Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is by definition a celebration of debauchery and merriment. It is people’s last chance to enjoy all the good food and drink they can, before the dietary restrictions and somberness of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. For a holiday with such a deeply religious background, it sure has gotten a bad reputation for uncontrolled drunkenness and loss of inhibitions (or tops). We’re not going to lie, that reputation is well earned, but it is but a small part of the Mardi Gras celebration. In fact, for most people who celebrate Mardi Gras annually, it is a true family affair.

Where to Go

Images of drunken hooligans getting out of control tend to give first-time visitors to New Orleans pause about bringing the kids down for the party. That part of the celebration is reserved for the French Quarter, where the party never stops and the bars spill out onto the streets. The rest of the city is perfect for letting the entire family enjoy all the treats of the Carnival season.

Obviously, unless you want to have several “teaching moments” with the kids about what they just saw, steer away from Bourbon Street and the French Quarter this time. The best place to set up shop is on St. Charles Street near Napoleon Street. The street is near the beginning of most parade routes, meaning the kids won’t be out super late, and it is set up like one giant block party. There are families having picnics and kids running around in anticipation of the floats getting ready to come by. Everyone there has come for the same purpose — to enjoy the festivities with their families, so you don’t have to worry about it getting too out of hand.

Fat Tuesday Tips and Tricks

Once you are set up in the perfect spot, you’ll want to plan ahead for a few things. The first is bathrooms. Options can be pretty scarce, so having a plan in place will be beneficial with little ones who may not plan ahead as well as you. Many churches, schools, and restaurants will allow you to purchase an all-day bathroom pass. That will allow you to access their bathrooms for only one fee. It beats having to use the Porta-Potties. Secondly, you may want to bring a ladder for little ones in order to be able to see the floats above the crowd. Many Mardi Gras veterans will customize their ladders with seats to buckle the kids into to keep them safe. They’ll even decorate them to match the festivities. Next, you’ll want to bring a fairly large bag to carry home all of the trinkets the kids will catch from the floats. It will be more than you can possible imagine. Lastly, to ensure that the kids will have as many things tossed their way as possible, they will need to learn one key phrase to be shouted over and over: “Throw me somethin’, mister!”

Obviously, safety is key. New Orleans police do a truly miraculous job keeping the revelers safe and orderly without impeding the fun. In the family-centric areas, they have officers stationed just about on every corner. A few precautions, however, will go a long way. Simply explaining to the kids to stay close goes without saying. Having a designated meeting spot in case anyone gets separated is “Large Crowd 101”. Another useful tip is to give your kids a notecard or write on their arm any important phone numbers in case they get lost.

The Sights

All of the preparations are worth it for the truly unique magic that is a Mardi Gras parade. And New Orleans has more magic than most. Each parade has its own unique personality and theme, so in keeping with the Mardi Gras mantra, catch as much as you can. Some must-sees include the Krewe of Endymion, which boasts the world’s largest float. It often has a celebrity or two in its parade. 2014 boasts former American Idol winner, Carrie Underwood. Kids will go crazy over the signature floats in the Krewe of Bacchus parade. The Bacchagator, Bacchasaurus, and Baccha-Whoppa (a giant whale) are massive, enthralling,and unforgettable. The Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning is truly exceptional. It started as a mostly African-American krewe parading through the streets and is now one of the signature events. The Zulu hand painted coconuts are the traditional gift of this parade, but unlike beads, they don’t throw them at you (thank goodness!) There aren’t many to go around, so if you are handed a painted coconut, you have received a rare, unique honor. Finally, the Rex parade is the original and most historically traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. Its king is handed the Key to the City by the mayor.

Another truly unique Mardi Gras experience is the Mardi Gras Indians. These are groups of men in brightly colored costumes made of feathers and beads. They parade around the city, singing and chanting and looking for other tribes. When tribes encounter each other, a fantastic ritual of chanting and dance occurs, with both big chiefs examining and admiring each other’s look. A mere description doesn’t do the entire experience justice, so if you can see them — make sure to pause, it is definitely worth the effort. The trick is knowing where they’ll be. They don’t publish when or where they will march.

The Sounds

Every parade has a strong contingent of music and marching bands. New Orleans is steeped in a rich tradition of jazz, blues, soul and funk – it is never more celebrated than during Mardi Gras. High school marching bands and New Orleans second lines keep the revelers (literally) dancing in the streets. You could make a fantastic soundtrack of Mardi Gras songs, from “When the Saints Go Marching In” to “Iko Iko,” that will all keep your toes tapping.

The Tastes

You can’t talk Mardi Gras without talking about the food. The most traditional Mardi Gras food is the king cake, a large pastry-like cake covered in sugar. Traditionally, a plastic baby is baked into the cake, and if you find that baby, you are responsible for baking the cake next year. Another traditional food found at Mardi Gras is the Moon Pie. It is a sweet Southern treat that is often thrown from floats and gobbled up by boys and girls of all ages.

Mardi Gras is truly a festival for the whole family. With its rich history and attitude of letting the good times roll, you shouldn’t hesitate to bring the kids for a full week of fun. Everywhere you turn, there will be something to see and do. It is an experience like no other.