“Don’t take the kids to Mardi Gras in New Orleans!” “Are you sure you want to go to Mardi Gras with kids?”
We heard this way too often when talking about our trip to New Orleans with our kids for the Mardi Gras Festival.
It was very similar to when I first fell pregnant with our eldest daughter Kalyra and everyone wanted to tell me my travels were now over.
We set out to prove them wrong, and 10 years later we have done an excellent job of that!
So we set out on our road trip from North Carolina to Louisiana last month to prove that you can enjoy the New Orleans Mardi Gras Festival with kids.
Yes, it’s well known for its debauchery and boob flashing on Bourbon Street.
But Mardi Gras New Orleans is much more than Bourbon Street as we’ll show you below, and it wasn’t in our plans to ever take the girls there.
One thing we know is true, if there are children living in the destination you are visiting, odds are there will be a family friendly angle to any festivals or experiences you are seeking in that destination.
I’m pretty sure they don’t ship out all the children who live in New Orleans out on floats before Mardi Gras starts.
And I’m pretty sure the kids would love to participate in something so culturally rich, colorful and exciting as Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
So fear not venturesome parents, Mardi Gras with kids is possible, and immense fun.
In fact, our kids have voted the Mardi Gras Festival as one of the best things to do in New Orleans with kids!
The day we left our kids were already talking about coming back to visit New Orleans next year during the festival. They had the best time and really want to make it an annual event.
You know kids are the best gauge for whether a travel experience was worth it or not!
We visited Mardi Gras in partnership with the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau to help showcase the family spirit of Mardi Gras.
In this guide below, we’ll share with you some tips and places you most want to visit with your kids to have that family-friendly Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans.
And be sure to watch our Mardi Gras video:
How to prepare for Mardi Gras in New Orleans with kids
The best way to have an amazing Mardi Gras experience is to come prepared. Here are three simple tips to do that.
1. Get Your Mardi Gras Costumes
We love how Americans embrace so many opportunities for dressing up in costume. Don’t skip this part to Mardi Gras.
Dressing up in costume will make it a more fun and memorable experience.
Our girls were so excited as soon as we bought our costumes a week before our trip. It put them in the spirit straight away, which continued until the last love heart tattoo was put on their cheek.
The traditional Mardi Gras colors are purple, gold and green.
Feathered, sequenced masks are popular costumes for Mardi Gras as well as hats and scarves. You can find more than enough to wear at your local Party City.
Do your research to see if there are any other themed costumes for any of the parades or events you are attending.
We were attending a private love bug themed party on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras day).
Thankfully, the Mardi Gras parade this year was close to Valentine’s Day so there were plenty of loved themed colors and costumes for us to choose from at Party City and Walmart.
We’re saving our love bug costumes for Halloween this year. You can easily dress up in your Halloween costumes for Mardi too.
2. When is Mardi Gras?
And how long does Mardi Gras last?
In case you don’t know, it is a two-week festival, and the Carnival season begins January 6, the official end of the Christmas season
The Mardi Gras dates change each year as it is dependent on when Ash Wednesday/ Easter Sunday is which of course changes every year.
Most visitors plan to arrive no later than the Saturday prior to Mardi Gras Day (Fat Tuesday) and stay through Ash Wednesday.
This is the weekend when Bacchus and Endymion, two of the biggest parades of the season, roll down the streets of New Orleans.
We heard wonderful things about the Bacchus parade and want to go to it next time. I also want to see the all-female Krewe of Muses Parade on the Thursday before Mardi Gras Day.
Check out these gorgeous shoes from the Muses parade!
The Mardi Gras Parades that travel Uptown, in Metairie or on the North Shore or West Bank are great options for families.
The Garden District is calmer with smaller crowds and a more family–friendly atmosphere, particularly along St. Charles Ave. between First St. and Napoleon Ave.
No big parades go through the French Quarter due to size restrictions. The French Quarter is not the best area to see the parades with kids.
