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Behind the Scenes at Mardi Gras Parades
By Tom Adkinson

NEW ORLEANS – Before you can yell “Throw me something, Mister!” at riders on those gigantic, gaudy floats in a Mardi Gras parade, someone has to build the floats.

So what’s the source of those colorful creations, and just how big are those busts of Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Bacchus? Those questions - and many more about Mardi Gras - are answered at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, an attraction that every year shows hundreds of thousands of people how the floats are built.

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Giant faces and towering human forms for Mardi Gras floats look even bigger when you can get close; image by Tom Adkinson.

Visiting Mardi Gras World, located just a few blocks from Canal Street, isn’t as much fun as actually attending a Mardi Gras parade, but it certainly puts you in the mood to experience New Orleans during parade season.

The uninitiated may think that the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is when everything happens, but that’s far from true in a city that lives to party. Parades begin every year in January, and Mardi Gras itself actually marks the end of the carnival season.

(For 2019, there are almost 80 parades on the calendar, including the 10 on Fat Tuesday itself, which is March 5. They delight crowds and clog traffic in the French Quarter, of course, but also in other parts of the city and in surrounding communities such as Slidell, Metairie and Covington.)

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At one stop on the Mardi Gras World studio tour, you can add your own face to a float figure; image by Tom Adkinson.

Mardi Gras World is a combination of treats – a videotape history lesson, a tour through a production facility, a chance to see artists at work, locations for memorable selfies and, of course, the opportunity to buy Mardi Gras souvenirs. Mardi Gras World is so popular that is runs free shuttles to and from more populated parts of the city.

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These floats show the size and scale of today’s Kern floats. They are bigger than the first one in 1937; image by Tom Adkinson.

Blaine Kern’s connection to Mardi Gras began in 1932, when he and his father built their first parade float. It was pulled by a team of mules. Kern Studios was founded in 1947, and Kern became the go-to guy for many krewes, the private organizations that produce the many parades.

Kern apprenticed under European float and costume makers and was inspired by their grandiose designs. Back in Louisiana, he became known as “Mr. Mardi Gras,” and the public’s demand to see behind the scenes led to the opening of Mardi Gras World in 1984.

The attraction’s 15-minute video tells the story of what it calls “the greatest free show on earth” and explains why “you don’t watch a Mardi Gras parade, you participate in it.” Before beginning the tour of the production studio, however, everyone gets a literal taste of another Mardi Gras tradition – a slice of king cake from Joe Gambino’s Bakery.

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A Kern artist transforms a bust that originally was Sylvester Stallone into John F. Kennedy
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Artists at Mardi Gras World can go wild with their color selections

The production studio tour is more of a narrated stroll than a scripted tour. Yes, the guide does explain how Styrofoam, papier-mache and a kaleidoscopic collection of paint colors are transformed into gigantic figures, but you also have time to inspect some items closely and perhaps have a quick chat with an artist.

The concept of recycling is at the heart of Mardi Gras World. About 80 percent of every year’s floats have hit the streets before, but you’d probably never realize that without being told. The cosmetic surgery that happens in the interim is astounding.

Some of the coolest trivia in the recycling story is about who has become whom. A giant bust of Sylvester Stalone was being transformed into John F. Kennedy when I toured. Earlier transformations turned actor Tom Cruise into quarterback Drew Brees, a California gold rush miner into Hulk Hogan and Ronald Reagan into an Aladdin-style genie.

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The plain exterior of Mardi Gras World gives no hint to the glam, color and artistry of what is inside; image by Tom Adkinson.

According to, major parades feature between 15 and 40 full-size floats, each with dozens of krewe members tossing beads, trinkets, plush toys and other items to spectators hollering, “Throw me something, Mister!”

If you never make it to Mardi Gras World or to an actual New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, you’re still likely to see Blaine Kern’s handiwork in person. His floats and oversized figures have shown up at events such as the Nashville Christmas Parade, the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade and parades at Universal Studios and other theme parks.

Also, if you’ve ever seen an “Eat Mor Chikin” cow on a Chick-Fil-A billboard, that cow came from Kern, too.

Trip-planning resources: and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published February 15, 2019

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