How Mardi Gras Floats Come to Life

by Beth Graham

You might be surprised to know that Mardi Gras lasts much longer than the 5-day New Orleans grand event. For some, Mardi Gras lasts all year long, especially those responsible for building the vibrant, iconic floats for the parades.

The magic happens at Mardi Gras World where more than 500 floats are built and housed for the 35+ Mardi Gras parades that happen each February. Thirty full-time artists and 300 seasonal artists work 365 days a year to build these monstrosities, some costing more than $1 million and extending more than 10 trailers long. But there’s much more than the colorful designs – each float’s chassis is custom built to house two bathrooms and storage for the more than 300 pounds of beads thrown by each of the 50 riders. The floats are not just a pretty picture but an engineering work of art.

The history

Roy Kern was a New Orleans artist during the Depression era who painted signs on the freighters and barges sailing out of the port. In 1932, Roy and his son Blaine, also an artist, built their first Mardi Gras float on a mule-drawn wagon. Years later, Blaine would be “discovered” for a mural he painted in the local hospital and was asked to design and build floats for one of the Mardi Gras organizations, or krewes.

In 1947, Kern Studios was formed to create the floats for Mardi Gras. Blaine Kern traveled throughout Europe working with the world’s leading float and costume makers to hone his craft. In 1984, Mardi Gras World was opened to provide visitors a behind-the-scenes look of this magical art of building floats.

The process

Once a float’s theme has been concepted, it all starts in the sculpture area. Eighty percent of the floats are made of Styrofoam with the remaining 20% made of fiberglass. Artists work off of a sketch to create the 3-D shapes that will form the float’s components.

These Styrofoam pieces then make their way to papier-mâché area where the float begins to take on a personality. From there, the floats are painted, many by hand. Next comes the big engineering feat of constructing the floats onto a chassis and adding generators for power.

Get a sneak peek of the process in these videos.

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