3. Talk to your kids about Mardi Gras
What is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras, also called Fat Tuesday, refers to events of the Carnival celebrations beginning on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday.
We spoke to the girls about what the Mardi Gras experience would be like in New Orleans.
They knew Bourbon Street was the adult’s playground and we wouldn’t go near there.
Kalyra really had no idea what could be seen there, but she was terrified of it, simply by all the people who commented about it.
A few days after Mardi Gras, when we stepped foot on the street to visit the Voodoo Shop, she almost burst into tears and begged us to take her off Bourbon Street!! Ha-ha.
Little did she realize we pushed her down the entire length of it in a pram when she was two!
I recommend staying away from Bourbon Street with kids during the festival, especially at night, but you can pop in for a quick stroll during the day any other time.
But, I would make it quick and go down the quieter end at the western side of the French Quarter.
Also, Royal Street in the French Quarter which runs parallel to Bourbon Street, is more family-friendly with nice cafes, galleries, boutique shopping and artist shops.
We explained to our kids that Mardi Gras is really a celebration of diversity and love and if they see anything strange, to accept that it’s okay and to not stare.
Of course, they could not help giggle and stare when they saw their first male dressed as Elsa, but once that was out of their system they were fine.
To plan your trip to Mardi Gras with kids, check the official tourism website for Visit New Orleans for up to date information.
We’ll have more tips down below to help you have the best Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) experience yet.
But, first let’s look at the amazing parades.
How to Enjoy Mardi Gras with Kids
We visited during the last two days of the festival.
Fat Tuesday is the last day of the feast before Ash Wednesday. As a born and raised Catholic I know all about Lent and the Catholic Easter traditions, which is what Mardi Gras is a celebration of.
I only wish I was able to celebrate Easter in such a festive way growing up in Australia.
It was always a more somber event focused on giving up what you loved for 40 days during Lent. I love how this celebration focuses on the feast before the famine.
Fat Tuesday in Australia is called Pancake Tuesday. The tradition is to fill up on pancakes before Lent begins. We’d always have pancakes with lemon and sugar on them and it was something I looked forward to.
But, the Fat Tuesday parade is way more fun, especially for kids. Be sure to pack a picnic feast!
So here are the parades and experiences we had during Mardi Gras on Fat Tuesday and the day before.
Zulu Lundi Gras Festival
The Zulu Lundi Gras Festival is free and open to the public and held on the Monday before Mardi Gras day, which is known as Lundi Gras, or Fat Monday.
It’s a fun day of food, music and arts and crafts in Woldenberg Park along the New Orleans riverfront.
There were three stages of performers and plenty of African and Cajun inspired food stalls, Zulu costumes and party atmosphere.
Grab yourself some crawfish nachos, Cajun fries, alligator sausage, and a pineapple lemonade and enjoy the festivities.
King Zulu greeted everyone on the stage to get us all excited for the Zulu parade the following morning.
There were great cheers when we heard it was going to be much warmer for Fat Tuesday as it was very breezy and cold on the waterfront.
We arrived at the end of the day, so the girls felt a little overwhelmed by all the people and the festive spirit.
So we moved onto wandering the lower part of the French Quarter to look at the costumes and street decorations before stopping for dinner at the Grand Isle Restaurant & Oyster Bar just outside the French Quarter for some mussels and warm seafood stew.
The Krewe of Orpheus Parade
Harry Connick Jnr is one of the founders of the Krewe of Orpheus, which explains why we saw him on one of the first floats that came through.
If the crowd noise wasn’t so loud, you’d probably hear me screaming,
“Oh my God. That’s Harry Connick Jnr. It’s Harry Connick Jnr”,
as he stood three meters in front of (and above) throwing beads in our direction.
The Krewe of Orpheus was founded in 1993 and takes its name from the musically-inclined son of Zeus and Calliope. Celebrity guests tend to appear on the floats each year, so keep your eyes carefully tuned in.
