WHEN SOMEONE SAYS “NEW ORLEANS,” what comes to mind? If you’ve only done the classic blowout Mardi Gras tour, probably not much. Maybe a sloshed-down go cup, a sequined mask, streaks of purple, yellow, and green, and oh-my-gosh, the crazy people out on Bourbon Street. Zip up the pants, buddy! Sheesh. Or perhaps you’ve come to know the city in some of its other guises: the Birthplace of Jazz, the Cradle of Creole, the All-Night Throbbing Heart of Heat and Passion.
In recent years I’ve become acquainted with a secret side of the city, largely the domain of local residents: the magical New Orleans of families and children. Ever since they were small enough to be carried in backpacks, I’ve schlepped my sons, Hayes and Vince (now nine and seven), to Mardi Gras, where the parades—colorful floats, marching bands, and flying beads and doubloons—set the stage for a rip-roaring family party. But there has never been enough time during carnival for the other stuff we love to do, so we end up going back later in the year for another weekend. Listed below are some of the highlights of Big Easy, Jr.
The Audubon Zoo (6500 Magazine Street), near Tulane, is one of the best in the country: 1,600 animals in free range–style displays spread out among azaleas and shady oaks. We have yet to tire of its swamp exhibit—a re-creation of a cypress swamp and the Cajun lifestyle that flourishes around it—mostly because it is home to an uncanny, oddly lovable pair of rare white non-albino alligators, found ten years ago as hatchlings up the road in Houma. They look almost extraterrestrial with their knobby white skin, blue eyes, and long seeming-smiles. New this year at the Audubon (but open only from March to September) is a butterfly house where you walk among flurries of exquisite butterflies, loose all around, even landing on you: blue morphos, monarchs, lacewings, owls, tigers, zebras, and many others.
The zoo is linked to the Aquarium of the Americas downtown by a fun Mississippi riverboat ride called the Zoo Cruise; you can buy a combination ticket for the boat ride and either or both of the main attractions. The aquarium, at 1 Canal Street, features a Caribbean reef you walk through via a glassed-in tunnel, a stunning black-light display of jellyfish, a 400,000-gallon saltwater Gulf of Mexico exhibit complete with an oil rig, an IMAX theater, and Vincie’s personal favorite, baby nurse sharks you can pet. A sibling of the zoo alligators lives there too.
If your group craves adventure, you can go from the swamp exhibit to a real swamp tour, a boat ride complete with alligators, wildlife, and Cajun ambience. For more information, call Jean Lafitte Tours (504-592-0560) or Cypress Swamp Tours (504-581-4501).
The Louisiana Children’s Museum (420 Julia Street) is always crowded and crazy and full of school and day-care groups, but we can’t forgo the beloved “ball thing” (called the Lab by the museum), a room-size Rube Goldberg contraption that involves rushing around to operate a variety of levers, pumps, and other simple machines that propel wooden balls through tracks and tubes and tunnels running every which way. The museum is in the warehouse district, among art galleries and down the street from Emeril’s (800 Tchoupitoulas), a fantastic restaurant that serves contemporary New Orleans cuisine. You should probably save it for a kid-free New Orleans weekend. En famille, stroll a few blocks into the Central Business District to the famous Mother’s (401 Poydras Street), a funky poorboy paradise of great renown. Hayes recommends the Debris roast beef sandwich. Vincie goes for the classic fried-shrimp poorboy.
The original streetcar runs up St. Charles Avenue through the Garden District, and now there’s a French Quarter line as well, an old-timey trolley with wooden benches, shiny poles, and open windows. Not far from the end of the line uptown is the Camellia Grill (626 South Carrollton Avenue), famous for pecan waffles and extremely decorous counter service in a classic Deep South soda fountain setting. The Rock’N’Bowl (4133 South Carrollton Avenue) is a den of iniquity—bowling, music, and food—with fun for all ages, and Tipitina’s (501 Napoleon Avenue) has Cajun dancing and free red beans and rice on Sunday afternoons.
Weirdly, the same kid who’s scared of alligators is an aficionado of New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries. Try distributing disposable cameras and letting the kids photograph the statuary and tombs. If you visit the cemeteries at the end of Canal Street, you’re right by the wonderful City Park (City Park Avenue at Marconi Drive). When my kids were younger, they were crazy for its Storyland—a large play environment with a fairy-tale theme—and the mechanical amusements alongside it. They have outgrown the merry-go-round and head straight for the paddleboats and rowboats. The park also has fishing and pony rides, a lovely botanical garden, and splendid Christmastime decorations.
The kids’-eye-view of the French Quarter is not all that different from the adults’, surprisingly enough. We all love the horse-drawn buggy tours that leave from Jackson Square, as well as the jugglers, break-dancers, and other entertainers inside it. And as long as we set the kids up with a bowl of shrimp, a tray of Cokes, and quarters for the pool table, they seem happy to while away the hours in non–Bourbon Street bars like Coop’s or Napoleon House.
A couple of weeks’ allowance goes a long way for shopping at the French Market (on Decatur Street at St. Philip Street), where cheap geegaws abound. We spent about an hour the last time choosing our $3 sunglasses. On the corner of Decatur and Esplanade Avenue, the Old U.S. Mint, in the Louisiana State Museum, is worth a visit: Aside from the mint facility itself, the museum features exhibits on carnival and jazz and a gift shop where kids can sort through vats of old doubloons to find a lucky one from the year they were born. No visit to the Quarter is complete without a stop at Cafe Du Monde (800 Decatur Street) for hot chocolate and beignets. The cafe is close to the House of Blues (225 Decatur Street), the Hard Rock Cafe (418 North Peters Street), and Planet Hollywood (620 Decatur Street), all of which are happy to let you buzz through and check out the cool stuff on display if you don’t want to dine.
If, after all this, you’re still missing the hoopla of carnival, Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World (223 Newton Street) has a year-round display of floats and costumes and a great gift shop full of plastic junque. Take the free Canal Street ferry, next to the Aquarium.
The last time we visited New Orleans, we stayed in the thick of it all at the truly fabulous Westin Canal Place (100 Rue Iberville). “This is the life,” commented Hayes as we lounged in the elegant eleventh-floor lobby, looking out over the Quarter and the hardworking Mississippi, full of barges and steamboats and tankers, yachts and ships. Eighteen floors up, a rooftop pool affords spectacular views in every direction, and the restaurant makes a damn fine sundae too. You should stop for the treats and the view even if you don’t stay. (While the kids are ogling, you can flip through the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which lists events for children in its Friday Lagniappe section.)
So, is New Orleans with kids as much fun as New Orleans without kids? I think so. Sure, I miss the drag queens and the all-nighters, but I see more of the city than I ever used to, at times of day when I was never awake, and Lord knows I don’t mind getting home without the hangover.