NEW ORLEANS — My 4-year-old son cried pitifully one night last February because the next day was Ash Wednesday. Not that he was moved by its penitential significance. Not that he dreaded the solemnity of Lent. Not that he even knew the next day was Wednesday, much less Ash Wednesday.
As Will lay in my childhood bedroom in New Orleans, he just knew that when he awoke the next morning it wouldn't be Mardi Gras anymore.
Yes, that Mardi Gras. The one with the reputation for drinking and naked dancing. But to New Orleans natives--and those who have taken children to the pre-Lenten blowout--it's always been a family party of lawn chairs and blankets, picnic baskets and coolers, homemade costumes and motley face paint.
The truth is that Mardi Gras in New Orleans can be all things to all people.
"There are parts of some beaches that you would never take your kids to, but as long as you know the right place to go there's no problem," said John Hurstell, a New Orleans native with two young daughters. "It's the same thing with Mardi Gras. When I think back on it, there's never been an incident at a parade when I've been with my kids. Ninety percent of the parade route is fine; it's 10% that isn't."
Kids find the same attraction in Carnival in New Orleans that adults find: a loosening of rules, a shedding of inhibitions. They can eat cotton candy and caramel corn on the soft grass of a median--known as a neutral ground in New Orleans. They can stay up late. They can dress in costumes or get their faces painted. They can scream until they're hoarse, demanding that masked riders on the brightly decorated floats throw them trinkets. It's this last thing that especially interests Will, now 5, and his brother Sam, 3.
"What I like about Mardi Gras is all the stuff they throw you," Will said. All the stuff is anything from strings of plastic beads to aluminum coins called doubloons to cups emblazoned with the parading group's theme and crest. Be warned, there is the occasional ribald throw, such as women's underwear.
"The whole idea behind Mardi Gras is that it's a time when everybody can be kids again," said Arthur Hardy, publisher of the invaluable Mardi Gras Guide, available at local drug stores and newsstands for $2.99. "Anybody who would view it as strictly an adult celebration would be missing the point."
Carnival, the roughly two weeks of parades, balls and dances, ends with Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, a movable feast that falls 46 days before Easter. My sons have been almost every year and I've gone every year save one since 1960. A few tips will ensure that the familial traveler will fully enjoy what local boosters like to call the greatest free show on earth.
On Mardi Gras itself, this year Feb. 15, the drinking and the outrageous behavior are generally found on or near Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, where no parades go. That area is just a pulsing blob of humanity in outlandish costumes--such as an anatomically correct Big Bird--begging for beads and trinkets from folks standing on filigree balconies above. Stick close to the Mississippi River, venturing no closer to Bourbon Street than Royal Street. Don't forget the riverfront streetcar, an easy way to skirt the Quarter and ride from Esplanade Avenue to the Riverwalk.
When going to parades, check routes in the Mardi Gras Guide or in the Times-Picayune, the city's daily newspaper. The rule of thumb is to see parades that start in Uptown New Orleans--especially on Mardi Gras itself--somewhere on St. Charles Avenue between Napoleon Avenue and Lee Circle. See parades that start near City Park on Carollton or Orleans avenues. If you're staying in a hotel downtown, it might be worthwhile to see parades on Canal Street near your lodgings, but don't venture there without asking the hotel desk for advice on crowds and safety.
Another option is to contact Ticketmaster in New Orleans for tickets to city-operated reviewing stands along St. Charles Avenue--a humane, somewhat sanitized way to join in the fun. And unless you're in the stands with smaller kids, you probably should avoid one of the rowdier parades: Bacchus on Feb. 13.
Taxis are useful to get close to where you want to be on parade routes. The Riverwalk at the foot of Canal Street and the Jax Brewery complex across from Jackson Square in the center of the French Quarter offer food, places to rest and bathrooms.
The city also provides portable toilets all along the routes--look for clusters near Lee Circle and near Gallier Hall on St. Charles Avenue.
Other Mardi Gras delights for children:
Lundi Gras: At the foot of Canal Street on Feb. 14, a celebration honors the arrival of Rex, the king of Carnival. And the Zulu Golden Nugget Festival at nearby Woldenberg Memorial Park trumpets the arrival of the king of the Zulu parade.
Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World: A free ferry ride across the river gives you a behind-the-scenes view of Carnival. Kern builds about 70% of the parades in the city. A free shuttle picks up patrons at the ferry landing; telephone (504) 362-8211.