We had insider knowledge that the best place to view the Orpheus Parade was on Tchoupitoulas Street.
We went to the corner of Poydras Street and Tchoupitoulas Street and thought we must have had it wrong as there was barely anyone round.
We walked up to St. Charles Avenue where the parade had just started to float by, right near our accommodation at The Whitney Hotel, and there were hundreds of people.
It was our first glimpse of the floats. They were brilliantly lit and so colorful and elaborate with beads flying out from every direction and the crowds screaming, “Over here!”
We decided to turn around and go back to Tchoupitoulas Street and hope that the parade route was accurate and wouldn’t change.
It did take almost another hour before it got to us, but it did, and we were right in front of the line. Surprisingly it was cold, but we had fun waiting and chatting to the people around us.
And it was well worth the wait.
The girls were amazed with how beautiful it was and took to bead catching immediately. There’s no experience like it.
We couldn’t believe the number of beads and toys that were being thrown out and we delighted with each successful catch. With the bitter cold of the evening, and the thickness of the beads, our fingers and hands stung with each catch.
Elaborately decorated dragons, crocodiles, octopus’ floats rolled by in between crews of marching bands and people holding flaming torches.
The girls’ favorite float was the Smoking Mary, which is a six-unit float that looks like a steam locomotive.
They caught a football, a few stuffed teddies and a mask amongst the bounty.
After an hour and a half, Kalyra dragged Craig back to the hotel as her feet were freezing (wear appropriate footwear if it’s cold) and Savannah held me down to stay with her.
She was hooked and did not want to miss a float. Mardi Gras is certainly her kind of party.
The Krewe of Zulu Parade
Get up early on Fat Tuesday to start the celebrations with the Zulu Parade along St. Charles Avenue. It begins down near the Garden District.
We started walking down the parade route at 8am and it was filled with people already camped out in their positions with chicken cooking over the grill and drinks cracked.
I loved walking through the crowds and soaking up the atmosphere, although we did feel a little out of place in our pink and red love bug costumes in a sea of purple and green traditional Mardi Gras colors.
I’m sure people were wondering if we were lost. But, really, when at Mardi Gras, anything goes.
The more flamboyant your costume, the better. Spend time checking out the costumes of the revellers on the street!
We were headed towards Third Street for the Rex Parade which starts at 10am after the Zulu Parade, so walked almost to the starting point of the Zulu.
The streets were full of people roaming and talking and barbecuing and playing ball and having loads of fun while they waited for the parade to come to their area. It was all positive and happy.
We met up with the parade a few blocks short of Third Street where we would be positioned for the Rex Parade.
We managed to grab a place right on the street curb.
The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club (founded 1916) kicks off Mardi Gras Day in a vibrant and festive way.
It’s historically an African-American group that parades in blackface and grass skirts. They also have many floats, including the iconic sparkling King and Queen Zulu floats.
The Zulu coconut is the most prized possession of the Zulu float throws which Savannah managed to grab (read the tip section down below to see what she did with it, lol).
The Krewe of Rex Parade
For the most family-friendly Mardi Gras with kids experience, head to St Charles Avenue in the Garden District.
It was filled with families so was a little less wild but still had a great festive spirit.
The road is much wider here too, so you felt like you had a lot of space and it’s so pretty experiencing it under the gorgeous oak trees that line the street.
The Garden District is one of our favorite places to visit in New Orleans and one of our favorite neighborhoods in the US.
We were so grateful to be invited to a private party for the Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group. Everyone was so warm and welcoming. It was fantastic to join their gathering and get dressed up for their themed Love Bug festivities.
We began with a few drinks and nibbles at their house which was right on the parade route.
We then walked a few steps out onto St. Charles Avenue near the intersection of Third Street where we had a spot with ladders for the kids to sit on and catch the breads.
