A Guide to Experiencing Your First Toronto Caribana
If you are not familiar with the name, Caribana is Toronto, Canada’s Carnival celebration! Carnival is the celebration of Caribbean culture and traditions. Caribana started in Toronto in 1967 and has become a yearly summer celebration and the largest North American Carnival!
There are many articles and sites that go into the history and details of Carnival. If you’re interested in learning more about the history, then start with Google!
On August 3, 2019, I participated in the Caribana parade. As a black American, I was not fully familiar with Caribana and the Carnival celebrations. This was my first time coming to Carnival and participating in it and I wanted to be prepared. I had always seen images online, in books, and on TV each year of the beautiful elaborate costumes and women dancing their hearts out. But, culturally, this was not something I grew up with knowing about.
So, for my fellow newbies and anyone else not sure of where to begin, I have created some tips to help get you through your next Caribana celebration!
Jump to a section below.
- Plan Early
- Understand the Culture
- Purchase a Package deal
- Make sure your costume measurements are accurate!
- Picking up your costume
- Bring these items for costume alterations (carry-on safe)
- Research the Bands ahead of time
- Cost of Costume + Sections
- Fanny Pack
- Wear Comfortable Shoes
- Nipple Covers
- Listen to Soca music ahead of time
- Learn How to Wine
- Join a Facebook Group
- “Respect the Mas”
17 Tips for Caribana
1. Plan Early
If you know you are thinking of going to Caribana, start planning the prior year. Typically, the parade dates are set after the current one ends. Start asking your friends and getting your funds together. As soon as Caribana ends, preparations for the next Caribana have already started.
This year, Caribana was in August but I knew in January I was going to go. Remember, this takes place in the summer, and if you are not local to Toronto, you will need to plan lodging and flights. The longer you wait, the higher the price of the flight and hotel accommodations. I had my hotel booked and flight purchased by April. If I had started even earlier, I would have paid less. This is a big event in the city.
2. Understand the Culture
Ok, please, please, please research the culture and history of Carnival before attending. You may not know everything when you arrive but you need to have an idea. Learn the lingo and understand that this is part of Caribbean culture. As black Americans, we are supporting our Caribbean brothers and sisters and they will appreciate us learning about the importance of Carnival before attending.
3. Purchase a Package Deal
If you’re like me and didn’t know where to begin, I went online to do some research. I came across CaribanaToronto.com and they provided a one-stop shop for information on Caribana, hotel packages, band information, and club events. If you know you are coming with a group and want an easy way to get everyone’s payment and get tickets to events, then this is the perfect option for you! Using this site allows each individual to send in their portion of the payment.
I did a 3 night’s stay at the Chelsea Hotel in downtown Toronto. This was the perfect centralized location in the city! We were able to walk downtown with ease and grab food close by. The rooms were nice and the staff was friendly.
With the 3-night package, we also received 3 event ticket passes for each day. I randomly selected the events since I was not sure what events were the ones to not miss. We chose:
- Dayfete on the Roof
- Soca x Hip Hop
I’ll be honest, the only party we made it to was Daylit. So I am glad we did not pay extra for tickets and it was included in the package.
Have you seen the costumes? Let me ask again, have you SEEN the Carnival costumes?
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get our summer bodies together. Remember, summer bodies are made in the winter. You know it’s coming up so let’s hit the gym together. The costume will only hide so much and you want to get out in the parade and be free to dance and shake!
5. Make sure your costume measurements are accurate!
Ladies, if you are planning on being in the parade, be real with yourself. When you take your measurements for your costume, give accurate measurements. If you know good and well that you are not going to drop those extra pounds by parade time, then don’t go down in your measurements. These costumes cost hundreds of dollars and it is nothing worse than paying $300+ for an outfit that doesn’t fit.
There are all body types out in the parade so don’t worry! A little extra never hurt anybody. What’s worse than getting an outfit that doesn’t fit is still having to squeeze into that costume because it’s all you have.
6. Picking up your costume
You purchase your costumes online. When it gets closer to the parade, your band or section leader should send out an email explaining the pick-up times and pickup location. Be prepared to travel outside the city limits to pick up your costumes. Make sure to plan your day accordingly. I had to travel to Scarborough, Ontario, about a 30-minute drive from Toronto. If you do not have a car to get around, your best bet is to call an Uber or Lyft. If you are unable to make the pickup time, then you need to let your section leader know so that you can make alternate arrangements.
Since I was an out-of-town participant/visitor, we picked up our costumes the day before the parade. Local Toronto residents were able to pick up their costumes a few days before and get alterations made if they needed. However, depending on your band, they may have someone onsite to make adjustments when you pick it up but don’t depend on it. Plus, if you’re flying in, most likely you don’t have the tools available to fix the costume yourself but I’ll let you know some things to pack in your carry-on just in case in tip 7!
7. Bring these items for costume alterations (carry-on safe)
It’s not uncommon that after picking up your costume, you may need to make some adjustments. If the seamstress is not available when you pick up your costume to make alterations, make sure to have the following on hand. All of these items will fit in your carry-on luggage and it’s TSA approved:
- Double-sided tape
- Scissors (As long as the blade does not exceed 4 inches)
- Safety Pins
- Hot glue gun. Yes, this is allowed in your carry-on bag!
- Small sewing kit
8. Research the Bands Ahead of Time
Listen, you are spending a lot of money on a costume. Make sure to research a band’s history if you are planning to play mas. If you don’t know, ask someone who has participated in Caribana. If you don’t know someone that has participated, then go with a band that has a history of being in the parade a few years.
This year, there were many horror stories of ladies that went to pick up costumes and they weren’t completed or they never received them. It’s a horrible feeling to come all that way only to be told you are unable to participate. See in the link below.
SEE ARTICLE: Fallout Over Caribbean Carnival-costumes
Caribana Toronto will list all of the bands each year on their site. Check back closer to the summer for when they release all of the costumes. Just note, that the more popular bands will sell out of costumes quickly! So don’t wait too long otherwise, you may not get what you want.
With this being my first time, I got truly lucky this year. I played mas with Toronto Revellers with band leader Jamaal Magloire, a retired Toronto Raptors player. With Toronto Revellers, I was in the section Yemaya. Toronto Revellers treated all those playing mas phenomenally. Before the parade, they had breakfast brought in for everyone from Tim Hortons. While we were on the road, they made sure we had plenty of drinks to stay hydrated and snacks to keep our energy going.
Toronto Revellers IG: @TorontoRevellers
9. Cost of Costume + Sections
If you decide to be a masquerader, then you must purchase your costume directly from the section. Costumes range from $200 – $1,000+ USD. The cost will depend on the section you want to be in. These are your typical sections, starting with the cheapest:
For my first time, I selected the backline. Your backline option typically does not come with extravagant feathers and again, it’s most likely your cheapest option. However, you can always add/upgrade your costume with feathers and other items if you choose. This is what I did. I added a small feather collar to my costume for an additional cost.
Depending on the designer, there are many different upgrades you can make. Maybe you don’t like the panty and would like a high waist. No problem! Make the selection or if you don’t see the option, reach directly out the section leader to see if they are able to make accommodations for you.
Many women wear tights with their costumes. There are many types you can get — some with glitter, fishnet style, and flesh tone. If you are unsure of where to get some, check out these sites:
11. Fanny Pack
Fanny packs are no longer fashion faux pas. But, in all seriousness, every lady I came across had a fanny pack or drawstring bag during the parade. Get a cute fanny pack that matches your costume and that way you can store your essentials. The only thing I carried was my cell phone, mints, ibuprofen, band-aids, tissue, money, and my hotel key.
12. Wear Comfortable Shoes
Don’t try to be a hero. Get some comfortable sneakers or boots to wear if you are a masquerader. Some women do go out in the parade in heels, however, I’m not sure how many actually crossed the stage. You are going to be walking for hours most of the day. The last thing you want is to have shoes that are not working for you. Be smart.
13. Nipple Covers
Depending on your costume top, a nip slip may occur. You’re jumping up and down, dancing, and the costume can be very revealing. If you don’t want a Janet Jackson moment on the streets of Toronto, then get some covers. At this point, you can find them in most retail stores like Walmart, or online.
14. Listen to SOCA music ahead of time
If you’re not already up on the latest Soca hits, then make sure you start listening before you go. Find the most popular songs that way you can recognize them during the parade. Plus, Soca music is amazing, so if you’re not listening, you’re missing out.
You can always do a search on YouTube for the hits. Search “Soca 2019” or the current year, and you will find plenty of playlists to start with.
15. Learn How to Wine
Apparently, there’s a stigma about black Americans and us having a “stiff waistline.” Please! Our hips and waist move just as effortlessly. To my fellow American ladies, if you don’t already know how, make sure to practice your whining before you go. YouTube has plenty of videos you can watch. Stretch it out and get to whining!
16. Join a Facebook Group
Since I was a complete newbie, I went online and found a Facebook group dedicated to Caribana. There, I was able to ask questions and see what others were talking about. This also helps with learning more about Caribana, knowing the must-go to parties, the best bands, and the dos and don’t.
Also, maybe you’re planning on going solo. There are tons of others that go by themself as well. Team up with some other people that way you have a connection when you arrive.
If you want support, check out and request to join Caribana 2021. I joined this particular group and they update the group yearly.
17. “Respect the Mas”
I heard this before, during, and after Caribana. Understand, this is cultural. This is not just a parade with half-naked ladies that are out there for your pleasure. Have respect for the culture, the masqueraders, and everyone that has dedicated their time to putting Caribana together. Enjoy the festivities, the costumes, and all the fun that comes with it.