More Than Mardi Gras

There's a lesser known side that's just as enchanting

By: Chere Dastugue Coen

Mention New Orleans and many images come to mind. A romantic getaway for two. Great food at world-famous restaurants. Rowdy Mardi Gras revelers and women who bare too much skin.

But New Orleans’ greatest secret is its softer side. The expression, “The City That Care Forgot,” could easily be referring to the city’s many parks, family-oriented museums, amusement parks and nature sites, as well as its world-class zoo and aquarium.

The Louisiana Children’s Museum, for instance, offers a warehouse full of fun activities, from “making groceries” to producing a real newscast.

New this year is the Little Port of New Orleans, an interactive exhibit designed to teach children about New Orleans’ role as gateway to a global marketplace. Children can pilot a towboat using simulated radar and ship-to-ship communication, captain a container ship or take a trip on a kid-size paddlewheeler. Ship galleys are available for exploration and children can crawl through a barge to learn about the various cargos imported and exported from New Orleans, one of the world’s largest ports.

Nearby, at the foot of Canal Street within walking distance of the French Quarter, is the glass castle of the Audubon Institute’s Aquarium of the Americas. Soon after visitors walk through the aquarium’s doors, they are literally submerged within the massive tanks of sea creatures that stretch above visitors’ heads.

Exhibits include a multi-level rainforest environment, a lively penguin habitat, a Louisiana-style swamp featuring rare white alligators and interactive exhibits that teach children about the fragile environments surrounding New Orleans.

Also available at the aquarium is an IMAX theater that offers several screenings of different films daily. Currently showing, in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, is “Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West.”

The aquarium is one of many sites of the Audubon Institute. The Audubon Zoo, one of the South’s largest and most diverse zoos, sits inside Audubon Park in the uptown region of New Orleans, accessible from Canal Street by streetcar. The Louisiana Nature Center, nestled inside an 86-acre bottomland hardwood forest, is located outside the city near another family draw, the recently opened Six Flags amusement park. The Nature Center features an Interpretive Center, planetarium and mile-long trails along ground-level boardwalks. Special packages are offered for all three sites, including combining visits to one or all three with steamboat cruises and bus tours.

For those who can’t visit the Big Easy during Carnival season, Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World gives a sneak peek daily. Kern is the foremost authority on float building in New Orleans, and visitors are allowed to tour his massive warehouses that house the floats used annually in the spring revelry. Located directly across the Mississippi River from the aquarium, the tour includes an introduction by a guide, a video on the history of Mardi Gras and a chance for visitors to dress up in authentic Carnival costumes.

For those who want to learn more about the traditions of Carnival, the Louisiana State Museum tells the colorful story in “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” at The Presbytere on Jackson Square, one of the many historic buildings the museum operates.

Five major themes are offered in the exhibit, including the history of Carnival, the tradition of masking, parades, balls and the Cajun Courir du Mardi Gras, a custom in the countryside of Louisiana that dates back to medieval Europe. Visitors can view rare, historic artifacts, elaborate costumes, videos on the popular holiday and hands-on activities. In addition, the Crown Jewels Vault houses a collection of tiaras, scepters and necklaces worn by generations of Carnival “royalty.”

City Park stretches from the bottom of Esplanade Boulevard and Bayou St. John to Lake Pontchartrain, and its 1,500 acres makes it the fifth largest public park in America. Within its boundaries lie numerous duck-filled ponds and lagoons, an elaborate rose garden and a decades-old fairy tale theme park named Storyland.

The storybook creatures of Storyland were created in the 1950s and later restored by none other than Blaine Kern. It was named one of the 10 best playgrounds in the country by Child Magazine in 1992. Features include Little Mermaid’s pond, Pinocchio’s whale and Captain Hook’s ship, among other imaginative offerings.

Next to Storyland, the Carousel Gardens Amusement Area offers a chills and thrills with amusement rides suitable for all ages. And the City Park carousel cannot be missed. Its graceful horses are as historic as the park.

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