Yes, it is possible to have good, clean fun in America's wildest city

When I told friends that my husband, David, and I were taking our two sons to New Orleans for a long weekend, they reacted as if we'd planned to spend a few days at a tattoo parlor. Are you kidding?America's longest-running frat party?That den of moral turpitude?

First, we live in New York City, which isn't exactly Disneyland—yet. Second, it turns out that much of what grown-ups love about New Orleans—its laid-back atmosphere, its hint of mystery, its theatricality—appeals to kids, too. After four eventful days, we had a new reason to call it the Big Easy: it couldn't be easier with children.

Day One: Black Magic, White Sugar
Right away, the boys notice that they're someplace different. We hop into a taxi at the airport to find its back window lined with stuffed animals—a rare decorating touch for a cab. An hour later, strolling the French Quarter, we pass a souvenir stand displaying made-in-China voodoo dolls. Is that an alligator head with beer bottles in its mouth?I should have explained the word funky before we left home.

First stop: New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. This is no normal town, say the looks in the boys' eyes. Maybe it's the dried bat, the strings of garlic, the human skull surrounded by offerings of coins, beads, and candy. Or the wishing stump, which six-year-old Evan takes to heart, solemnly following the instructions on the sign: Write down your wish on a piece of paper ("I officially wish my voodoo doll would come alive"), wrap some coins in the paper, drop it all into the stump, knock nine times, and offer a prayer to Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen. Across a spooky little courtyard is a room hung with odd masks and paintings, where you can watch a video. Most popular segment: dancers with snakes twined around their heads.

Back on the street in the French Quarter, the boys are intrigued by all they see. They closely question a goateed palm reader lounging at a table in Jackson Square; they fail to gawk (they're New Yorkers) at a gray-bearded, tattooed man in a top hat and formal wear. We make the obligatory stop at Café du Monde, where the boys gobble beignets and leave thoroughly dusted with powdered sugar.

Dinner that night is at Jacques-Imo's Café. The chef himself greets us, dressed in white toque and red-pepper-print shorts, and helps us thread our way through a front dining room, the kitchen, and a busy bar to reach the garden out back. The roofed space is surrounded by a fence painted with undersea and jungle scenes. Though there's no kids' menu, children are clearly welcome.

We order a range of dishes, which arrive in no particular order—but no one's really paying attention. Our four-year-old, Oliver, is digging in the dirt (at least until we notice). Evan tries risotto with crawfish and wild mushrooms; Ollie agrees to fried chicken, but both end up concentrating on french fries. If this is moral turpitude, they'll survive. Besides, why should we be the only people in town to worry about healthful food?So we dig into spicy garlic-fried oysters; grilled mahimahi in a sauce of jalapeño, shrimp, and pecans; highly seasoned corn maquechoux; and mashed sweet potatoes so sugary they set our teeth on edge.

We all sleep like babies at the elegant Claiborne Mansion; it has 14-foot-high ceilings and a garden with a swimming pool. The owner has thoughtfully set up two Winnie-the-Pooh sleeping bags—for the boys, not David and me—under a screen tent in our suite's parlor room.

Day Two: Mardi Gras (or Close Enough)
The following morning, we set off with maps and plans. We ride alongside the Mississippi in the Riverfront streetcar, shiny and polished with red paint and mahogany trim. On the river, the paddle wheelers are awaiting passengers, and "You Are My Sunshine" plays on a steam calliope. But we're heading to the rough-and-ready ferry that shuttles across the river to the historic neighborhood of Algiers. While Ollie anxiously scans the water for bull sharks, Evan muses, "Why do they call it Old Man River?It's not fair to girls. They should call it Old Person River." In five minutes we've reached the other side, where a van greets new arrivals to deliver them to Mardi Gras World.

Only a really wacky parent would consider taking young kids to Mardi Gras itself, but this has to be the next best thing: warehouses filled with floats, statues, giant heads (Liz Taylor! Clark Gable!), and fanciful creatures of all sorts (dragons, mermaids, Michael Jackson)—some freshly painted in incredible colors and details, others dusty and half ripped apart, with fiberglass noses hanging off. It's the last word in tawdriness, and the boys are in heaven. Before we leave, Evan insists on buying a feather mask that makes him look like an owl.

Next stop is the amazing Children's Museum, housed in the gallery-rich Warehouse District. There seems to be something here for everyone under age 45, if Dave is any proof. He's enthralled by a video driving game that tests reaction time. "Good news," he crows. "I'm average." Many children's-museum staples are here, but given a New Orleans touch—a science-related section has a "gator pull" that teaches about inclined surfaces, the play supermarket is stocked with Zatarain's crab boil and other local products. A highlight: pulling on a rope in the Water Works area raises a Hula Hoop that, for a few magical seconds, encloses your body in a huge soap bubble.

Dinner is another unqualified success. Kids aren't just welcomed to Red Fish Grill; they're indulged. We're seated in a booth beside a window that looks into the kitchen, so the boys spend half the wait crayoning their menus, the rest watching the action. They can choose from shrimp, grilled cheese, and angel-hair pasta, and yes, they do want fries with that. Though the decoration is all over the map (big metal sculptures, gingerbread trim, zaps of colored neon), the restaurant's cavernous size, concrete floor, and pleasant din are ideal for young diners. And get this: the waiter offers to bring the kids' meals with our appetizers. Our food?Great jambalaya and hickory-grilled trout. And how about that plate of desserts on the house?

As we stroll back to our hotel, Evan alarms tipsy nightclubbers by popping out at them in his feather mask. But it takes only one down-and-dirty block of Bourbon Street after dark to confirm that some parts of New Orleans are not quite PG-13. Ollie is asleep in his father's arms, so he misses the carny streetscape. But Evan's head swivels like an oscillating fan. Uh, why doesn't that woman have all her clothes on?

