New Orleans Mardi Gras With Kids: A Survival Guide for ParentsMarch 14, 2011 2 Comments
New Orleans Mardi Gras is known world-wide for its rowdy debauchery and anything-goes attitude for adults. Certainly no parent would want to take their child into the middle of such a scene, right? In reality, this perception, fueled by the popular media, reflects only the tiniest bit of what Mardi Gras is all about.
At night throughout the season and all day on Fat Tuesday, Bourbon Street is indeed the epicenter of a wild party primarily attended by adult tourists. But the rest of the city celebrates Mardi Gras in much the same manner as Christmas–as an opportunity for family reunions, barbecues and a whole lot of all-ages fun. There is no reason to deny your kids the chance to celebrate a holiday that kids in New Orleans take for granted. However, advance planning is crucial to enjoyment for both you and your kids.
When to Go
Mardi Gras day, or Fat Tuesday, is the day before Ash Wednesday. Consequently, its date changes every year depending on when Easter falls, but is always in February or very early March. The Carnival season (often just called Mardi Gras) begins on Twelfth Night or the Epiphany, which is always January 6. While there are a few parades and celebrations early in the season, the party really ramps up in the two weeks preceding Fat Tuesday. You definitely want to arrive by the Friday before Mardi Gras as the so-called superkrewes, with dozens of floats and celebrity guest riders, parade all weekend. The celebration ends promptly at midnight the night of Mardi Gras day, when mounted police ceremonially sweep the revelers out of the streets in preparation for Ash Wednesday.
Where to Stay
The biggest drawback to Mardi Gras is the expense. Hotel rates generally double or even triple beginning on the Friday before Mardi Gras. Some rates rise even before then. Between the inflated prices, which can easily top $400 per night, and the drunken revelry, the French Quarter is NOT the best place for families to stay over Mardi Gras.
If your budget can accommodate prices similar to those in the Quarter, choose a hotel along St. Charles Avenue. Known as the Garden District, this area is more family-oriented and less chaotic, and the parades will literally roll outside your front door.
If cost is a concern, prices drop dramatically the further you get off the parade routes. Staying in the suburbs can be significantly less expensive but you will need to factor in parking, which can be both pricey and difficult to obtain. We camped in our RV at St. Bernard State Park about 20 miles outside the city, but if we could do it over again, we would pay a bit more for an RV site closer in. I doubt we saved much by the time we factored in parking and gas. Wherever you decide to stay, make reservations extremely early, up to a year in advance. It is not unusual for hotels to book solid.
Street parking in the Garden District is free and relatively easy to get. The closer it gets to parade time, the further from the route you will need to park, but there is generally enough for everyone. In the Central Business District and around the French Quarter, street parking is almost impossible. Garages and paid lots are widely available, but quite pricey. Expect to pay an average of $10-$20 per day in the run-up to Mardi Gras, and as much as $60 per day through Mardi Gras weekend. Note that parking spots are tight and parallel parking is common. If you have a hitch or other attachment on your vehicle, remove it as soon as you get into town.
If you want to park on the street, pay very close attention to all relevant signs. The French Quarter is entirely closed to vehicular traffic during Mardi Gras weekend. All vehicles must be off the street for street sweeping (Tuesday mornings on some blocks and Thursday mornings on opposite blocks). Some areas require resident parking permits to park for more than two hours during specific times of day. Parking is not permitted on parade routes from two hours before the parade until two hours after. The city makes a lot of money on towing and impound fees during Mardi Gras, so be extremely careful about where you choose to park.
What to Expect
The entire city will be crowded, literally shoulder to shoulder in some spots at various times. You may need to stand in line for upwards of an hour to get a table at a casual restaurant, while more upscale eateries are generally fully booked months in advance. Even using the restroom can be a challenge, requiring you to make a purchase and stand in line for more than 30 minutes. Try hotels, restaurants and even bars for emergency restroom stops. Although you must be 21 to enter most bars, staff often makes exceptions for kids who just need relief.
Despite seeming chaos, Mardi Gras is remarkably well controlled. New Orleanians are, almost without exception, friendly and welcoming. Once you stake a claim on your patch of sidewalk for the parades, don’t be surprised if everyone around you strikes up a conversation.
You will probably be offered snacks and beverages by your fellow parade-goers, and you will end up sharing beads and other “throws.” There is a heavy police presence, and any potential incident is dealt with quickly. For example, we saw someone try to climb over a barricade Monday night during a parade. Two police officers grabbed the guy and literally placed him back on the proper side of the barricade before he even hit the ground.
About the Parades
At Mardi Gras, you’ll almost never experience just a single parade. Two or even three parades back-to-back is common, and there may be both morning and afternoon parades. Some parades last upwards of three hours. Most people just arrive early and set up their spot for the day.
With the exception of Endymion, which rolls in the Mid-City neighborhood on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, and some of the local suburban parades, everything rolls on the same route along St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. St. Charles is significantly more family-oriented and recommended for children.
Snack vendors are common, but beverage vendors are not. Remember that drinking on the street is legal in New Orleans as long as you do not have a glass bottle. Many families bring coolers with an assortment of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, snacks and sandwiches. Some even bring grills, crab pots and other cooking equipment. Restaurants and convenience stores along the routes are open, but there may be very long lines. Domino’s Pizza sells personal-sized pizzas out of small portable warmers along each route.
