Better than trick or treat: Riding a New Orleans parade float

costumes3One visit is enough for some places, but that’s not how I view New Orleans. The city has a flashy array of personalities, none boring.

If I could be anywhere in the country as this month ends, it would be The Big Easy, and the Oct. 26 Packer-Saints football game is just one reason why.

Inside the fiercely creative city with French roots, a free spirit and big love of jazz is a mix of mystery and beauty, with an appetite for gumbo and the risqué. Some of the locals seem to be in costume all year, which makes it OK for visitors to shed a few inhibitions, too, especially as Halloween approaches.

Add spooky cemeteries, psychic predictions and the fact that New Orleans loves a parade – sanctioned or not, especially in the city’s anything-goes French Quarter.

What’s better than watching a New Orleans parade? Being in one.

I didn’t know that riding a float here was on my bucket list until after being invited to do it. The all-day prep, party and anticipation were nothing compared to my reaction of seeing thousands clamor for attention during the three-mile procession. It began at dusk.

An odd sea of humanity – kids on parents’ shoulders, weary homeless folks, hand-holding couples, greedy trick-or-treaters, silly drunks – cheered and whooped nonstop. Some begged for attention. Others stayed quiet and were thrilled to get noticed. A few got beaned when aims went awry.

I was surprised to get teary-eyed about this unending crowd. Having the power to make stranger after stranger grin, just for catching a cheap stuffed animal or one-pot bag of coffee, was surprisingly gratifying.

What you’d expect during Mardi Gras – bead necklaces thrown in exchange for the flash of bare breasts – didn’t happen during this Krewe of Boo, a city-sanctioned event.

It’s far from a free ticket to ride on one of the horrifyingly decorated, two-story wagons. Most parade participants begin by paying $575 for a Krewe of Boo membership. That buys a pre-parade lunch, entry to an after-parade party with open bar and three-day pass to Voodoo Fest, a Halloween-themed music festival in City Park.

The float rider also pays $400 for merchandise to throw during the parade. That’s a lot of toys, packaged pralines, candy corn necklaces and voodoo doll pins – but you’d be surprised at how quickly box after box vanishes.

You provide the costume; onsite makeup artists add gruesome touches. Then everybody waits and wanders at Mardi Gras World, where some of the world’s largest and most elaborate parade floats are made throughout the year.

In late afternoon, the procession of wagons with enormous paper maché ghouls putters toward the starting point, Elysian Fields. Riders pretty much stand the whole time. Smart groups pack coolers with muffulettas (fat cheese-meat-olive-salad sandwiches) but not too much beer, because of another lengthy wait for the show to go on.

On a budget? Watch the parade instead of buying a ticket to ride. This year’s event starts at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 30. kreweofboo.com, 504-669-7655

The flamboyant Mardi Gras World, open since 1947, offers tours all year. mardigrasworld.com, 504-361-7821

New Orleans has no shortage of costume shops. Our media group was taken to New Orleans Party and Costume, where it sure isn’t hard to spend $100 to develop an alter-ego. facebook.com/nolacostume, 504-525-4744

Smitten with the supernatural? Spook yourself out with a haunted history tour (hauntedhistorytours.com, 504-861-2727), Bloody Mary tour (bloodymarytours.com, 504-915-7774), spirit tour (neworleanstours.net, 504-314-0806) or cemetery tour (tourneworeleans.com, 504-947-2120), available all year in New Orleans. The cost depends on the tour provider and tour length.

St. Louis Cemetery, the oldest in the city, fills one fascinating square block downtown. Actor Nicholas Cage bought himself a pyramid-shaped tomb here, not far from where voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried.

It is a short walk to priestess Miriam Chamani’s Voodoo Spiritual Temple, a resting place for many human hopes and regrets. Visitors leave behind cigarettes, hootch, trinkets, spare change, notes and much more. Then some seek herbal potions, psychic readings, gifts or curses before heading home.

“Is voodoo real? Is Christianity real?” tour guide Robert Florence asks, rhetorically. “It’s real if you think it is.” He is the author of the book “New Orleans Cemeteries and City of the Dead.”

The priestess, a former surgical nurse, compares voodoo to gumbo – not an exact science.

“People come through this door, trying to find a respite from the pain they feel, and hope for what is in front of them,” she explains. “No one knows all your ins and outs.” voodoospiritualtemple.org, 504-522-9627

For more about what to do in New Orleans: neworleanscvb.com, 800-672-6124. USA Today, CNBC, SmarterTravel.com and other media outlets rank the metropolis as one of America’s most haunted cities.