What do you think of when you hear Mardi Gras? Beads, beers, and breasts? I’m not sure about you but that is not my scene. My one experience in New Orleans during Mardi Gras as a solo business traveler in my 20s ended with me staying in my hotel room at night because I was too nervous to wander out into the rambunctious crowds. The parades and celebrations always look so fun, but I don’t like the craziness that can accompany them. So when Panama City, Florida approached me to take part in their family-friendly Panama City Mardi Gras parade — I was in.

Panama City is located just across the bay from popular Panama City Beach on the Emerald Coast of Florida. Panama City has two quaint historic downtown districts — Harrison and St. Andrews. The St. Andrews Mardi Gras parade has been held for the past 20 years, and every year its popularity continues to grow, attracting over 30,000 visitors.

St. Andrews has plenty to offer visitors, with its quaint shops, parks, marinas, restaurants and coffee shops. This historic little town offers an escape from the beach scene (and prices), while still providing waterfront access for charter fishing and dolphin watching tours. Since Mardi Gras celebrations take place all along the Gulf Coast, the St Andrews Mardi Gras parade takes place the week before some larger towns, allowing Krewes from across the region to take part. 

Panama City Mardi Gras Kid and Pet Parade

Mardi Gras in Panama City is really a multi-day event with something for everyone. The event I was most excited about was the Kid and Pet Parade, which kicked things off on Friday afternoon. This mini-version of the St Andrews Mardi Gras parade features fewer floats but here the kids both ride the floats and collect the beads. Tons of families turned out to cheer for friends and watch the festivities.

The happy faces of the kids riding on the floats was only matched by the excitement shown by the dogs eagerly sniffing everything in sight as they pranced by in their tutus, masks, and strollers.

St Andrews Mardi Gras parade

This was my first chance to learn what it was like to catch beads at a parade. It doesn’t take any crazy antics, just a smile and a wave while catching the eye of someone on the throat. Oh, and being a good catch helps! I did get knocked in the head a couple of times when I wasn’t paying attention — a baseball coach needs to do some recruiting at the next parade.

Panama City Mardi Gras pet parade

As fun as it was to watch the various floats, I loved seeing the excitement in the little kids who came out ready to party. They too had on tutus, beads, colorful clothing, and creative face painting. These kids have likely grown up attending these parades so they know how to grab the beads, but they were equally excited about the bubble gum, lollipops, and even whoopie pies being tossed from the floats. It was so fun to pass my goodies on to them.

Mardi Gras in Panama City Florida

The Kids & Pet Parade is followed by a Maskers parade and the opening of the Mardi Gras festival down by the waterfront.

St. Andrews Mardi Gras Festival

St Andrews Mardi Gras festival

The parades are followed up by a festival along the waterfront, featuring live music, food trucks (yum!), bounce houses, and Mardi Gras vendors. As much as I’m a foodie, I also have a weakness for food trucks and fair food. There were certainly some highlights outside of the typical corn dogs and turkey legs. After all, we were on the gulf coast! A fun food boat (think food truck but on the water) served up some specialties like an authentic crawfish boil and a burger served between two doughnuts. What I found irresistible was the hog candy. This sweet and smoky bacon is dipped in brown sugar and spices, grilled and fried to heavenly perfection. The pulled pork nachos from Back Porch BBQ weren’t too shabby either. I think I should have walked the parade route instead of riding on a float the next day to work those treats off!

St Andrews Mardi Gras festival

St Andrews Mardi Gras Parade

The Krewe of St Andrews was kind enough to allow me to ride on one of their many floats in the parade, the Cajun Queen. It was definitely an experience like none other to be the one tossing the beads and having a first-hand view of the parade route. It was fun to get the inside scoop and get immersed into the culture of the Krewe.

First, a note about beads. We are all used to the ubiquitous purple, green and gold beads — if you have a kid I’m sure they have picked these up in a goody bag or two along the way. But the special ones, or “power beads,” have fun and unique designs and colors. There are dice, crayfish, big beads, playing cards, and other fun styles. These are the hard-t0-get beads that are reserved for friends of the Krewe and lucky parade goers. Since the Krewe self-funds the building of the floats and all the beads they toss out, there aren’t many power beads to go around — but scarcity creates demand. And people aren’t shy about shouting for them.

Each float has a theme and some are more elaborate than others. Although pirate ships seem to be quite popular, there were tiki bars, river boats, under sea masterpieces, and magical carousels. These hand decorated floats are joined by local clubs, schools, radio stations, military or police escorts, and, of course, the King and Queen.

Some of the most colorful characters were the “wheel walkers” who accompanied the floats and attempted to keep the crowds at bay. It was so fun to watch the antics that people will go to in order to secure some beads. Jumping, cheering, demanding, yelling, waving, raising signs, hiding beads, using babies to get beads, and even catching beads in an umbrella.

If you want to see what it is like, just check out this St Andrews Mardi Gras video.

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Have you been to Mardi Gras in Panama City? Do you have a favorite Mardi Gras parade? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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Mardis Gras in Panama City Florida | St Andrews Mardi Gras | Panama City Mardi Gras | Mardis Gras with kids

Note: I was a guest of Destination Panama City. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. If you click a link and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. 

 

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