Bring folding camp chairs or plan to sit on the curb. Grandstand tickets are sold to the public each year, but are pricey and sell out quickly. Although some people stand the entire time, the days can be quite long. Dad and I stayed in the same spot on St. Charles Avenue for 16 hours last Sunday! If you are feeling industrious, consider making a ladder seat for small children. A long-standing New Orleans tradition, ladder seats consist simply of a ladder with a small wooden seat attached on top. You’ll see kids (and sometimes their parents!) on these ladders all along the parade route.
Flambeaux, or torches, are carried by African-American men alongside many of the night parades. In the days before electricity, flambeaux illuminated the floats for patrons’ enjoyment. The first flambeau carriers were slaves, and many of today’s carriers are descendants of the original carriers.
Today their purpose is ceremonial, but the tradition is taken seriously by both flambeau carriers and the crowd. Many of the men dance with their flambeaux, performing an intricate series of gyrations and poses that rivals any performance within the parade itself. It is traditional, though not required, to tip a dollar to any flambeau carrier who particularly grabs your attention.
Throws are items that float riders throw to the crowd. Beads are by far the most common, but throws can be virtually anything. We’ve gotten stuffed animals, roses (both real and synthetic), wooden spears, plastic swords, footballs, Frisbees, plastic cups bearing the name of the krewe, doubloons (small aluminum coins stamped with the krewe name and year), coloring books and all sorts of other throws. One year my dad was even handed a plastic cup of wine! By far the most coveted throw, which I am proud to say I got this year, is the Zulu coconut.
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is a definite fan favorite. Although the African-American krewe officially incorporated in 1916, their roots are shrouded in mystery. It is known that the earliest members belonged to a Benevolent Society, a common turn-of-the-twentieth century alternative to insurance, in which members paid low annual dues in exchange for financial assistance if they or their families became ill or passed away. They marched during Mardi Gras 1901, but were not officially known as Zulus until 1906.
Today Zulu parades at 8 a.m. on Mardi Gras day in a spectacle that lasts for several hours. Zulu is immediately followed by Rex, the oldest white krewe, and the two kings hold celebrations together. Zulu coconuts are literally coconuts that have been hollowed out and painted. In 1988, the city of New Orleans forbade the throwing of coconuts due to the potential for injury. The only way to get a Zulu coconut today is to be handed one directly by a Zulu float rider. They are relatively rare compared to the sheer volume of beads and other throws, and it is considered an honor to be gifted with one.
Bring a sturdy bag to haul your loot. Dad and I only went to four days of parades, intentionally tried NOT to catch too much, shared some of our beads with those around us, and still ended up with approximately 75 pounds worth of throws. Try to empty your bag into another container before each parade, or at least at the end of each day.
Believe it or not, there is a fairly elaborate code of etiquette attached to the Mardi Gras parades. Remember, many of the local families have been attending for generations upon generations. The biggest rule to remember is how to pick up a dropped throw. Invariably, some of the beads and other goodies hit the ground. To avoid being stepped on in the resulting scuffle, place your foot firmly on top of the throw. That stakes your claim and allows you to pick it up when things calm down a bit.
Never try to squeeze in front of people who have been patiently waiting. Families stake out their spots as much as 24 hours in advance, although it is relatively easy to get a spot as late as an hour before most parades. Showing up late and elbowing your way in is a great way to make enemies! Of course, the crowds are fluid, so it is always fine to try to get closer to the front. Just stand back and watch the crowd flow for a few minutes first to get a sense of where to go.
Drawing attention to yourself is always appropriate. Raise both hands over your head and shout the traditional Mardi Gras cry, “Throw me something, Mister!” Some people use fishing nets on poles, cardboard targets, posters with catchy sayings and other techniques. All are fine, and may help you net that special throw. If you are close to a float and see something specific that you want, it never hurts to ask. Riders like to make the crowd happy. Of course, thanking the rider for the throw is always a good idea.
If you and someone else catch opposite ends of the same throw, use common sense. Generally the person with the larger half keeps the throw, but some people are prone to being extra “grabby.” With liberal drinking laws, it’s never worth picking a fight. If someone wants the throw that badly, let him have it. There will always be another one.
Portions of the route, typically along Canal Street, have metal barricades to keep the crowd back. Other portions, particularly along St. Charles, do not. It is traditional for the crowd to “rush” the floats in an attempt to get special throws. This is perfectly acceptable and generally safe, but use common sense. The floats are heavy, moving pieces of machinery.
Approach cautiously and stay a couple of steps back, even if someone cuts in front of you. Keep a close eye on kids, who may be tempted to run directly in front of an oncoming float to pick up goodies from the street. Also keep an eye out for what is coming next. The marching bands spread out to fill the entire street, with handlers walking ahead to move people back. If you see a band coming, retreat to the curb immediately.
Keeping Kids Entertained
While the parades themselves are filled with enough spectacle to dazzle even the most jaded child (or adult!), the waits before and between parades can be lengthy. It is, after all, “New Orleans time” (an expression with which you will become quite familiar). If you have chairs to mark your spot, try going for a walk to explore the neighborhood. Bring a small football, Frisbee, jump rope or other play equipment or join in an impromptu game with others. Handheld gaming systems are another option, but try not to let your kids spend the entire time behind a screen. There is a lot to look at and do, so focus on engaging with your surroundings. With just a bit of ingenuity, it will be remarkably easy to keep a child planted in one spot for hours on end.