Last Saturday morning, in the shadow of Tilman Fertitta’s cruise-ship-sized yacht, dozens of insane looking golf carts approached the Galveston Pier, forming two long lines. As they parked, proud cart owners exited their rides to greet old friends and admire the year’s wildest creations.
Locals clearly added a bit of Mardi Gras flair to the family golf cart while others drove works of art months in the making—a topless hot-rod with ‘40s-era body panels, a “Fab Four” double-decker London bus, and a miniature Escalade complete with Cadillac embossed upholstery and chrome rims.
The 9th Annual Zaniest Golf Cart Parade, now a staple of Mardi Gras Galveston festivities, was about to begin, and I’d been invited to ride in its lead float, the one that heads most Mardi Gras Galveston parades—the famous Yaga’s bus owned by festival organizer Mike Dean.
Dean, who owns Yaga’s Entertainment, the organization currently contracted by the island to run its 12-day carnival and also runs numerous Strand businesses and other notable events like the Galveston Island Food and Wine Festival, is something of a cultural figurehead in Galveston. He’s in his 10th year organizing this annual party as a direct response to Hurricane Ike’s economic devastation in 2008. Though Mardi Gras celebrations have rolled in Galveston from 1867 to 1941, and were later revived in 1985, Dean's company sought to bring tourism back to Galveston after the monumental storm.
To say his efforts have been successful would be an understatement. Mardi Gras Galveston is now the third-largest Carnival celebration in the country, marked by galas, parades, concerts, live DJs, and celebrity events. And 2020 has been one of the largest celebrations in the festival’s history with an entertainment lineup that Dean has called their best yet. DFW natives Bowling for Soup headline tonight, February 21, at 10:30 p.m. and there is live music all day Saturday and Sunday, too.
Taking over the island’s historic Strand, the event transforms downtown Galveston into Texas’s own version of the French Quarter, if only for a spell.
With streets blocked to traffic, bars and restaurants set up shop on sidewalks, selling to-go bloody marys piled sky-high with bacon and $20 fishbowls of effervescent cocktails that should come with an Uber credit and an urgent care number. On side streets, food vendors sling every imaginable carnival food from tents that emit an outrageous combination of aromas.
As our yellow bus rounded the corner of 21st and Strand Streets, beginning its second and final lap at the head of the parade, we examined our remaining store of beads. Overzealous in our first go-round, we agreed to budget the final stretch, lest we run out of the inexplicably valuable trinkets several blocks short of the finish. A mistake which, I’m told, could make for an awkward ride. Our austerity proved excessive as an hour later my float-mates and I exited the Yaga’s bus adorned with as many multi-colored beads as we’d managed to give away.
Just after 2 p.m., I was three beers deep and draped in plastic jewelry. With an evening of revelry to follow—Houston’s Blue October played to a massive crowd—and my friend and I enjoyed a cheesesteak and lamb gyro, settling in for the next parade (decorated Jeeps).
For the better part of three decades as a Houstonian, I'd managed to remain ignorant of this cultural monument until now, but with the parade passing by and beads flying my way, my first experience of Mardi Gras Galveston proved more intoxicating than I could have previously imagined. It's more than just a Texan attempt at Cajun, Creole, and Caribbean traditions. It’s a uniquely Texan event and a celebration of the Gulf Coast’s shared cultural heritage.
Oh, and it’s the best damn party in Texas.