The New Orleans Experience, Family-Style!
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Top to bottom: A Craft Project at the Old U.S. Mint Museum; Famous New Orleans Fingerfood - the Po-Boy; Family Fun at Plum Street Sno-Ball Shop
Scott Fox promised his eight-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter a family vacation that would include riverboat adventures, close encounters with toothy reptiles, tales of swashbuckling pirates, ghosts and historic battles and jaunts through a neighborhood of colorful buildings with surprises around every corner.
They didn’t go to a theme park, however. They came to New Orleans, and stayed in the French Quarter.
“The kids didn’t really know anything about New Orleans, so we told them the trip would be like visiting another country, but only a couple of hours away,” says Fox, a restaurant manager from Sarasota, Fla., who visited New Orleans in April with his wife and their children. “We came (to New Orleans) once, before we were married, and had a great time. We’ve wanted to come back for a long time and share the experience with our kids.”
New Orleans has long been regarded as a destination for a great party, and its reputation as a wild town is indeed cemented every night on Bourbon Street. But families are increasingly discovering that the allure and excitement of New Orleans can also be translated for younger visitors, and many are bringing their children along for family-friendly versions of the Big Easy getaway.
In the spring of 2005, New Orleans ranked first in the nation for family vacation destinations in an online poll conducted by Yahoo! Travel and National Geographic Traveler Magazine, beating out San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago and New York. Visits from families traveling with children have skyrocketed in the past year, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., and now account for approximately 15% of all visitors to the city.
Of course, the antics of Bourbon Street can be difficult to explain to children, but it turns out that many of the other things adults like to do in New Orleans appeal to children also. The city’s colorful history and the unique cultural mix that thrives here today provide much fodder for curious young travelers, while the city is also home to world-class facilities that provide the highly-prized combination of new experiences and education that can make family vacations so enriching. What follows is a run-down on some of the most popular attractions and activities for families in or easily accessible from the French Quarter:
Jackson Square – a great family day out in the French Quarter can start at Jackson Square, with a breakfast of the exotic-sounding but familiar-tasting beignets (just tell the kids they’re square donuts) from Café du Monde (1039 Decatur St., 800-772-2927). Throughout the square, clowns, street performers and artists provide colorful entertainment for children and adults alike. For instance, local artist Brad Reynolds has been drawing caricatures from his umbrella-shaded stool along the iron fence in Jackson Square for years, creating customized souvenirs for children and their families as keepsakes from their New Orleans adventure.
Buggy rides – a mule-powered tour of the French Quarter makes a memorable adventure for young travelers, especially with colorful tales from the tour guide.
Streetcars – the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is a 1920s-vintage historic landmark on wheels, while the new Canal streetcar line combines antique design with modern amenities (like air conditioning and wheelchair lifts). Either one provides an exciting journey for kids and a scenic ride for parents, while the $1.25 fare per person makes it an inexpensive way to get out to the attractions elsewhere in the city.
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas – some 10,000 creatures call the aquarium home, and unique exhibits here include a 30-foot-long clear tunnel where visitors are surrounded by Caribbean reef dwellers, the Gulf of Mexico tank featuring sharks, sea turtles and stingrays, an Amazon rainforest room and a “touch pool” where visitors can touch a baby shark. The Entergy Imax Theater is located in the same complex, screening dazzling, large-format films that usually have an educational theme. (1 Canal St., 800-774-7394)
Riverboat rides – the riverfront beside the French Quarter offers several ways to get out and experience America’s largest and most storied river up close. Tours of varying length and themes are available on the Steamboat Natchez (504-586-8777) and the New Orleans Paddlewheels Company’s (504-529-4567) Creole Queen and Cajun Queen. Meanwhile, the state-run Canal Street ferry is a quick and free (for pedestrians) way to get close to the river’s flowing brown water, making a short run across the river to Old Algiers Point every 15 minutes or so. For a longer adventure, the riverboat John James Audubon (504-586-8777) departs from the Aquarium of the Americas several times a day for a seven-mile journey upriver to the Audubon Zoo (6500 Magazine St., 866-487-2966).
Audubon Zoo – whether arriving by boat (see above) or by land, families can spend hours exploring the zoo’s grounds and exhibits. Especially popular for children is the area known as Monkey Hill, where youngsters can romp around to their hearts’ content, and the Louisiana swamp exhibit, which includes the rare white alligator.
City Park – one of the largest urban parks in the nation, this local treasure boasts the New Orleans Museum of Art, Botanical Gardens and other refined attractions, but also is home to Storyland, a fairytale-theme playground with a vintage carousel and miniature carnival rides. Last year, Child Magazine ranked Storyland among the top 10 U.S. playgrounds. City Park makes a great destination for a trip on the Canal streetcar (see above).
Louisiana Children’s Museum – located in the Warehouse District, a few blocks off the St. Charles streetcar line, this museum was recently ranked the best children’s museum in 22 major U.S. cities by the Zagat Survey’s U.S. Family Travel Guide. The museum includes many educational exhibits, including one about the ships and activities at the Port of New Orleans. (420 Julia St., 504-523-1357)
Musee Conti Wax Museum – this entertaining museum provides a stimulating history of New Orleans and its famous characters through the centuries in the form of wax figures and vignettes. The city’s colonial roots, the Battle of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte the pirate and Napoleon the emperor, Creole traditions, voodoo rituals and jazz hall jams are all represented, along with a side exhibit on horror movie icons. (917 Conti St., 800-233-5405)
Blain Kern’s Mardi Gras World– take the Canal Street ferry across the river to visit this vast studio where artists work year-round on the elaborate floats for the city’s Mardi Gras parades and other events around the world. Guided tours here include a primer on Mardi Gras traditions, a chance to try on costumes and samples of king cake, a traditional treat from carnival season. ( 233 Newton St., 800-362-8213)
Six Flags New Orleans – take a ride out to eastern New Orleans to visit the newest outpost of the Six Flags theme park empire. Along with rollercoasters, water rides and other attractions for thrill seekers, the park includes a Looney Tunes Adventures area designed especially for younger children. The park also features frequent concerts and shows on its grounds and performance venues. (12301 Six Flags Pkwy, 504-253-8100)
Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer and columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment talk show "Steppin' Out" and editor of the guidebook "Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans."