Touring this facility provides a sense of Mardi Gras as mixture of centuries-old traditions and modern innovation. Artisans sculpt, finish and paint giant disembodied heads and other figures; fabrication techniques utilize clay, Styrofoam, fiberglass and variations on papier mâché.
Most fundamentally, Mardi Gras is an expression of the enduring human capacity for merriment and make-believe, for mirthful mockery and the creative indulgence of whimsy. It is also, as Carol Flake writes in New Orleans: Behind the Masks of America’s Most Exotic City, “a constantly evolving rite of cultural accretion, which voraciously devours bits and pieces of the surrounding culture, incorporating themes and images from myth, literature, religion, theater, art and society.”
The veracity of Flake’s observation is vividly on display at Mardi Gras World, a fantasy factory and tourist attraction on the Mississippi River adjacent to the Ernest Morial Convention Center. In addition to serving as float warehouse, or “den,” and parade-staging area, the massive complex houses a working studio for making sculptures, props and thematic architecture not just for Mardi Gras but also an international clientele including theme parks, casinos and aquariums, restaurants and retail emporiums. The building occupies a wharf offering prime views of the busy Port of New Orleans and the twin spans of the Crescent City Connection.
All kinds of realms and characters come to life here. Erudite representations of myth and legend are sometime oddly juxtaposed with familiar scenes and personalities from pop culture. Jesters mingle with Hindu deities. Movie stars and famous musicians compete for attention with dragons, prancing satyrs and ancient gods and goddesses. Superheroes and storybook characters take their place alongside famous athletes and historical personages. From jungle animals and undersea creatures to spooky ghouls and gargoyles; from robots and Biblical characters to Southern belles and Buddha—the denizens of this phantasmal funhouse run the gamut.
Touring the facility provides a sense of Mardi Gras as a mixture of centuries-old traditions and modern innovation. Artisans sculpt, finish and paint giant disembodied heads and other figures; fabrication techniques utilize clay, Styrofoam, fiberglass and variations on papier mâché.
Fully assembled parade floats belonging to various Carnival organizations (krewes) occupy most of the hanger-like space. Some are towering, multi-section constructions tricked-out with razzamatazz—fiber-optic lighting, powerful sound systems and other special effects.
Sculptures used to outfit parade floats in accordance with a theme are known as props. Collectively, they comprise an inventory of pictorial building blocks. And because props are detachable, they can be reused and refurbished. Some of the makeovers almost defy the imagination. John Wayne, celluloid hero of the Old West, once reappeared as Freddy Krueger, king of Hollywood slasher films. Every year, Mardi Gras adds to this vast storehouse of thematic ephemera.
Artistically ambitious parades—Rex, Hermes and Orpheus, among others—are, for the most part, built from scratch each year. But even these productions utilize floats that aren’t subject to makeovers. So-called “signature” floats are instantly recognizable trademarks of particular parades, often featuring totems or mascots associated with a krewe’s identity. One of the most familiar examples is Rex’s Boeuf Gras; adorned with a garland, the giant white steer is symbolic of the last meat of Carnival feasting before the abstinence and atonement of Lent.
Mardi Gras World is an affiliate of the world’s most prolific builder of parade floats. Blaine Kern Artists got its start in 1947, after its eponymous founder returned from the Army to his birthplace in Algiers, across the river from downtown New Orleans, and painted a mural in a hospital to help pay his mother’s medical bills. That led to a job designing and building his first Mardi Gras parade. Since then, Blaine Kern has made it his mission to not only jazz-up Mardi Gras, but transform a distinctive art form into something of a trademark and calling card—spreading the “look” and spirit of the celebration worldwide. Indeed, thanks in no small part to Kern, aka Mr. Mardi Gras, what was once essentially a seasonal ritual for locals has witnessed a huge expansion in the annual number or parades, media coverage and tourist interest. Consequently, as sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham has observed, the Mardi Gras “experience” has become more accessible to outsiders and, in the process, increasingly associated with mass entertainment and consumer culture.
From its humble beginnings, the family-run Kern Companies, which include Mardi Gras World and Kern Sculpture Co., has evolved into a world-class creative organization (clients include the Walt Disney Co., Universal Studios and Harrah’s Entertainment). The Kerns expanded their operations to the east bank of the Mississippi, just upriver from the convention center, in 2008. The old Mardi Gras World in Algiers, which opened to the public in 1984, remains a popular venue for parties and special events.
The new iteration of Mardi Gras World is the anchor tenant of a sprawling development leased from the Port of New Orleans. It includes an expansive landscaped dock with a tented pavilion as well as the old River City Casino, which has been extensively refurbished to cater to meeting and special event planners. It boasts a 40,000-square-foot ballroom, meeting rooms with river views, and a unique indoor party space called Grand Oaks Mansion. With towering, moss-draped oak trees, burbling waterways, starry night sky and grand, antebellum façade, the venue is like an elaborate movie set. The Kern family is operating the riverfront complex, including the new Mardi Gras World, in partnership with developer Joe Jaeger.
Mardi Gras World is open 7 days a week from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Tours are offered every 30 minutes, with the last tour starting at 4:30 PM. We are closed on Christmas Day, Thanksgiving Day, Easter Day and Mardi Gras Day.