HOW ARE FLOATS MADE?
Mardi Gras floats have been made basically the same way for over 100 years. From the ground up, you start with a chasis. This consists of 4 wheels mounted on two axels. Mounted to that is a wooden and/or metal frame which makes the first floor and general shape. So as not to have a float look too boxy, bumps are created on the outside supports. Bumps are made of wavy shaped wood with padding on the high spots. The padding rounds out the wooden beam and helps the canvas from tearing easily.
Modern floats use more metal and more wheels. In fact, I-beams are the main supports of choice. If a second deck is needed, the main supports now a days are usually (hopefully) I-beams. Tires have changed over the years too. With more weight (throws) and people being piled onto floats, air-filled tires tend to flatten easily. Recently, foam was used to fill the tires instead for sturdyness, but that isn't always the solution. The newest way is to use high-grade, solid rubber tires with huge steel rims to make sure the tire doesn't break on the parade route, but those cost alot of money. This doesn't mean the axle itself or tongue (the part connecting the tractor to the float) won't bend or break.
HOW BIG ARE FLOATS?
In New Orleans, floats have maximum restrictions in term of size. Height is restriced at right under 18 feet, 17 feet to play it safe. This is because traffic lights are at 18 feet off the street, and branches from trees are cut (or supposed to be cut) that hang below 18 feet. Do floats end up hitting branches hanging over? Yep, and the branches usually win, meaning a damaged float. The maximum width for floats in New Orleans is 13 feet. The maximum length? I'm not sure if there is a rule, but I know some of the largest floats are 50+ feet in length. There is a major problem with longer floats, as it is very hard to turn corners safely. This year (2007), as in every year, floats get heavily damaged by taking corners too tightly.
HOW MANY FLOATS ARE THERE?
Alot. In my estimation, over 400 in the area, probably more.
WHAT ARE TRUCK FLOATS?
"Truck floats" are mostly family owned. You can spot them by their boxy shapes and frilly, plastic decorations covering the outer walls. I assume that the riders build these floats. You can see these by the hundreds on Mardi Gras day in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. They are pulled usually by 18 wheeler trucks.
WHY ARE THERE BIG SCUPLTURES ON FLOATS?
Those big sculptures are called "props." They are usually placed on the front of the lower deck of a float. They tell you the theme of the float. Example: The Raggedy Ann and Andy float in Okeanos had a large Raggedy Ann prop placed on the front. The rest of the float was painted with Raggedy Ann motifs. Props are mostly made from either paper mache, styrofoam or fiberglass.
WHAT'S THAT GOLD SHINY STUFF?
That shiny silver and gold foil you see on the floats is called "gold leaf." From what I understand, old European floats used to be covered in real gold leaf. This tradition has been carried onto our local floats, but scaled down considerably. The leaf used here is not real gold, but substitute materials that look like real gold and silver. It is used to give a shimmering effect even if the float is standing still. Unfortunately, it is so fragile, that alot of the foil blows off before the parade even rolls.
WHO OWNS THE FLOATS?
Some krewes own their own floats. Other floats are owned by the float builders and rented to the krewes. Some krewes rent out their floats to other krewes. Why? To buy a float is quite an expense, and some less wealthy krewes just rent floats each year. If a krewe has enough money, they would try to purchase their own floats. Moreover, someone has to store these floats in a den, and that is an additional cost per year. Renting is a less expensive option, allowing more krewes to spend money on throws and mandatory insurance.
WHAT IS A SIGNATURE FLOAT?
A "signature float" is a special float owned by a krewe (usually). This float is not redecorated every year. An example would be Orpheus' Leviathan float. This beautiful, fiber optic masterpiece is used in Orpheus every year, and only Orpheus. It cannot be rented. There is no need to repaint this float each year, because its theme does not change.
HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN A FLOAT HOLD?
Oh, more and more each year, but there is a limit somewhere. It all depends on the space available on the float, and floats have just about reached their maximum sizes (we can't widen the streets!). There is a trend to create "tandem floats" or two or more floats linked together. This also has a limit, as the tractor driver has to navigate these linked floats safely through relatively small streets. So, a 50 foot double decker can hold about 50 people. It also depends on how strong the structure is.
HOW DO THEY MOVE?
Unlike Rose Parade floats that have propulsion inside the floats, the floats in New Orleans are pulled by tractors or trucks.
ARE THEY REDECORATED EACH YEAR?
Most floats are redecorated each year. Usually the process starts in the Summer, but the new theme is decided long in advance. The first thing to do is scrub off all the gold leaf with large brushes. Some leaf is left, but its just painted over. If repairs are needed, this is done at this point. The floats are then primed white to cover up the old paintjobs. The new design is then laid out in charcoal and the basics are laid in. "Basics" mean the basic colors in the design: an area of red here, green there. Sometimes a basics painter will do this, other times the detail artist will do this himself. Once the basics are done, the detail work is painted onto the float. Once again, it is gold leafed and ready to go.
WHO DECORATES THE FLOATS?
Poor suckers like me... Just kidding. Well, not really kidding. There are a half a dozen or more companies in New Orleans alone that decorate the floats. To name a few... Mardi Gras Decorators (Massett), PFJ, Blaine Kern, Barth Brothers, Mac Cantrell, Royal Artists, Rizzuto, etc., all decorate floats.
WHERE ARE THE FLOATS STORED?
If space and money permit, floats are stored in "dens," a fancy name for warehouses. The dens are usually cramped, dimly lit and dirty. A few krewes have large, well-lit, clean dens, but this is a rarity. The Krewe of Terreanians have the nicest den I've worked in, equipped with a conference room, clean bathrooms, plenty of space and coolers filled with cold beer along the walls.
HOW MUCH DO FLOATS COST?
Alot of money... sometimes as much as a small house, other times as much as a mansion. The starting cost for a medium sized float is about $40,000. A large double deck costs about $125,000. The premium bad boys can cost as much as $1.3 million... Renting a float can be much more cost effective, as rentals start at about $3000 per day.
WHO HAS THE BEST FLOATS?
Ah, I won't be suckered into that discussion! It is all what you prefer. Some think that the best floats are the biggest floats. Some prefer the old, traditional floats more. Some think that small, but beautifully sculpted and painted, floats (like Hermes) are the best in Mardi Gras.
© Sean Gautreaux 2007