Laissez les bons temps rouler, y’all. Mardi Gras is one of the biggest parties of the year, and if you’ve got little ones in tow, finding a family-friendly celebration is a must. Bypass the rowdiness in New Orleans and instead opt for Mobile, Alabama’s, colorful festivities — like the time-honored traditions of king cake and bead-begging.
Mobile is the birthplace of Mardi Gras in America, and it remains a city that celebrates the occasion in a variety of ways, making it a terrific choice for adults and kids alike. With roughly 40 parades in the two-week period before Fat Tuesday and more beads than anyone could possibly wear around their neck, the city’s celebration has plenty in common with Louisiana’s festivities, but it also has a number of additional customs that make it unique.
Chief among these? The Moon Pie. The chocolate-coated graham cracker cookies with a marshmallow filling are a Southern staple — and they’re one of the most sought-after giveaways from any float. (Fun fact: Boxes of Cracker Jack were originally thrown to the crowd, but the edges on the boxes carried a risk of injury, so Moon Pies were substituted.)
Also, the private clubs that present the parades and host the balls in the days and weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are called “mystic societies” in Mobile, rather than the better known term “krewes” used in New Orleans. Like krewes, though, membership in societies is secret.
If you’re headed to Mobile for the revelry before Ash Wednesday, you’ll find up to three parades on the same route each evening (and dozens more scattered around the county). But there are a few you should make an extra effort to see.
Joe Cain Day (aka the People’s Parade)
Held the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, this is a parade that celebrates the average Jane or Joe. It’s a low-key event in terms of the fanciness of the floats, but it’s a local favorite that will get you in the mood for what’s to come. It’s only appropriate to gather with your peeps at the Mardi Gras-themed Joe Cain Café, housed in the Battle House Hotel, for parade pre-gaming.
The Order of Myths
The Myths is the oldest mystic society in Mobile. You’ll spot their parade by the mule-pulled float featuring a broken column. Also keep an eye out for a person in a jester suit (representing Folly) chasing a person in a skeleton suit (Death) around that column, eventually defeating death and winning the day.
The Order of Athena
Always the first parade on Fat Tuesday, The Order of Athena picks a different theme each year (in 2018, it was Girl Power). Expect lots of beads and significant crowds as revelers start the day off with a bang.
The Order of Incas
Perhaps the most visually stunning floats in the slew of parades come from this group, which recreates ancient Incan temples. They were the first Mobile Mardi Gras group to add the throw cup to their giveaways, a trinket other mystic societies have since adopted.
Mystics of Time
One of the city’s most popular parades, this group’s flagship float is a smoke- and fire-breathing dragon. Not bad for a group that ties its roots back to a 1946 poker game among friends.
NEED A BREAK FROM PARADES?
There are plenty of other things to do while you’re in Mobile, as well.
Visit the Carnival Museum
Maybe you’re between parades and want to keep the Mardi Gras spirit flowing. The Mobile Carnival Museum celebrates 300 years of the city’s celebrations, with displays showcasing how Mobile’s Carnival came to be, historical costumes from parades gone by, posters and ball invitations. Wander through interactive exhibits where you can experience what Mardi Gras is like from atop a float, as you throw doubloons to the crowd below.
Hit the MoonPie store
If you don’t feel like fighting for Moon Pies along the parade route, or weren’t able to grab one, you can still grab this delicacy — and in a wide variety of flavors — at Mobile’s MoonPie store.
You can even personalize your own box with your photo or custom greeting. And there are plenty of other Moon Pie souvenirs to take home there, too, from hats to shirts to scarves.
Insider tip: Before larger parades and on New Year’s Eve, a giant MoonPie descends down the side of the RSA Trustmark building, in which the store is housed (think: Times Square Ball Drop, but tastier).
Visit the USS Alabama at Battleship Memorial Park
This military history park is located along the western shore of Mobile Bay and has several ships and aircraft to explore. The centerpiece, though, is the USS Alabama, a 689-foot South Dakota–class battleship that has also been featured in several Hollywood productions (including “Under Siege” and ABC’s “War and Remembrance”).
Visitors can self-tour the ship, which was added to the National Historic Landmark registry in 1986, to learn more about what life was like for sailors during World War II.
Relax in a Park
Mobile has 45 public parks within the city limits, so if you need a place to escape from the madness of Mardi Gras, there are plenty of options. Bienville Square, located in the Lower Dauphin Street Historic District, is a popular spot with locals who enjoy the large trees and lawn and sometimes sit and watch the decorative fountain.
If that’s not your speed, Cathedral Square (just three blocks over) is a good place to hear local music or see the acts of local performance artists.
Explore the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center
Need to let the little ones run off some energy (or the Moon Pie sugar high)? This interactive science museum lets them do that and learn something at the same time. Crawl into a shark’s mouth.
Stand in front of silly mirrors that warp your appearance. Play in the ball pit. And learn where the body’s organs are located. Kids will have a great time and wear themselves out exploring.
Celebrate Alabama’s 200th birthday in 2019 during the ALABAMA 200 bicentennial festivities. From the Shoals to the shores, ALABAMA 200 will present educational programs, community activities and statewide initiatives aimed at teaching, inspiring and entertaining visitors and locals alike.