Shrove Tuesday. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Different names, same event. A celebration with excessive food, drink, music, and fun. A time when you can let it all hang out and party before the Lenten season.
Most people think of New Orleans when it comes to Mardi Gras, but Mobile is actually its birthplace, and the city (also known as the Mother of Mystics) has been celebrating Mardi Gras since 1703.
Mardi Gras is a French word that means "Fat Tuesday." It is always celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, but the party lasts more than just one day. In Mobile, the party starts two weeks before Fat Tuesday and includes 33 parades where masked revelers from mystic societies ride atop majestically ornate floats throwing trinkets to the masses lining the parade route. If you’re in the crowd, you might catch candy, stuffed dolls, Moon Pies and the highly coveted green and gold Mardi Gras beads.
Oh, those Moon Pies! Each year they make the town go into a frenzy causing parade goers to shout hysterically, "Throw me something, Mister!"
If you are planning to visit Mobile to experience the excitement and pageantry of Mardi Gras at its birthplace, there are a few things you should know to help make it a fun time.
On any night during Mardi Gras in Mobile, several parades will be lined up one after another, and up to three parades will take the same route in an evening. That’s a lot of parades, and that number doesn’t include a dozen others that roll on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and a good dozen more scattered around Mobile County.
So what are the "must-see" parades? Here are the local favorites:
- Joe Cain Day (aka the "People’s Parade") is held the Sunday before Fat Tuesday and celebrates everyday people, or the “average Joe.” There isn’t anything fancy about the parades and parties, and it’s the polar opposite of the parades put on by the mystic societies.
The event honors Joe Cain, who, according to legend, brought Mardi Gras back to Mobile after it was halted during the Civil War. Cain dressed up as a faux Chickasaw Indian chief, Slacabamorinico, and paraded down the streets. For the last 30 years, local Wayne Dean has recreated the role of Chief Slack for the celebration.
The Mystic Mutts of Revelry (MMOR) parade is for dogs and their humans to raise money and awareness for a local no-kill animal shelter, the Haven. The parade rolls through the town of Fairhope on Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore, with canine companions dressed up in Mardi Gras regalia. The cuteness is over the top.
The Order of Myths (OOM) is the oldest continuous Mardi Gras parading group in the city dating back to 1867. The society still uses the same signature emblem or main float to lead the way—a mule-pulled float decorated with a broken column that some believe symbolizes the broken South after the war. Two masked revelers race around the column, with Folly chasing Death to show that while death will eventually win the race, on Mardi Gras Day, Folly always wins.
On Fat Tuesday there are wall-to-wall parades, plus music, food, drinks, and fun, as everyone lets it all hang out before Lent begins. Plan to spend the entire day late into the night.
Finding Food and Drinks
Downtown Mobile has a bustling restaurant and bar scene centered around Dauphin Street. During the celebration, music will be wafting through the air until late at night from many of these establishments. If you’re looking for a portable, quick meal, try one of the many food trucks and vendors that line the streets. Be sure to try the funnel cakes.
Be Prepared and Be Patient
You’ll have the most fun if you arrive prepared, and the best way to do that is going armed with information, in particular know the parade routes. Visit the city’s Mardi Gras website for the parade schedule and maps of the routes so that you can scope out the best parking and spots to view the parades.
Before you head out to a parade, check the weather and dress accordingly. Standing in a cold February rain without the proper jacket or raincoat is miserable. Leave the umbrella at home. They are hard to handle and a nuisance to others when you’re in a crowd of thousands.
Don’t forget to bring a tote bag, plastic grocery bag, or another piece of gear to stash all of the stuff you catch during the parades.
Get to the parade route early and stake out your spot. Yes, you might have to wait there quite a while before the parade starts, but it’s the only way to ensure you get that good viewing spot. And, you can have fun people-watching as you wait.
Remember to be patient. There’s going to be a lot of jostling along the parade route. Even the nicest looking family with the smallest of kids get caught up in the celebration and fight for those beads. There will be pushing, shoving, even hands stepped on as you reach for a Moon Pie. Remember that it’s all in good fun. That’s why we’re all there.
Pesky Purple Signs, Traffic Headaches, and Parking
Throughout downtown Mobile you’ll notice little purple signs attached to lamp posts. The signs tell you not to park along the parade route 2 hours before or after a scheduled parade, or you will be towed. The fee to get your car out of the slammer is expensive, and the process a huge hassle. Visit the city Mardi Gras website for parking suggestions.
Let’s face it, there’s just no way around it, the biggest problem is traffic. Plan to arrive at the parade route at least 90 minutes early, so you can beat the traffic and get to your spot with plenty of time to spare.
On Fat Tuesday the main highway that runs into Mobile, US Highway 90 (Government Street) and the Bankhead Tunnel are closed to traffic starting between 6 and 6:30 a.m., and they don’t reopen until late that night. If you’re coming into town from the East, you will need to take Interstate 65. If you’re coming from the North, I-165 to Water Street could also be blocked at certain intersections.
When it comes to parking, spend the extra money to park in a secure lot. Your best bet is to park at the Mobile Civic Center where you’ll have an easier time getting out when it’s over, plus it’s located near the staging area for most parades. Parking at the Mobile Convention Center could be limited, depending on whether a cruise ship is in port at the time.
On Fat Tuesday, it’s difficult to leave the downtown area once you’re parked, no matter where you leave the car.
Rules are Rules
There are a few other important rules to remember:
Glass containers, Silly String, and "Poppers" are prohibited.
Do not throw any objects back at the floats or bands.
Don’t cross the barricades during a parade. You will be fined almost $300.
Pets, skateboards, and motor scooters are prohibited.
Do not call 911 for parade information. That’s not an emergency. Seriously, it happens.
In Case of Emergency
If for some reason you need help during a Mardi Gras celebration, police officers are stationed at every intersection.
After the Parades
When the rhythmic drums, blaring horns, and shouts of "throw it to me mister" have died down, don’t throw out those beads and don’t give up donuts for Lent! Bring in 12 pounds of beads to a local Krispy Kreme Donut location and they will give you a dozen glazed donuts free. A tasty reward for all of your effort.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.