NEW ORLEANS -- A red wagon decorated as a shrimp boat with nets extending out from either side carried a waving 2-year-old dressed as a shellfish being pulled by his parents who wore white rubber shrimping boots.
The family was among more than 100 revelers marching through the streets of New Orleans on Jan. 20 in the Krewe of Confetti Kids parade - one of the many kid-centered events held during the Carnival season leading up to Fat Tuesday on Feb. 13. Other children dressed as princesses, mermaids, and firefighters while a brass band serenaded the crowd.
"I love Mardi Gras," said 7-year-old Virginia Strong, who wore a 1950's style polka dot dress with a string of pearl beads around her neck. "It's fun to dress up and have fun with your friends."
The weeks-long celebration leading up to Fat Tuesday is often perceived as an adults-only holiday with drunken roguishness and women flashing their breasts for beads. And to be fair, that's certainly a factor in the French Quarter's famed Bourbon Street festivities. But elsewhere, children and families are as much a part of the revelry as anyone - many say they're the heart and soul of the holiday. Children can be seen lining the parade routes, families spend weeks making costumes together and there's even kid-centered parades.
"This is the best quality family time we get all year, because we spend more weekends together costuming and going to parades together, and it's just wonderful," said Ariana Maria Ybarra, a married mother with two young girls.
Ybarra said her family has been spending recent weeks preparing for Chewbacchus, the Star Wars-themed walking parade in the city's Marigny neighborhood slated for Feb. 3: "We're going as a family of Martians."
The largest of the kid parades is Little Rascals, which has floats, marching bands, dancing groups, Mardi Gras Indians in full feathered headdresses, Cajun Indians on horseback, and kids tossing cups, beads, toys, pralines, moon pies and other snacks.
"There's something for everyone, and the great thing about it is that the kids are just kids," said Maureen Spittler, who co-founded the parade in 1983 with her husband, Jack. Launched 35 years ago with about 50 kids and three floats, the parade now has nearly 20 floats and nearly 300 kids. There's even a Little Rascals ball - the only formal ball children are allowed to attend. The more than 200 kids riding in Sunday's parade danced the night away Thursday at a glitzy ball held in their honor.
On Sunday, even a drizzly rain didn't stop thousands of people from lining the parade route in Metairie to see the Little Rascals parade.
"This parade is great because it's all kids," said Angie Eymard, who arrived at the route hours ahead of the parade with cousins and friends donning Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. "It's all kids throwing stuff, and it's nice to see their smiling faces. And I don't have to worry about people getting too rowdy. It's very family-oriented."
Families and kids are a fixture at all the parades rolling along the oak tree-lined St. Charles Ave. Families camp out early, often setting up specially-designed ladders with a seat on top for kids. The seat gives kids a special vantage point to catch beads or other items given out by people on the floats. The ladders are usually artfully painted and equipped with wheels on them to make it easier for the families to roll home at the end of the day. On the weekends, families usually spend the day camped out on the parade route, often with a picnic, watching parade after parade go by.
The New Orleans suburb of Metairie hosts an annual "Family Gras" celebration with live music. This year's celebration is Feb. 2-3.
Parades like Little Rascals are one-day events but preparations happen year-round.
"It is hard, hectic work all year long, and then you see the kids, and you see those smiles, and you see how beautifully they do with their costumes, and it's all worth it," she said.
Joshua Maurice, the Spittlers' 18-year-old great-grandson, has - like his mother before him - ridden in every Little Rascals parade since birth.
He said he takes pride in helping to carry on his family's legacy of community and Carnival fun.
"I play with all the little kids, make them feel like they're a part of something," he said. "So that ... it's something that they're going to want to come back and do every year."