

No “Saving” Spots

Some parade-goers stake out “their spot” along the parade route with chairs, trash cans, sofas, rope, yellow tape, whatever they could find. Not only this is very uncool and frowned upon but there’s an actual ban on roping off territory if you are in the public right of way. The curb and the neutral ground are fair game to all who attend the parades. If you want to have a good spot, you’ll have to come early and wait in the spot to have it. Seasoned revelers usually show up at least two hours before the parade rolls (and much earlier for the most popular parades like the Muses, Endymion and Bacchus).

Don’t Move Other People’s Stuff

Please do not move unoccupied chairs and ladders, as well as unattended coolers and personal belongings along the parade route to carve your own spot. We can guarantee that someone is watching this space and will be right back. Plus, families tend to use the same spots year after year. And they might also have little kids or seniors or disabled persons in their group and need the space to accommodate everyone comfortably.

Don’t Interfere with the Parade

Running along with the moving float for a short while, begging for a Muses shoe or a Zulu coconut, is socially acceptable, but don’t run into the street between the floats to pick up a covetable throw. Floats are massive and can’t just stop quickly. You can get seriously hurt. Also, getting in a band’s way, hanging on a float, joining the parade by marching along, acting aggressively toward anyone in the parade, or jumping over the barricade are all surefire ways to get yourself arrested.

No Nudity

You’ve probably seen or heard about the way some people come by beads. Police officers might be somewhat lenient about that sort of behavior on Bourbon Street, but it isn’t tolerated along the parade routes. Keep all your clothes on until you get home from the parades. Contrary to popular belief, Carnival is overwhelmingly a family-friendly holiday. Many New Orleanians take their kids to parades, and a good rule to apply here is, if you wouldn’t do something in front of kids in your hometown, you shouldn’t do it here (exceptions to this rule include screaming, dancing and waving your arms like a wild person to score beads). Plus, in this day and age you will probably end on the Internet, and not in a good way. We can’t stress this enough: Do NOT flash for beads.

No Glass Containers

As the night (or day) progresses, trash from the parades tends to pile up on the streets and curbs around the route. Glass bottles and even cans are potentially dangerous when discarded on the ground, although the official ban only applies to glass. You can always pour your drink into a plastic cup, or order one to go from one of the many bars you will find along the parade route.

Plan Wisely for Transportation and Parking

During Mardi Gras, and during the parades especially, parking violations are vigorously enforced. Parking on Napoleon and St. Charles is prohibited on both sides of the neutral ground, not just the parade side, starting two hours before the parade. This rule is strictly enforced, and you will be towed. Also, do not double-park or park in driveways, in front of water hydrants, within 15 feet of curb corners, or too far from the curb.

The French Quarter is closed to vehicular traffic during Mardi Gras weekend (the weekend leading up to Fat Tuesday, which falls on March 5 this year) except to residents and hotel guests with special parking passes. You won’t get past the police barricades.

Please also remember that parking lots fills up fast during parades and tend to charge more than usual. Bus and streetcar routes and schedules also often change during Carnival season. And cabs might be delayed due to the demand and traffic congestion, so plan ahead or consider walking or biking, if it’s feasible.

Respect the Authority

The local police are consummate pros at handling all kinds of behavior during the Carnival and had seen it all. They are also amazing at controlling the crowds and tolerating all that goes on as long as it doesn’t involve breaking the law. So, as you enjoy the festivities please do remember that the rules like no-glass, public urination and the drinking age will be enforced. You will get arrested if you act obnoxiously, threaten anyone, act overly intoxicated, or break the law in any other way. The police presence is very robust at the parades, and in the French Quarter during the Mardi Gras weekend.

Finally, if you’re out and about enjoying the parades and the parties on Mardi Gras Day, don’t be surprised when midnight strikes and you’re asked to clear off the street. Mardi Gras is officially over and the street cleanup begins, though you are of course free to continue partying indoors.

“Ain’t No Place…”

One of the most famous Mardi Gras songs is the Benny Grunch classic, “Ain’t No Place to Pee on Mardi Gras Day.” As the saying goes, it’s funny because it’s true — or at least it can feel that way. There are some public restrooms along the parade routes — the most prominent ones are around Lafayette Square near St. Charles Ave. and Poydras St. You might think that you can sneak into a hotel or a restaurant, but those places strictly reserve their restrooms for guests or paying customers. If you don’t want to wait in the long lines, some restaurants, bars, churches, or other businesses offer single-use or day-long bathroom passes. Doing your business in public is a definite no-no, as you will get in trouble if the police catch you (also, it’s gross). And, this is an official rule: There can be no private portable toilets on the neutral ground or other public property.

Parade Etiquette

The cops won’t come for you if you break these unofficial “rules,” but if you want to keep the peace with fellow parade-goers, it’s a good idea to maintain good Mardi Gras etiquette.

Bead Rule No. 1

This is one of the spoken rules — don’t pick up beads that have fallen on the street or ground. There are a couple of safety issues involved with this rule. Picking up a bead or throw from the street puts you in direct line of the tires of the tractors or the floats. Also, the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras can get… Well, let’s just say “unsanitary.” Do yourself a favor and wait until you catch something in the air. There’s plenty to go around.

Bead Rule No. 2

For the “good throws” — most often signature beads, but also stuffed animals, sparkly Muses shoes, hand-decorated Nyx purses, anything that lights up from Bacchus, etc. — you should never get in the way of someone else’s catch. If the rider wants to throw you something from the float, they’ll make eye contact with you, usually make an exaggerated “I’m looking at you” sign, and throw in your direction. The good part, if someone else catches a throw destined for you, unless they’re clueless, they will respectfully give it up and hand it to you.

Optional Bead Rule

This one is more good-natured than the first two bead rules. As the parade progresses, you should wear all of the beads that you catch. You’ll look silly at the end of the night, but it will also be a mark of pride. The people with the most beads must’ve worked really hard to get all of them, right?

The Family Rule

As we keep saying, Mardi Gras is a family event. Many people make a day of big parades and their whole family, kids included. There are some places that are exclusively “Family Zones,” that are usually located near the beginning of parade routes, but children are welcome everywhere. So, try your best to remain on something like good behavior — there might be kids nearby. Also, never reach over a kid to catch a throw — that’s just mean.

And, the Number 1 Rule of Mardi Gras, above any official and unofficial rules, is to have fun! Costumes are encouraged throughout the season of Mardi Gras. Put on your fanciest wig and glitteriest outfit and go out there!

Also, check out our guide to the Mardi Gras Weekend, the 2019 Mardi Gras Parade Schedule, and our tips and recommendations on How to Dress for Mardi Gras. Happy Carnival!

Visit our Mardi Gras page for a listing of Mardi Gras parades, restaurants, nightlife, shopping, hotels, and more.