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Lake Wales
Friday, April 12, 2024

Let The Good Times Roll Over The Hill! Lake Wales Mardi Gras Celebrates 40 Years!

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by James Coulter

What started as a funeral procession for a local restaurant owner and fan of New Orleans culture has, four decades later, transformed into one of the biggest Mardi Gras celebrations in Central Florida.

Lake Wales Mardi Gras celebrated its 40th anniversary last weekend. The event kicked off with a kick-party and 5K race on Friday evening and continued its festivities all day Saturday at Lake Wailes Park.

The celebration culminated with the big parade on Saturday at 3 PM. The parade started at Stuart Avenue, traversed through Downtown Lake Wales, and traveled along Central Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard for the big finale at Lake Wales Park.

Nearly 100 units including parade floats, decorated vehicles, and marching band participated in the event. Attendees dressed in festive purple, green, and gold and tossed beads to eager parade watchers lining the downtown streets.

Participating in the event were several Mardi Gras krewes including the Krewe of Aphrodite and Wham Bams, as well as many local organizations including the City Commission, Lake Wales News, and Duke Energy.

Even the Polk County Sheriff’s Office took time out of their busy schedule serving and protecting Polk County to ride in their own float with the Honorable Sheriff Grady Judd tossing beads to his cheering fans.

The main festivities were hosted at Lake Wailes Park with food trucks, vendors, fun and games, and live entertainment. Dozens of local bands like B. Haven, Spankin’ Sadie, and the Free Whiskey Band took to the stage to perform live music.

Lake Wales Mardi Gras started 40 years ago as the celebration of the life and legacy of the late Vinton Davis, a local restaurant owner who loved the culture of New Orleans.

Vinnie, as his family and friends called him, was quite the “eccentric” character, according to his daughter, Nancy Bernhardt Estes. As a young man, he ran away from home to join the circus and later ran away from the circus to work in the kitchens of New Orleans.

There, he learned to love the music, cooking, and overall culture of the lively city. He took that love and culinary experience to Lake Wales and opened his restaurant, Vinton’s New Orleans Restaurant.

When he passed away in 1984, his family wanted to honor his wishes and provide him with a jazzy New Orleans-style funeral procession. That idea would eventually turn into a small Mardi Gras parade that caught big attention, Estes explained.

Now, more than 40 years later, what started as a funeral procession has transformed into one of the biggest family-friendly Mardi Gras celebrations in Central Florida, which attracts thousands of visitors each year.

“It has grown immensely,” Estes said. “The first time we did it…we had six weeks to get this thing together. About 200 people were watching our little, tiny, short parade. The Lakeland Ledger, at that time, had sent over a reporter. He said in the paper that it was the shortest parade he had ever seen, but it was the wildest and funniest he had ever seen. Word got out, and the next year, it was up to over a thousand people, and it grew and it grew. In its heyday…the crowds had reached about 30 thousand.”

Nancy Bernhardt Estes recently sat down with us to discuss her father’s life and how his legacy helped inspire Lake Wales’s longest-running Mardi Gras celebration.

Listen to our interview with her on the Chattin on the Ridge podcast on Spotify: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/chattinontheridge/episodes/Ep–21-Lake-Wales-Mardi-Gras-wNancy-Bernhardt-Estes-e2fd8c9

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