Day Three: Amazing Grace and the Human Slinky
"Hello, cutie!" calls one of the singers to Evan during the Sunday gospel brunch at the Praline Connection Gospel & Blues Hall. "I like that mask!" Though there are mostly tourists here, the atmosphere is still warm and enthusiastic. The stage is flanked by long tables covered with food: scrambled eggs, grits, biscuits, fried fish, shrimp étouffée, stuffed peppers, baked macaroni. At one point, the lead singer invites kids to come to the stage and sing backup (my two suffer a rare attack of shyness). For the finale, the whole audience parades around the room to the tune of "Down by the Riverside," waving white napkins and shaking hands with the staff and singers. We emerge from the building joyous, slightly dazed, and blinking in the sunlight.

On a short visit to New Orleans, the French Quarter is where to focus your time. We are entertained by the street performers in Jackson Square (the Human Slinky draws a crowd of several hundred), then go for a ride in a carriage (called buggies here) through the narrow streets, taking in the fern-laden wrought-iron balconies.

For a change of pace we head outside the heart of the city for dinner, to a place not even many taxi drivers seem to know. Sid-Mar's is in Bucktown, a residential area on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, seven miles northwest of the French Quarter. It's a bit of a cab ride, but you'll feel a long way from Mardi Gras. You eat on a wooden-floored, screened porch with (if you're lucky) a sunset view of the lake. The porch has a corrugated roof and Formica tables; the menu lists burgers, pasta, and deep-fried catfish, oysters, shrimp, and soft-shell crab. And yes, we'll all have fries with that.

Day Four: Bye-bye, Bayou
We've saved the best for last. We start at the aquarium, right down by the river. The shark tank is enough to delight my boys, but I'm enchanted by the ethereal jellyfish that pulsate in time to New Age music. There's lots of Louisiana content: a bayou section has a Cajun cottage, two owls, a bald eagle, and the star of the show, a white alligator that floats about looking pallid and slightly repellent.

Next we board the paddle wheeler John James Audubon, on which we've booked a 45-minute cruise up to the zoo. The finest views are from the top deck, where you can sit and watch the comings and goings of a working port. Lunch is available, too—hot dogs, chicken fingers, even gumbo.

It's early afternoon when we reach the zoo. What do we like best?The archaeological dig in the mist-filled Jaguar Jungle, where the boys brush sand away to reveal "Mayan" stone sculptures (this attraction covers the broadest age range: 12-year-olds can act like Indiana Jones; two-year-olds treat it like a giant sandbox). The Louisiana Swamp, with gators lolling just off the boardwalk (and a special attendant to warn kids not to tease the animals with long sticks—that means you, Oliver!). Then there's the gigantic live oak that seems made for climbing. And plenty more besides; we only scratch the surface. To top it all off: a ride back to the French Quarter on the St. Charles streetcar.

Rather than rely on room service, we pick up dinner at Ralph & Kacoo's, a fun restaurant that also does takeout. Portions are huge (it is possible to have more crawfish than you can eat) and the food is tasty; there's a kids' menu here too. Luckily, George of the Jungle is on TV in our room, and that makes some people very happy while other people pack up to go.

When we depart for the airport to catch a 7 a.m. flight, we're not too groggy to notice the crescent moon shining over the Crescent City, and the taxi radio softly playing jazz piano. Even kids ages four and six recognize that New Orleans is a special place. And despite all they've seen and heard and tasted, they leave New Orleans with their morals intact—and not a single tattoo.

Play the sound track from The Big Easy (the movie is too much for kids). Love those Neville Brothers.
Deep-fry beignets, using a make-your-own mix from Café du Monde ($2.20 at the café, $6.25 to ship; 504/581-2914).
Rent Sounder, a 1972 family film about Louisiana sharecroppers in the 1930's, with music by Taj Mahal.
Order in authentic seafood gumbo, crawfish cakes, and miraculous shrimp-stuffed boneless chicken from Carnival Brands (800/925-2774).

Café du Monde 800 Decatur St.; 504/525-4544.
Jacques-Imo's Café 8324 Oak St.; 504/861-0886; dinner for a family of four $68.
Red Fish Grill 115 Bourbon St.; 504/598-1200; dinner for four $56.
Praline Connection Gospel & Blues Hall 907 S. Peters St.; 504/523-3973; Sunday gospel brunch $24 per adult, $16 for children 12 and under.
Sid-Mar's of Bucktown 1824 Orpheum Ave., Bucktown; 504/831-9541; dinner for four $40.
Ralph & Kacoo's 519 Toulouse St.; 504/522-5226; dinner for four $48.

Each of these has a pool (to my kids, a necessity).
Claiborne Mansion 2111 Dauphine St.; 504/949-7327; suites $210-$250, including breakfast. A charming, spacious, seven-room B&B in the up-and-coming Faubourg Marigny district.
Bienville House Hotel 320 Decatur St.; 800/535-7836 or 504/529-2345, fax 504/525-6079; doubles from $130. A comfortable 83-room hotel in the French Quarter, with balconies on the second and third floors.
Le Richelieu in the French Quarter 1234 Chartres St.; 800/535-9653 or 504/529-2492, fax 504/524-8179; doubles from $95. A Greek Revival 86-room hotel that dates to 1845. Adjoining rooms available.

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum 724 Rue Dumaine; 504/523-7685.
Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World 233 Newton St.; 504/361-7821.
Louisiana Children's Museum 420 Julia St.; 504/523-1357.
Aquarium of the Americas 1 Canal St.; 800/774-7394.
Audubon Zoological Gardens 6500 Magazine St.; 800/774-7394.