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How to Mardi Gras Like the Locals Do

Galveston’s 12-day, 105-year-old celebration is also among the nation’s most inclusive.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen February 5, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Galveston CVB

If you’re like us, you’ve stood on the street during Mardi Gras Galveston, screaming at the people riding the parade floats like they’re celebrities, begging for beads with wide, desperate eyes, and wondering: How do I become the all-powerful Thrower of Beads? Do I have to join some sort of secret society? Give up my firstborn?

Turns out that while other cities treat krewe membership as a precious birthright, Galveston’s 12-day, 105-year-old celebration stands apart for exhibiting that most Texan of attributes: friendliness. The city has 15 or so krewes—the intentional misspelling is a tradition born out of New Orleans—which organize parades, staff floats and throw big bashes leading up to Fat Tuesday. As long as you’re willing to put in the year-round work of planning and raising money—for revelry and, usually, charity—there’s a krewe for you.

While some do lean toward specific constituencies, like the Krewe du Lac (Kemah residents) or the Krewe d'Esprit Rosaire (African-American Catholics), many more are easily accessible to anyone who fills out the application. Among the largest and most sociable are the beer-loving Krewe of Gambrinus, which holds a huge, family-friendly parade each year, and the Mystic Krewe of Aquarius, the second-oldest in town, which hosts parades to both kick off and close out Mardi Gras.

For a prime spot without the commitment of a krewe membership, try joining in the fun through the Build Your Own Krewe program sponsored by Yaga’s Entertainment. Simply make a reservation; grab a handful of alumni, coworkers or family members; and, for $150 a head, walk right onto a ready-made float, from which you can throw beads to adoring crowds for an hour or so.

After that, go into the good night and have a great time, whether on the streets or on the many balconies that line Galveston’s historic Strand.

“The best combination is probably to build your own krewe so you get a taste of a ride on a float,” says Callie Walker, Yaga’s marketing coordinator, offering advice for newbies, “and then after your parade head up to the balcony and experience the other parades.” During both Mardi Gras weekends, Yaga’s is offering four balcony parties that are ticketed and open to the public.

Insiders always make sure to be seen at Galveston’s legendary Mardi Gras galas, and no ticket is hotter than the San Luis Salute (Feb. 5) hosted by Landry’s Inc. CEO Tilman Fertitta and his wife Paige. Again, everyone’s invited. However, the only way to get in is to call the San Luis Resort on the day tickets are released—this year, which marks the ball’s 20th anniversary, they sold out in eight hours.

“It’s high drama from the moment you enter: costumed greeters, fabulous decorations, incredible flowers, and interactive experiences from scantily clad showgirls to trapeze swingers,” says PR empress Dancie Ware, who represents Landry’s and played an instrumental role in relaunching the island’s pre-Lenten festivities in the 1980s. “It’s not a stuffy five-course dinner. The moment you walk in, you’re on the dance floor. The energy is like nothing else.”

Those who didn’t snag the $200 Salute tickets shouldn’t fret, though. “I always think the streets are the most fun—that’s the only way to catch beads,” Ware says. “You’ll find people in black tie and ball gowns just screaming for beads like a 7-year-old.”

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