More Than Beads: Mardi Gras for Families

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There's more to Mardi Gras than beads and boobs, at least if you stay off Bourbon Street.

Though the carnival celebration has long been synonymous with debauchery, the key components of New Orleans Mardi Gras seem to have been dreamed up with kids in mind. Lavish costumes and intricate masks, beautiful floats on parade, music all day long and people throwing treats -- it seems like a vacation tailormade for children. And the good news for parents? Most of the events are free.

But what about the boobs?

They're easy enough to avoid, said Jennifer Day at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Avoiding the flashers means avoiding Bourbon Street from the weekend before Fat Tuesday, the apex of the celebration, through the day itself. "It's a huge party," she said, "but definitely adults only."

The famous French Quarter consists of more than just Bourbon Street, however, and it doesn't need to be avoided altogether. Families should feel comfortable heading to Jackson Street and Chartres Street, also in the French Quarter, on Fat Tuesday and the days leading up to it to see the incredible costumes. Eileen Ogintz, author of the syndicated family travel column seconded Jackson Square for the "great street performers playing musical instruments and tap dancing."

When to Go The secret of a truly family-friendly Mardi Gras is to think of the event as a season instead of just a raucous few days. There are plenty of festivities leading up to the big event that are less crowded and far more appropriate for the kids. Weekend parades start two weeks before Fat Tuesday. The parades move to a daily schedule the Wednesday before (Feb. 15 – 21 in 2012). Travelers will also pay less for their hotel rooms by avoiding the peak travel days surrounding the event.

Kid-friendly Attractions For parade viewing, the rule of thumb, says Day, is that the party gets wilder the farther downtown you go. She suggests viewing anywhere from Napoleon Avenue to the Lee Circle roundabout. And if you can get your hands on one of the so-called Mardi Gras ladders, definitely do -- they resemble very tall high-chairs and make it easier for the kids to catch treats being thrown along parade routes.

Be sure to sample a king cake. Readily available in New Orleans and ubiquitous during Mardi Gras, the cake is made of cinnamon-filled dough and baked in a hollow circle and topped with glaze and sugar. There's a tiny plastic baby baked inside. The tradition is that whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby has to buy the next king cake or throw the next party. The baby is said to represent the baby Jesus and is eaten to celebrate King's Day, the start of the Mardi Gras season.

In nearby Jefferson Parish, Family Gras attracts parents and kids -- 80,000 of them in 2011. Family Gras takes place two weekends before Fat Tuesday and includes music acts. This year the Bacon Brothers (as in Kevin Bacon) and the Doodlebops will be there. Fright Night Friday, when families are encouraged to dress up in their scariest costumes, and Sports Saturday, when everyone wears his or her favorite team's colors, are two of the festivities that take place at Family Gras.

Ogintz said there are also plenty of non-Mardi Gras related activities in New Orleans, which families should check out. "My favorite," she said, "is the Audubon Insectarium." It's the largest museum devoted to insects in North America. She also said swamp tours and the Audubon Zoo are must-visit attractions for kids.

Where to Stay You're better off staying within walking distance of the top attractions. If you must get a taxi, do so earlier in the day before the parades start to clog the streets and jam traffic.

Day recommends the Maison St. Charles and the Hampton Inn on St. Charles Avenue as family-friendly, budget friendly and well-located for the PG-rated version of Mardi Gras. A check of rates for next week by found rooms at the Maison St. Charles from $99 per night and at the Hampton Inn from $169 per night.