The New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities can be broken down into three attractions. There are the private balls held by membership organizations called Krewes. There are the public and raucous parades that wind through the French Quarter. And there are the notorious and often times debaucherous parties in the bars and on the streets of the French Quarter - but most New Orleanians would say that is a year-round party and not truly part of Mardi Gras.
The Krewe balls are so elite that even New Orleans governors have been refused entry. Inside, aside from dancing, invited guests may be shown a skit and are likely to bear witness to new débutantes coming out to high society.
Krewes also make elaborate and expensive floats that become the focus of the millions of people lining the parade route. One float can cost over $1 million to design and build.
Fat Tuesday features the most floats and parades of any other day of the Mardi Gras festival with 22 floats and seven parades this year.
While New Orleans is the most notorious city to celebrate Mardi Gras in America, the next city's party dwarfs the Big Easy's two months of parades.
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro, the self-described capital of Carnival, is the place everyone thinks about when they think Carnival. And rightly so - the city's version of Carnival has been touted as the world's best party. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Rio's festival has both balls and parades. But the balls in Rio are open to the public, with tickets going for $70 to $150.
While admittance to balls doesn't always require a costume, those who don them do it with finesse and potential guests are reminded that Rio's "costume standards are very high."
Fat Tuesday's ball is the highlight of all the balls, and is broadcast throughout the country on national television. Unlike many other Fat Tuesday balls around the world, Rio's Fat Tuesday ball is a gay costume ball. Attendees and television viewers expect to see grand entrances and outlandish costumes.
Rio's parades are not orchestrated by Krewes, but rather the 70 samba schools in Rio. Using the uniquely Brazilian invention of a Sambadrome - a long stadium build to exhibit samba school dancers - Rio entertains two million people every day during the four days of Carnival. On Fat Tuesday the final samba schools take the stage in the Sambadrome. Each school will have approximately 1,500 dancers.
One Carnival venue on the world stage that may be lesser known has nonetheless earned the most impressive international recognition for its Carnival tradition. The Carnival of Binche in the small town of Binche, Belgium, was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003.
At dawn on Fat Tuesday, boys and men from 3 to 60 years old take to the streets of Binche by the thousands. All the participants are dressed and masked as "Gilles" which have green goggle eyes, wax masks, and wooden shoes. The costumes are 16th century designs and some pieces are thought to be 150 years old themselves. The Gilles first begin warding off evil spirits by shaking sticks in the main square.
They then adorn themselves in expensive ostridge feather headdresses and after some carefully choreographed dancing, they take up arms in the form of oranges. Marching through town, they then start throwing the oranges at the crowd. While some are gently tossed, plenty more leave bruises or cause damage to property.
The tradition is of good intent, of course. The oranges are gifts symbolic of the coming warmer months.
Though you may not be in any of these cities, wherever you are this Fat Tuesday, now you know you can always toss an orange at somebody and shout "Laissez les bons temps rouler!"