It's Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and I'm going with my kids.
"What?" you may ask. "That festival of drunken debauchery?"
That's where you're wrong. For the fourth year in a row, we were at the family-oriented, kid-friendly celebration that's joyous, musical, raucous — and entirely legal.
The kids mingle with happy neighborhood kids, tossing footballs and Frisbees while they wait for the next parade. And when the parade comes, as they do over and over all weekend long, the kids scream and jump up and down until float-riders throw beads, cups, plastic spears, miniature toilets, massive go-cups, printed toilet paper, flotsam, jetsam — and did I mention beads?
This is the Uptown Mardi Gras, where no one bears breasts for beads. Instead, children and adults alike wave and jump and treat float-riders like rock stars in order to get the best "throws." These are hourlong affairs, with marching bands, dancing groups — from spangled baton-twirlers, to troupes of spandex-clad men dancing to disco, to synchronized Barcaloungers on wheels — and, of course, floats, the colorful, towering, tractor-pulled behemoths carrying masked krewe members — members of the New Orleans social clubs who have paid good money to be cheered and idolized like rock stars for a day.
These parades are far from Bourbon Street and the hordes of tipsy, young out-of-towners. They start 3 miles upriver, near the Audubon Zoo and the universities, and run through the Garden District along St. Charles Avenue. Families park their ladders constructed with kiddie seats (a special item costing about $149 at the local hardware stores) from which small ones can get a better view — and better throws.
It's the biggest holiday in New Orleans, starting two weeks before Fat Tuesday and culminating with a long weekend cram-packed with parades — four on Sunday, two on Monday and four more on Tuesday — including the most prestigious krewes, Rex and Zulu, in a finale. The city shuts down, and schools close for a week to recover.
"I overheard a conversation between two kids," said Glen Hamilton, a Savannah, Ga., resident who lived here in the '90s. "They said, 'Which do you like better, Christmas or Mardi Gras?' And the answer was, 'Mardi Gras, of course!' It's like Christmas for 2 1/2 weeks."
No wonder Hamilton and his wife brought their 9-year-old to experience it. She not only gets to yell and beg for beads and medallions and little stuffed monkeys, but she gets to see her parents do it, too. A family-style frenzy, so to speak.
When Hamilton tells folks at home where they're going, "people think we're taking our kids to Daytona Beach at spring break or something," he said. "They have no idea."
"My kids love this," said Al Key, another former resident who has brought his two children, ages 8 and 10, from St. Louis for Mardi Gras many times. "They love it more than Disney World. They're completely jaded on Disney World now."
The Mardi Gras spirit spills beyond the parades, onto sidewalks and into shops and front lawns, where people tend to greet strangers with a "Happy Mardi Gras" and the lift of a go-cup.
Key's wife, Christal, said she likes to see her children improvising games in the street between parades. "I bring them to see them play helicopter in the street, all of them bonded together with a broken set of beads," she said.
As the parades meander downtown to Canal Street, where the big hotels house droves of young adults, many of whom are getting plastered, the throngs are a little less friendly from a child's point of view, and a parent would quail at allowing a young one out of eyesight.
But Uptown, parents and grandparents line the parade route, and kids can trail a float for half a block or more and find their way back to home base.
It took several years of persuading by a family friend who lives here to get me to bring my three kids from Arlington, Va. Now, even my oldest, in his third year at college, wouldn't miss it.
The first year, my youngest, then 8, disappeared for a moment one parade night. She returned shortly before I began to panic, carrying a stuffed pink rabbit bigger than she was — her best Mardi Gras booty ever. This year, she and several neighborhood children ran a lemonade stand and earned $95. They spotted the NFL's Eli Manning, a local, chatting with friends on the street.
Uptown Mardi Gras is a family vacation destination like nothing else in the U.S. — certainly like nothing we see near our buttoned-up, safety-conscious D.C.-area home. It's a best-kept secret. And in an age when parenting seems to be, like Jennifer Senior says in her new best-seller, All Joy and No Fun, it's the best way to show kids that adults know how to have a good time, even when it's G — OK, maybe PG — rated.