If you’re not from New Orleans, you may not realize that Mardi Gras is an entire season of festivities, and it’s incredibly kid friendly. I had heard that from NOLA natives for years – and I was thrilled to check out Mardi Gras for kids myself just after my daughter Avi’s 1st birthday.
Mardi Gras is a centuries-old tradition stemming from the Catholic Church. It’s a rich part of the American South, and from New Orleans to Alabama, there’s a particular language created around it:
Mardi Gras stems from the Catholic calendar – literally “Fat Tuesday”, it’s the day before Ash Wednesday, which is 40 days before Easter. Easter is a lunar holiday, and changes date year to year, so Mardi Gras can fall anywhere from early February through March.
Krewe (pronounced “crew”) is an organization that puts on a parade during Mardi Gras, and there are hundreds of Krewes of varying size and history. Some of the more famous ones are the Mistick Krewe of Comus, (the oldest Krewe), Orpheus (started by Harry Connick Jr), Zulu (an all African-American krewe), Muses (an all women krewe), and Rex.
Some krewes are all male, some are all female, some are mixed. Many are family friendly, while some, like the Krewe of Bacchus, are thrilled to celebrate the god of wine all day long! Krewe members walk the parade route in mask, and throw gifts (“throws”) from the floats. While parade routes are open to the public, most parades end in a ticketed, invite-only ball.
Throws are items thrown by the members of the Krewe from the parade floats to the viewers. Every Krewe has personalized throws: cups, beads, stuffed animals, balls and dubloons – plastic engraved coins. In addition, some Krewes throw coveted items: for example, the Krewe of Zulu throws painted coconuts, while the Krewe of Muses offers hand painted shoes! There’s a huge rush when the throws begin – literally and emotionally – and some people really get caught up in the frenzy. Beware this part of Mardi Gras with kids, as sometimes throwers will really whip their throws, which could hurt!
Flambeaux are the torch bearers that precede the parade floats. A New Orleans tradition stemming back to the slaves and freemen lighting the original parades of the 19th century, today’s Flambeaux twirl lit torches for the crowd’s delight, and are often thrown money and coins for their efforts.
Carnival Season, which starts at Epiphany (January 6) and goes through Mardi Gras, is considered family time in New Orleans. Parades, balls (some of which are masked balls), and king cake parties are organized by different Krewes, and offer a robust social season; the 2 weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, and especially the 5 days before, are particularly packed, with parades all around the city. The last 5 days usually offer debauchery day and night on Bourbon Street, but we really wanted to explore the other side of Mardi Gras, and dove in like the locals do, checking out the Marigny, Frenchman Street and the Bywater neighborhoods as well as Uptown.
What a delight! The parades! The bands! The music! The circus!
New Orleans is always festive; Mardi Gras is particularly so, even Mardi Gras with kids. You’ll see beads hanging from balconies, trees, electrical wires; you’ll see masked revellers at all hours. Mardi Gras parades are huge events, with next year’s planning beginning immediately after this year’s parade ends.
People line up for the parades hours before they begin, creating a marvelously social atmosphere – families bring ladders outfitted with bench seats so that the kids have great views and great throw access. Folded chairs, coolers, snacks and blankets: proof of a great time about to begin.
We attended the Lundi Gras (“Fat Monday”) parades of Proteus and Orpheus. Proteus is the 2nd oldest Krewe in New Orleans, with a parade known to be very kid friendly; Orpheus immediately followed along the same route. We checked out the schedule and parade route map online, and picked a stretch of St Charles Ave close to Napoleon Street.
Parking in the area chokes up quickly, so early arrival is key. If you didn’t bring your own coolers, area businesses happily offer take-out beers and cocktails, but the take out windows are usually cash only – best to be prepared! Porta potties are generally in good order all along the route. You may not get a front row seat, but the moment the parade begins, people begin moving around, so you can usually get closer than you would think.
The floats are a revelation: they are HUGE, multi-level affairs – often themed to the parade itself, they usually change year to year. We had a great time pointing out dragons, horses, birds, and lions to Avi. Marching bands get the feet moving, and horses parade past – there’s so much to see and cheer along!
Mardi Gras itself is a giant roving parade day – every neighborhood has a centralized gathering place where the day’s festivities begin, but nothing is static. By invitation, we joined the Royal Krewe of Konfetti at the intersection of Royal and Kerlerec Streets in the morning – a Konfetti Kannon blasting the wandering revellers. Thousands of costumed people streamed through the intersection for hours, including the world famous New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
After a couple hours cheering the passerby, we dove in ourselves and walked into the French Quarter. Street performers abound, music poured from every open window, laughter and cheers and general merriment marked the entire day. Walking the streets of New Orleans is overstimulating for adults and kids alike – the difference is that children don’t know how to turn that information off. One of the biggest tasks as a parent during Mardi Gras for kids is to manage the your child’s energy – make sure there is a comfortable space to nap and zone out, whether it’s the baby carrier, stroller or wagon, kids of all ages need a safe space to sack out.
Ash Wednesday dawns quietly – most of the city is closed or on limited hours, so it can be a bit challenging to find breakfast. We walked to the Bywater, and had a great breakfast at Booty’s – a hip restaurant featuring shareable bites inspired by worldwide street food, like crepes, pupusas, tacos and empanadas, as well as fantastic Stumptown coffee and curated cocktails. The relative quiet of the streets was a warm welcome after the previous days’ mayhem – you could feel the city rubbing her eyes, napping a little, and preparing to do it all over again……
Know Before You Go
- Info: Complete Mardi Gras details including parade schedules at MardiGrasNewOrleans.com.
- Don’t miss! Germaine Cazenave Mardi Gras Museum at Arnaud’s. Germaine Cazenave reigned as queen of over 22 Mardi Gras balls from 1937 – 1968, and the museum located over the restaurant founded by her father is an incredible testament to the extravaganzas the Balls truly are. Costumes, accessories, photographs and other memorabilia provide an up-close look at one woman’s experience at the center of the Mardi Gras magic. Open during regular restaurant hours; free.
Where to Stay
WARNING: Rooms book years out for Mardis Gras – plan ahead!
- Richelieu Hotel: Friends recommended the Richelieu Hotel at the north end of the Quarter, and we were delighted with the convenience of the location, the service and the room. I had called about a month in advance of our reservation and confirmed that they would have a crib for our baby, as well as confirming that our room would be large enough to hold a travel crib. They arranged for us to have a king room with a balcony on the quiet side of the building, overlooking Barracks St, as well as a huge closet that was almost a second bedroom, perfect for Avi’s crib. The Richelieu is close enough to all the fun of the Quarter, but far enough away that stray revelers at the wee hours are relatively infrequent, assuring quiet nights. The building has secure parking as well as an inner courtyard featuring a pool – perfect for a late afternoon lounge while the baby is sleeping (yes, the monitor reached!)
- Le Meridien New Orleans: Another great spot to set up with your family is the Le Meridien New Orleans, just outside of the French Quarter. The onsite restaurants make it easy to feed your family without the crowds while enjoying Mardi Gras with kids, and the coffee bar is a welcome relief as you dive into another day after a long night.
Where to Eat
New Orleans is an amazing food destination – the culinary history is as rich as the city itself. New spots open all the time, and there are a number of tried and true. These were places that we enjoyed in February 2015 – be sure to dig around for other classics and new spots to try. And don’t be afraid to take the kids!
- Arnaud’s French 75
- Booty’s Street Food
- Cafe Amelie
- Croissant d’Or
- El Gato Negro
- Restaurant R’evolution
- Ruby Slipper Cafe
- Satsuma Cafe
- Verti Mart