Annual event now takes revelers through the streets and businesses of Hillcrest
By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor
While many neighborhoods and cities are putting their Mardi Gras celebrations on hold or nixing them altogether, the folks at the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) have spent the last six months coming up with what they hope will become a permanent alternative to the traditional Hillcrest Mardi Gras block party-style celebration of years’ past.
Called “Party Bus Bar Hop,” this year’s new celebration, to be held Saturday, Feb. 10, from 6–11 p.m., will take its participants on the road, involving all corners of the Hillcrest gayborhood, rather than just a few cordoned off blocks for a dance party and drink fest.
For just $10, each participant will receive an “All-inclusive Mardi Gras Party Pass,” granting them travel via distinct party buses between at least seven different party stops, each with a different Mardi-Gras-inspired theme, where they will then visit the participating bars, nightclubs, retail shops and restaurants located in that area.
Themes are named after familiar New Orleans landmarks, including Bourbon Street, Vieux Carre (The French Quarter), Southern Decadence, The Garden District, Royal Street, The Voodoo Courtyard and Frenchmen Street. See sidebar for specific loca-tions.
“Any business can participate, so if your business is near any of the party stops, you can sign up to provide some sort of welcome shot or unique beads that offer some-thing special or a promotion,” said Eddie Reynoso, membership and marketing direc-tor of the HBA.
Starting out from Will Call at the Hillcrest Pride Flag, which is located at the inter-section of Normal Street and University Avenue in east Hillcrest, four different dou-ble-decker and/or limo-style party buses, and a surprise party bus yet to be revealed — each decked out by a different local sponsor and emceed by a different drag queen — will make its way through the various themed areas, allowing riders to hop on and off as often and as many times as they like.
Revelers will enjoy welcome shots and other giveaways also known as “throws” in “Mardi Graspeak” and unique to each venue.
Once you step off the party bus, you will be on a self-guided tour, styled similar to the HBA’s annual Taste ’n’ Tinis Christmas event. Retailers throughout Hillcrest are en-couraged to sign up to take advantage of the foot traffic and the HBA offers to make it easy.
“We come in with our bar food and our liquor, pull a liquor license for [retailers] and create a welcome sample for them to share,” Reynoso said. “The benefit is that you get an influx of 400-plus people who may not have known about your business.”
Most of the throws offered throughout the evening from various participating busi-nesses will be celebratory beads, and in many cases a little something extra.
“Each of the stops will have some sort of collectable beads,” Reynoso said. “Grace Threading [located in The HUB] for example, is providing beads with a free service on a future date, so the beads become valuable. Rich’s Nightclub will have beads that have a shot glass attached to them, so when you go around collecting your welcome shots, you have your own personal shot glass.”
Reynoso pointed out that on standard walking “taste” tours, it is often difficult to get to every participating restaurant or venue because they can be so far apart; with par-ty buses running on constant rotation, it should be easy to hit every themed area and still have time to go back and visit your favorites again before the end of the night.
He also explained that each bus will have its own drag queen and corresponding en-tertainment, and revelers will want to see them all.
Chris Shaw, owner and president of the four restaurant bars — Urban MO’s, Baja Betty’s, Gossip Grill and Hillcrest Brewing Company — that make up MO’s Uni-verse, is pleased with the new event, since now rather than just one of his venues benefitting from its close proximity to the block party, all four will be involved.
“MO’s Universe looks forward to Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday events in Hillcrest for 2018,” Shaw said in a press release. “We invite all of San Diego to experience the col-orful nightlife Hillcrest has to offer, as we provide a safe, fun and sassy neighborhood to let your cares go.”
While riders wait for their scheduled party bus pickup, there will be musicians, street performers, and buskers on hand to keep them entertained.
“There are several reasons why we decided to change it,” Reynoso said. “One reason, the cost of producing a block party is has gone up; [there are costs associated with] shutting the streets down, police, security, and the rerouting of buses. Closing Nor-mal Street is less expensive because it is not considered a major thoroughfare.”
Another advantage, Reynoso said, is that Mardi Gras falls on an earlier date this year, which means that weather could easily and even unexpectedly come into play.
“Historically, when Mardi Gras have been early in the year, weather has affected at-tendance,” he said. “If it is cold, people would rather go out and be inside the bars, so we also lose liquor sales.”
“We thought this year participating in a bus tour would be a fun change to a block party that lets participants experience the festivities at many of the local establish-ments in our community,” said Michael Saltsman, co-owner of Uptown Tavern. “For attendees of this bus tour, it’s a bit like going on a Mardi Gras parade/pub crawl of their own through Hillcrest!”
Bus transportation and inside venues takes care of that concern; and any drinks purchased in addition to the welcome shots will take place at each of the respective bars or nightclubs on the route, with most are offering drink specials to accommodate attendees.
“Uptown Tavern will be offering a specialty cocktail developed specifically for this year’s Mardi Gras Bus Tour party,” Saltsman said. “The cocktail is called the Piña Picante and is made with tamarind vodka, pineapple juice and a touch of chili pepper to finish it off with a bit of a kick. Uptown will also be handing out beads to guests as is traditional Mardi Gras custom.”
In addition, based on the event’s hours, you could easily go to dinner prior to taking the Party Bus Bar Hop and still be home at a decent time; if you are a night owl, however, you could also hit up the party bus tour prior to making an appearance at your favorite late-night club for the evening.
“I can’t stress enough what value you are getting for $10,” Reynoso said. “The shots alone … there may be some food bites along the route but make sure you eat along the route.”
Parking is free at the DMV lot, with entrances on Lincoln Avenue, Normal Street and Cleveland Avenue.
Hillcrest Mardi Gras was first established in 2001 as a community event designed to draw locals and tourists to Hillcrest during a traditionally slow time of the year. It is now the largest LGBT Mardi Gras celebration outside of New Orleans. Proceeds from the event benefit the beautification projects of the HBA, which under the guidance of Executive Director Benjamin Nicholls, represents over 1,300 businesses in Hillcrest, acting as liaison on their behalf with the city of San Diego, advocating for economic development, keeping its streets clean and safe, maintaining the Hillcrest sign, and more.
“The importance of Mardi Gras to Hillcrest’s economy cannot be understated,” Nicholls said in a press release. “It not only supports jobs in the hospitality and en-tertainment sector, such as bars, nightclubs and restaurants, but also buoys local Hillcrest retailers and boutiques, which supply the materials to create the costumes, decorations, and the art, associated with our Mardi Gras celebrations. It pumps mon-ey into the community through vendors who supply the merchandise, transportation, sanitation, printing, and advertising, as well as the security required to produce a successful event.”
— Reach Morgan M. Hurley at email@example.com.