We were a bright pocket of red in between the festive Mardi Gras colors.
The Rex Parade is considered a centerpiece of the Mardi Gras festival because of the Krewe’s rich and colorful themes, elaborately decorated hand-painted floats, and male maskers in original costumes floats.
The Krewe Of Rex has held more parades than any other organization and is the origin of many Mardi Gras traditions, including the official Carnival colors of purple, green and gold, as well as the collectable doubloon coins, which one of King Rex’s page boys handed to us (introduced by Rex in 1960).
The Krewe of Rex is one of the oldest Mardi Gras krewe’s, originating in 1872.
Each year a new King is chosen, usually an influential resident involved in a multiple civic causes and philanthropic pursuits.
His identity is kept secret until Lundi Day (the day before Mardi Gras) when the mayor hands over to Rex a symbolic key to the City to Rex for Mardi Gras Day.
We were standing outside the Rex House on St Charles Avenue, which is where one of the original King Rex’s once lived.
They have a big party each year, and King Rex’s float always stops outside this house for about 15 minutes. King Rex goes into the Rex House for a toast with the family inside.
I was lucky to be invited by a family friend to peek inside the Rex House and sneak in a whisky sour – one of the favoured drinks of the festival, alongside the early morning Bloody Mary.
There is a different theme each year for the floats, although some floats are permanent like The Beouf Gras – the big bull -which is symbolic of the giant feast before Lent.
This was one of my favorites.
The 2018 theme honored New Orleans Tricentennial year showcasing elements of the city’s rich history and culture and the people, places and events that shaped America’s most unique city.
Some of the float designs honored “Father Mississippi” and the indigenous people who first lived here and concluding with a float depicting Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans.
Placed at intervals throughout the parade are masked horseman – his majesty’s lieutenants. They wear gold trimmed velvet uniforms of red, purple and gold.
Thankfully people were handing them drinks under the hot sun!
Throughout the parade are many marching bands and processions from the best high school, colleges and military. They bring a colorful musical vibe to the parade.
It was fascinating to experience Mardi Gras with the locals and learn all about the traditions.
I would say this area for Mardi Gras is more of a local experience than a tourist one, so this is the perfect place to come if you are looking for that feel.
Everyone seemed to know everyone else and they all had friends on the floats. We met many people and heard lots of fun stories. It really enhanced our Mardi Gras experience.
The Krewe of Elks (aka The Truck Parade)
Just when you think the Krewe of Rex is the last parade, coming up behind it is the loud and crazy Truck Parade from the Krewe of Elks.
The Elks Orleans are a group of over 50 individually designed truck floats on flatbed trucks and is formed by 4,600 male and female riders.
We wouldn’t have known about it if it wasn’t for our local friends telling us to check it out. They also told us there is a competition each year for best truck and the winners are the ones you’ll see first in the float.
Small trucks come down the street honking their horns and decked out in bright colours, banners, streamers, and loud music.
The beads continue to be thrown out as well as cups and a few more interesting things we collected like hula hoops and play spears.
We followed the Truck Parade back down St. Charles Avenue to our hotel. The girls were thrilled by it, and despite a full day of cheering and bead catching, raced up to the front to yell for more.
We finished our Mardi Gras with kids experience with a quiet and delicious seafood dinner at Briquette, a relatively new restaurant in the Warehouse district housed in an old refurbished warehouse.
The tables and beams are all made from refurbished wood. My whole black bass was delicious. It was the best seafood we’ve had since leaving Australia.
19 Tips for Attending Mardi Gras with Kids
1. Download the Mardi Gras parade tracker. It was a bit confusing at first to understand as there are a few different markers on there, so you don’t know what’s tracking and where. I would love to see an accurate and clearly labelled start of the parade and end of the parade on the tracker. I think this would come in handy if you want to move from one parade to another. If you can see where one ends, you may feel like you’ve had enough and are ready to move to the next parade.
