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
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.