For nearly 150 years, people have lined the streets of Pensacola each winter in hopes of catching a string of shining beads, a handful of candy, or the most coveted throw off all, the Moonpie. (Moonpies, for the uninformed, are chocolate dipped marshmallow pies. They also come in vanilla, strawberry and banana-dipped, but chocolate is king.)

In 1874, Pensacola residents saw all the fun their Gulf Coast neighbors were having celebrating Fat Tuesday, and decided to start their own Mardi Gras.

Now, more than a century later, the Pensacola Mardi Gras Grand Parade is one of the biggest celebrations on the Gulf Coast with up to 100,000 people attending.

Winding through Historic Downtown Pensacola — the event includes a king, queen and royal court, about 250 floats, marching bands and dance teams, an avalanche of green, gold and purple beads and balloons — all manned by about 6,000 people. It is quite a bedazzled spectacle. (Heads up: the Grand Parade can last more than four hours from beginning to end, so wear comfortable shoes and bring drinks and snacks.)

Celebrate Mardi Gras downtown PensacolaAlthough the Pensacola Beach Mardi Gras celebration is a fledgling — its first parade took place in February 1980, more than 100 years after Downtown Pensacola’s — you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful parade backdrop. Parents with young kids flock to this family-friendly parade that parallels the sugar-white sands of the beach. (Quick tip: plan ahead for travel time on the bridges if you don’t plan to spend the day at the beach… But why wouldn’t you? It’s the perfect time of year to sprawl on the sand.)

Pensacola’s parade celebrations aren’t just limited to land either. As the saying goes, “whatever floats your boat,” right? Each year, the Pirates of Lost Treasure host their own unique Mardi Gras celebration with the Pirate Flotilla – an annual floating boat parade that travels down the Intracoastal Waterway in Perdido Key. (FYI – the flotilla starts at Hub Stacey’s and ends at the legendary Flora-Bama Bar, where the unofficial party continues afterward.)

Mardi Gras runs from Jan. 6, the 12th night after Christmas, until Fat Tuesday. Why Fat Tuesday? Well, it’s your last chance to eat, drink, and be merry before the fasting and sacrifice of the Christian Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday.

Want to eat like a Fat Tuesday reveler? Traditional Mardi Gras fare includes red beans and rice, gumbo and the king cake. (A king cake is a bread-like pastry shaped like a wreath with icing and sugar sprinkles in the royal colors of purple, yellow and green. But its most distinctive trait is the small, plastic baby hidden inside. As the tradition goes, whoever gets the slice with the baby is named “King’ for the day and should have good luck for the coming year.) You’ll find plenty of these treats and more in local shops and restaurants as Pensacola celebrates the Mardi Gras season.

So, take the opportunity so soak up a little Gulf Coast culture, sunshine, food and fun as we countdown to the biggest party of the year!

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Quick tips for first timers

  • Don’t worry about pushing your way to the barricades to catch throws. Our krewes are experts and know how to toss beads and bears to the less aggressive folk and the “stroller set” in the back.
  • The best place to be? At the beginning of the parade route, where they are super generous with throws and then at the end, where they are trying to get rid of everything that’s left. (As the end of the parade goes by you’ll see a determined crowd scramble for a second shot at parade’s end.)
  • Don’t squabble over throws. There is always going to be another string of plastic beads flying toward your face.
  • If candy hits the ground, let it go.
  • Ever wondered when you would wear that ridiculous lighted top hat, your blinking tiara, or that full-body cow suit from Halloween 2012? This is the place!
  • Have fun! There are going to be crowds, and someone in that crowd will catch an elbow to the eye. There is going to be a lot of walking. Someone within earshot – man, woman, child – is going to cry over a stuffed monkey. It’s Mardi Gras! So go in relaxed, jam with the bands, have a Moonpie for dinner and laissez le bon temps roulez!