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Among grownups, Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street may be New Orleans' claim to party-time fame, but for young revelers, every day's a circus in this rollicking southern city. Colorful street performers, mystical Mardi Gras props, and eerie swamp creatures are on hand every night to entertain tots way past bedtime. But why set a curfew in this anything-but-sleepy southern town? Instead, fill up on sugary beignets and café au lait. These high-carb treats will keep everyone's energy levels soaring during your Big Easy visit.
Plan to spend most of your time in the French Quarter, New Orleans' heart and soul. With its narrow streets and mix of French and Spanish architecture, this 70-block enclave is steeped in Old World charm. Plus, it has a colorful past that includes pirates, voodoo queens, Spanish baronesses, and French conquerors.
Despite its size, the French Quarter is very walkable, even for smaller kids. But be prepared for sensory overload. There are many sights, sounds, and smells calling for attention; you could easily spend the whole weekend here:
Drop in on Frankenstein at the Musee Conti Wax Museum. Like most wax museums, this one's a bit spooky. That's precisely why Goosebumps readers and history buffs will think the 154 wax figures are awesome. The museum takes you through 300 years of New Orleans' history. The tour ends at the Chamber of Horrors, an exhibit of ghouls right out of the Literature books. Besides Frankenstein, you can say hello to Cyclops, Dracula, and the Phantom of the Opera.
To experience Mardi Gras without all the hoopla, take the Canal Street ferry to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World. At this working warehouse, artists design and build the floats and giant sculptures used in the city's annual extravaganza.
Vividly painted, larger-than-life props greet you at the front entrance. Sea monsters, dragons, and characters from cartoons and storybooks astonish the kids. You'll swoon over the pop culture icons. Don't be shy: Try on one of the parade costumes, sequined headdress and all. A perfect photo op!
After a day in the French Quarter, chill out on a live jazz cruise up and down the Mississippi River. Mark Twain is on hand to greet guests for this two-hour sail aboard the Steamboat Natchez. Kids love visiting the steam engine room to watch the big red paddlewheel go round and round. And if your children aren't "I only want burger and fries" types, try the Creole luncheon buffet.
A walking tour of New Orleans' Garden District, a popular grown-up activity, will likely cause dissension in the younger ranks. To keep everyone happy, take a trolley tour instead. It'll pass the same homes and mansions along historic St. Charles Avenue. As a reward for good behavior, hop off at Audubon Park and take the free shuttle to the Audubon Zoo. First stop: the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit, where kids come face-to-face with white alligators and other swamp creatures.
Next, gather the troops for a 45-minute cruise downriver on the John James Audubon. The boat drops anchor in front of the Aquarium of the Americas, another major family attraction, and near the Riverwalk Marketplace, a lively shopping and entertainment district within walking distance of the French Quarter and many hotels.
Type of trip: Entertainment, cultural
Best ages: 8 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend
Distance: Baton Rouge (79 miles); Biloxi, MI (91 miles); Hattiesburg, MI (113 miles); Jackson, MI (190) miles)
Best time to go: January to April for best weather. Avoid Mardi Gras (late February or early March) and Sugar Bowl (late January).
Weather: Hot and humid most of the year. Highs in the low 60s January and February; mid 70s March and April
Lodging: Most families stay in the French Quarter, but you'll pay more. Rooms downtown are a little cheaper.
Squirm factor: Some
Royal Carriages Decatur St. at Jackson Square Phone: 504-943-8820
New Orleans School of Cooking 620 Decatur St. in the French Quarter Phone: 504-525-2665; 800-237-4841
Cafe du Monde The French Market at Decatur and St. Ann Sts. Tollfree Phone: 800-772-2927
Musee Conti Wax Museum 917 Rue Conti in the French Quarter Phone: 504-581-1993; 800-233-5405 Warning: Museum may be too scary for young children.
Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World 233 Newton St. Phone: 504-361-7821; 800-362-8213 Warning: The oversized props and characters may be overwhelming for young children.
Steamboat Natchez and John James Audubon Aquarium/Zoo Cruise Phone: 504-586-8777
Audubon Zoo 6500 Magazine St. Phone: 504-581-4629
Aquarium of the Americas At the foot of Canal St. on the river Phone: 504-581-4629
Favorite local spot: Michaul's Live Cajun Music Restaurant. Warehouse District at 840 St.Charles Avenue, 504-522-5517. Dance lessons, Cajun and zydeco music, and a kids' menu that includes fried chicken fingers, fried shrimp, pasta, and rice that aren't overly spicy.
Local foods: Gumbo, jambalaya, po-boy sandwiches, and muffuletta. For dessert, pralines, beignets, crème brulee, and King's Cake, a Mardi Gras tradition available year-round. The King Cake is a coffeecake with yellow, green, and purple sprinkles on top, and a tiny plastic baby or bean baked inside. If you get the "baby or bean" slice at a party, you're supposed to host the next Mardi Gras party or buy the next cake.
Best souvenir: Mardi Gras beads -- one strand each of green (faith), purple (justice), and gold (power).
Traffic alert: Avoid rush hour (7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.). If you must drive, expect the worst tie-ups on bridges (I-10 and I-610) and the French Quarter's narrow streets. Left turns are rarely permitted on major arteries. However, right and left turns on one-way streets are usually allowed unless a sign says otherwise.
Reviewed April 2004.