2. Get there early to grab a spot. It may mean waiting around but make an experience out of it with your chairs and coolers full of food and drink. It will give you plenty of time to take photos of your costumes and soak up the atmosphere. We loved walking down the road before the Zulu Lundi parade watching everyone throwing balls around, cooking food on their personal grills, and checking out all the cool costumes.
3. I recommend going to the start of the parade route for a spot. Then you won’t have to wait for a very long time for the first float to appear.
4. The largest audience comes out for evening parades, so head out earlier if you’d like a lighter crowd.
5. Have a restaurant/café break in between your parades. It’s great to refuel, especially for bathroom breaks and when it’s cold like it was for us on Orpheus Parade night.
6. Bring a bag with you – a large bag – so you can carry all your bounty home.
7. Bring along a ladder, complete with a seat on top. It makes it easier for the kids (the smaller ones) to see and catch the bounty. If you can’t bring one, you may get lucky and have one offered to you to use. Be sure you get your child up and down safely and keep it back from the curb. You don’t want it getting swiped by a passing float.
8. Watch your children (and yourself) if standing right on the curb. Be sure they don’t jump out with excitement as floats are passing by. They are pulled by tractors. There are usually people walking past pushing crowds back to ensure they are a safe distance from floats and passing marching bands, which take up more road space.
9. Have a safety, and meeting place plan in place in case your kids get lost! Keep them close by and a close eye on them. There are big crowds and a lot going on.
10. Prepare your kids for the crowds. Our girls were a little freaked out at first by the amount of people. They liked the Rex Parade best because of the extra space and calmer nature.
11. Watch those flying beads. They can be large, which means they can really hurt if they hit you in the face. I had a whack on the head which stung, so you can imagine if it hit a small child. The family-friendly parades are a little more careful in passing beads rather than throwing them real hard … sometimes.
12. Don’t let your child hold a coconut bounty on top of the ladder in case they drop it on an innocent lady’s head and it breaks! Thankfully she was okay about it and thrilled that her head was able to crack open the coconut. Savannah was mortified that she accidentally dropped it, as was I!
13. Be prepared for changing weather. We were freezing on the eve of Mardi Gras and then hot on Mardi Gras day. Bring your umbrella just in case.
14. Take time to learn about the historical and traditional significance of the parade, masks, and colors—gold for power, green for faith, and purple for justice—or take them to Mardi Gras World to learn about krewes and see how the floats are built. It’s not just about catching as many beads as you can.
15 Bring plenty of snacks and water. Crowds will be huge and food opportunities may be scarce.
16. Stay in accommodation close to the parade route so you can duck back if you need. You won’t find many restrooms along the route and many hotels will have wrist band identification for guests, so you won’t be able to sneak in. We stayed at The Whitney Hotel.
17. Avoid driving and using Ubers/taxis. Many roads will be blocked off and traffic will be chaotic. It will be quicker to walk in most instances. We walked from our hotel just outside the French Quarter on Poydras Street (near intersection of St. Charles) to First Avenue in the Garden District for the Rex Parade, which only took about 30 minutes.
18. We were told that the success of a Mardi Gras is often determined by the weight of the trash collected. The trash will be intense. I felt awful leaving it on the ground, but I was told the street sweepers are excellent and follow the last truck and have the city spick and span in no time.
19. On the evening of Mardi Gras, Rex will cross Canal Street to join the Comus Ball (the oldest Mardi Gras Krewe) and when the monarchs have all made their exits, the Captain of Comus literally closes the curtain on the Carnival season. This event is televised live. Our new local friends told us about it being a tradition for many New Orleanians stay up to watch. We planned to, but totally forgot!! I recommend scheduling it in to close out your Mardi Gras experience. Cuddle up in your bed and watch it with the kids.
As they say in New Orleans,
“Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler” let the good times roll.
Want More Tips for New Orleans with kids?
Check out this post: Best things to do in New Orleans with kids