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Families find excitement beyond Bourbon Street

Sunday, June 12, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- It's a city of hot times and cold cocktails, known in the 1800s as the Great Southern Babylon and now as an annual gathering spot for women willing to bare their breasts at Mardi Gras.

But now New Orleans is cultivating a new reputation -- as a destination for families.

Sure, the city has casinos, more bars than you can shake a swizzle stick at, and strip joints where signs boast "Bottomless topless tabletop dancing."

But it also has a highly regarded zoo, aquarium and children's museum; a theme park with enough rides to keep you dizzy for a week, and one of the nation's largest city parks, with an antique carousel and a miniature train exhibit.

In addition, it's a short drive to swamp and plantation tours and only an hour to Baton Rouge, with its new planetarium and an Old State Capitol built to look like a castle.

These and many other attractions -- including the family-friendly side of Mardi Gras (yes, there really is one) -- are featured in a new marketing campaign by the city: "If your family hasn't been to New Orleans, you haven't lived."

On a recent day, the David family from West Los Angeles was visiting the Aquarium of the Americas on the riverfront. They came for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a condo time-share that Paul and Mary David bought during a visit 15 years ago -- before Rachel, 14, and Will, 5, were born.

The Davids had rented out the condo to others until this year, when they decided to start with Jazz Fest and stay a week.

"We were a little worried about taking the kids," said Paul David. But they found lots of great places to take them, including swamp tours and plantations.

"There's a lot of history for kids this age," Mary David said.

Of course the city also has a sleazy side -- like the strip joints on Bourbon Street. "I wouldn't call Bourbon Street a family promenade," said Dan Cornwall of Marietta, Ga., visiting on business but traveling with his wife, Kris, and their children, Jessica, 14, Rebecca, 12, and Aaron, 9. But he added that he liked the art and antique stores there.

Something for everyone

About a nine-block walk from the French Quarter, 80 second-graders from an Alabama public school raced from exhibit to exhibit at the Louisiana Children's Museum. Some clambered up a 7-foot-high climbing wall. Others played at shopping and working in a kid-sized supermarket. Some lined up to ride a stationary bicycle while a skeleton pedaled in a glass case next to it.

One of the most popular stops was a cut-down tractor tire holding an inch or so of soapy water. Hauling on a rope at its center pulled a hoop up from the water, and a giant bubble with it.

"For us, a good day is when it's noisy," marketing director Leslie Doles said.

"The children have not stopped playing," said Cindy Sayasane, a teacher at Robert E. Lee Elementary. "They have not stopped learning. This is just an awesome place to bring children."

They had left Mobile at 6 a.m. for the three-hour drive to New Orleans, and spent the morning at the Audubon Zoo, picnicking in Audubon Park.

What was the best part of the museum? Ashley Dix, 7, liked the climbing wall.

Before the family campaign started in 2001, family travel was "not even a blip on the radar screen in New Orleans," said Sandy Shilstone, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. "We've always been known as an adult destination."

A study by the University of New Orleans found that between 2003 and 2004, the percentage of adults traveling with children to New Orleans rose from 6.8 percent to 15.4 percent.

In contrast, about 10 percent of those visiting Las Vegas are adults traveling with someone under 21. Some Vegas hotels added family attractions in the early 1990s, but "the primary target market for Las Vegas is the adult market," said Kevin Bagger, director of research for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

For some family-oriented New Orleans attractions, out-of-towners are nothing new, consistently comprising 80 percent of visitors to the aquarium, half the visitors to the zoo and half the visitors to Six Flags.

In the French Quarter, Rachel David's favorite sight was a man making music from wine glasses filled with different levels of water. Running dampened fingers around the rims, he played songs in harmony, with tones almost achingly pure.

"We watched him for 15 minutes," she said.

The David family hopes to come back to New Orleans next year. "Seven days," Paul David began, "I don't..."

"...Think it's enough," finished Rachel.


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