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Celebrating Carnival all year long

posted Nov 29, 2010, 10:16 AM by Jeff Etter

Family-run Mardi Gras World has made mega-floats for six decades

NEW ORLEANS — It's always carnival time at Mardi Gras World. The family-run business has been making mega-floats for some of the biggest and best Mardi Gras parades for more than 60 years.

The company is now showing off its innovative designs in a 300,000-square-foot warehouse, a fantasy world of paper mache, fiberglass, plaster and millions of twinkling lights populated by pharaohs, superheroes, fairies, gorillas and many other creations.

The facility is a popular attraction with tourists and locals alike.

"I'm amazed at how big they are and how elaborate they are," Serena Skews, 22, from England, who was touring the place, said of the floats. "I can't be here for the real Mardi Gras, but this gives me an idea of what it's like."

Other visitors included dozens of students from St. Stanislaus High School in Baton Rouge. They marched in, mouths hanging open, cell phones held aloft to record the wonders stretching before them.

"Oh, look, look," girls' high-pitched voices called out. Even the more sedate boys elbowed each other as they strolled past well-endowed replicas of Marilyn Monroe, Wonder Woman, and assorted harem girls.

Tours of Mardi Gras World cost $18.50, including a 12-minute movie and a chance to dress in various Mardi Gras costumes and take pictures. Guides show visitors the floats, the workshop where decorations are made, and discuss Mardi Gras history and customs. Visitors finish up with king cake, the traditional cinnamon-and-sugar-covered Mardi Gras confection, and coffee.

The Kern family is the creative force behind Mardi Gras World. Blaine Kern, the son of a sign painter, started building and decorating floats when he returned from World War II. Over the years, he and his family became known for their extraordinary designs — including some of the mega-floats for the so-called super krewes.

"I say we don't do floats for all the parades. We do them for the best parades," said Kern's son Barry, 47, who now heads Mardi Gras World.

The business had been housed in a 70,000-square-foot warehouse on New Orleans Westbank, but last year moved to the larger new facility where visitors can watch workers creating new additions and see the floats that will be rolling this year.

Mardi Gras takes place Feb. 16, but the parades begin the weekend of Jan. 30. Mardi Gras World is providing floats for 18 parades this year, including Rex, known as the King of Carnival, Zulu, Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus. All will roll the final weekend of Carnival and will be viewed by upward of 1 million people.

The parades' themes change each year. Even parades that use the same named mega-floats over and over update and reinvent their floats depending on the new parade themes.

Mardi Gras World not only creates floats for local parades, but also does Mardi Gras-type parades for theme parks around the world, including Japan, Korea, Singapore and Paris.

"Every day our company is part of a parade somewhere in the world," Kern said.

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