Mardi Gras For Families
By Pat VandenHeuvel
Thinking about heading to Mardi Gras with the family? It's actually a great family travel idea. There are plenty of ways to make fun family vacation memories in New Orleans –- and especially during Mardi Gras season.
Despite my long time love affair with New Orleans, Mardi Gras had never been on my list of potential family vacations. The whole thing conjured up images of getting jostled in a sea of drunks, raucous exhibitionism and a dire shortage of restrooms.
But a recent trip proved that I was sadly misinformed all these years. As New Orleans natives know, the Mardi Gras season in reality is a family-friendly event (well, maybe not in the French Quarter) -- and like nothing else you will experience.
A Little Background
Many people have the misperception that the Mardi Gras celebration consists only of Fat Tuesday, the day before Lenten deprivation begins. In fact, Carnival season officially begins on Epiphany (January 6) and ends at the stroke of midnight on Ash Wednesday. Of course, the closer to Fat Tuesday you get, the more spectacular and plentiful the parades, food, music and fun become.
Krewes, the exclusive, local "social" societies that host the parades, are typically named after mythological Greek figures. Each krewe secretly selects its parade theme a year or more in advance, along with accompanying costumes, masks, floats and throws (the trinkets thrown to the crowd). Throws range from the infamous plastic Mardi Gras beads to doubloons (aluminum coins stamped with the krewe insignia and theme), stuffed toys and plastic cups.
Nearly all Carnival parades follow the same format. The krewe leader is at the front of the procession on a float or a horse or in a convertible, followed by the officers, the king or queen (often a celebrity), the title float and countless other floats that carry krewe members. Interspersed between the large, elaborate floats are local marching bands and dance groups, various civic groups in costume, horse-rider units and clowns. The larger parades can easily take two hours to pass at a slow walking pace -- plus there's often an intermittent stop or two mid-parade when a float-pulling tractor malfunctions.
Best Time to Go
The weekend leading up to Fat Tuesday is the optimal time for fun since many of the more spectacular parades (Endymion, Bacchus, Proteus and Orpheus) take place between Friday and Tuesday. Each day leading up to Fat Tuesday builds momentum. In addition to a daylong schedule of parades throughout town, Fat Monday (Lundi Gras) also features a festival of live music, food and fireworks down by the Riverwalk.
Where to Watch
Major parades begin in the Garden District or Mid-City and head downtown. The best spot to take it all in is the place you'll find most local families: St. Charles Avenue between Napoleon Avenue and Lee Circle in the Garden District. The parade route streets are blocked off and streetcars don't run, leaving a giant grassy median to set up camp. Think massive family tailgate party, with spreads ranging from buckets of chicken to big pots of jambalaya and entire meals prepared on portable grills. Between parades, families eat, drink and socialize, and the kids play ball and run laughing under the beautiful live oak trees.
A Mardi Gras family tradition is the ladder seat, basically a kid seat with a safety belt that's decorated and bolted to the top of a ladder. This is the perfect perch for small kids to watch passing parades and to catch more throws. Families tend to congregate at the same place year after year and save their spots, and it's considered bad form to move a chair or ladder. Plan to arrive in the morning a few hours before the first parade and stake out your own space. This takes a bit of planning in the form of a cooler filled with food and drink, some foldable chairs and blankets -- all of which can be obtained at nearby convenience stores. You will also need a restroom strategy (see "When Nature Calls").
Another somewhat more crowded option: buy grandstand tickets through a hotel or the City of New Orleans and watch the parades from downtown. The city's grandstands include bleacher seating (could be standing area only) and a restroom built into the stands. Pricier hotel grandstands include bleacher seating, restroom access, food and drink and your room to escape to (assuming you're staying there). The larger parades generally end at 11 p.m. or later downtown.
Where to Sleep
Many hotels require a minimum three or four night stay during Mardi Gras and sell out several months in advance, so plan ahead. Good options for families wishing to stay uptown in the Garden District along the parade route include the Hampton Inn, Prytania Park, Prytania Oaks or one of many family-friendly guest houses and B&Bs.
Should you decide to stay downtown, stick to hotels hugging the Central Business District such as the Sheraton New Orleans or Wyndham Belle Maison. You likely will want to steer clear of the French Quarter with your kids – day or night. None of the parades pass by there, and the French Quarter/Bourbon Street debauchery has little to do with the Mardi Gras celebration.
What to Eat
Restaurants along the parade route are usually full (and some even closed) on the nights of the most popular parades, so make reservations well in advance if you feel the need to sit and eat. Otherwise hit the street vendors, grab some muffaletas or po' boys from carry-outs or local churches (many sell food on big parade days) or pack your own provisions. Just don't forget the Purell.
When Nature Calls
Many restaurants sell tickets for each parade that include food and bathroom usage, which can really come in handy throughout the day. Port-a-potties can be found, but lines are long and cleanliness suffers as the hours pass. Most restaurants and hotels reserve restroom use for patrons only -- some even provide wrist bands for guests -- so there's no getting around this conundrum. Plan a strategy. St. George's Episcopal Church at 4600 St. Charles Avenue uptown offers free restrooms (tips appreciated) that are cleaned frequently.
Throw Me Sumthin', Mistuh!
The crowd participation factor of a Mardi Gras parade is absolutely contagious. It becomes sport to hoot and holler to the riders on the floats, pointing and trying to make eye contact so they intentionally throw to you. Some parade watchers choose the sign strategy, proclaiming on poster board how far they've traveled or other clever bon mots, all in hopes to draw attention and garner more throws. Just be sure to bring a large, sturdy bag to hold all the loot you will collect. It will be enough to increase your baggage fee for the flight home.
As it turns out, the "World's Largest Party" is a fantastic option for families with kids grade school age and up. Amazingly, the only breasts I saw during Mardi Gras were in the bucket of chicken at the next tailgate over.
New Orleans is a warm welcoming city with a joie de vivre like no other, coupled with a centuries old celebration of culture, food, music, family and tradition -- it's like nothing you will experience elsewhere.
If You Go:
- Weather can be unpredictable this time of year in New Orleans. Bring layers as it can go from balmy to brrrr in no time.
- Plastic beads smacking the fingertips can definitely sting. Wear gloves to avoid this hazard, even if it's not a chilly evening.
- If you miss a throw and it ends up on the ground, put your foot on it and wait between floats to pick it up, otherwise you will get finger-stomped.
- Crowds are large. Arrange a meeting point if your group gets separated. And it's a good idea to do the Disney thing and dress in a bright colored clothing and Sharpie your cell phone number on the little one's arm just in case.
- For planning purposes, check out www.mardigrasneworleans.com or www.mardigrasguide.com.
Husband and wife team Chris & Pat VandenHeuvel have been writing about cities, resorts, destinations and the occasional restaurant for more than sixteen years. They call Charleston, South Carolina home and their favorite travel companions are their two globetrotting teens, both of whom profess to love the smell of a nice hotel.
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