NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
  An unforgettable family destination
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Yes, New Orleans has some qualities of dubious wholesomeness... but what city doesn’t? Despite it’s reputation, nearly all of The Big Easy’s top attractions are entirely family-friendly. The food, architecture and culture can’t be compared with any other location in the world. It’s expensive, but if you’re willing to spend a few extra bucks, your family will have an unforgettable time.

New Orleans was the first of three major destinations on our 2003 summer vacation (Pensacola Beach and Gatlinburg were the other two). We spent three days in New Orleans and only experienced a portion of what this exotic American city has to offer. Parking and driving in all of downtown New Orleans is difficult and expensive... more so than most American cities. Traffic congestion on the freeways is not too bad. We visited in mid-August, one of NOLA’s slower tourist times. The weather in August is typically hot and sticky. During our visit, it was quite hot and humid, but not overwhelming. We had some sunshine, but we also experienced a great deal of rain and overcast skies. Typically, our travel plans are largely based upon stretching the budget. However, we decided to splurge in order to enjoy this fine city. Most of New Orleans’ premium attractions are moderately expensive to very expensive, so be prepared to pay.

French Quarter:

The girls and I visited the French Quarter on three consecutive evenings. The non-stop music, brilliant neon lights, distinctive yet unpolished architecture, abundant gift shops and general hustle and bustle mesmerized the kids. The very visible bars, sex shops, and voodoo shops may be of concern to parents. The French Quarter is certainly not for all families, but for the adventurous, I believe it can be safely enjoyed during the day and early evenings. More info is available on my French Quarter page.

Culture:

"Cajun" and "creole" are not synonyms. The ancestors of today's Cajuns were French pioneers who settled in the Acadia region of Nova Scotia in the early 17th Century ("Cajuns" = "Acadians"). These French Acadians were driven from their home by the British, working their way down the Mississippi River. A large group eventually settled in and around the southern Louisiana bayous.

The Creole people have an entirely different ancestry and are much more difficult to define. In fact, many different sources cite many different definitions today. According to the AAA Tour Book, The Creoles are persons of the "French-Spanish lineage that formed the elite backbone of New Orleans society." Their ancestry is likely of multiple culture and mixed race.

Early New Orleans was populated by those of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean ancestry. Each of these individual influences can still be seen today in New Orleans’ food, people, culture and architecture. Today, New Orleans is even more culturally diverse. Everyone is a minority.

Food:

Although the two cultures have entirely different histories, Cajun and Creole cooking are quite similar, primarily due to French influence and the usage of ingredients indigenous to southern Louisiana. Creole cooking is based on French cooking but also incorporates Spanish, African, Italian and other influences. Cajun cuisine descends from primarily French influences. Creole cooking is based on French cooking but also incorporates Spanish, African, Italian and other influences. Cajun cooking depends more heavily upon French influences. Basic ingredients for both cuisines include roux (a butter/flour mix), rice, beans, crawfish (known as "crayfish" or "crawdads" in other parts of the country), crab, shrimp, andouille (spicy pork sausage), file powder (pronounced FEE-yay), okra, cayenne pepper and various hot sauces. The liberal use of butter, fats, cayenne pepper and other hot stuff contribute to Louisiana cuisine’s identity.

Some items found on New Orleans menus:

Muffeleta - A huge sandwich on a whole round bread filled with meat and drenched in an oil-based relish of olives, garlic and veggies.

Beignet (ben-YAY) - A fluffy square pastry covered with powdered sugar

Etoufee - A tangy tomato-based sauce

Gumbo - A thick soup containing okra, file and meat (e.g. chicken, shrimp, crawfish) and served over rice

Jambalaya - A soupy dish containing cooked rice, tomatoes, andouille, meat (sausage, chicken, shrimp) celery and onions. Jambalaya recipes seem to vary greatly

Po’ Boy - A large sandwich served on chewy French bread. Po-Boys can be stuffed with just about anything... fried oysters, fried shrimp, roast beef, turkey, hot sausage, etc.

Dressed Po’ Boy - A Po’ Boy with lettuce and tomato added

The French Quarter and surrounding area is loaded with restuarants featuring local menus:

The Gumbo Shop - St. Peter Street - This was the only sit-down restaurant we visited in NOLA. We dined upon crawfish etouffee, seafood okra gumbo, alligator sauce piquante, chicken espagnole, a ham and cheese po’ boy and praline ice cream. By the way, alligator meat is mild and chewy. It didn’t have a gamey taste like I was expecting. The Gumbo Shop is somewhat expensive (~$50 for 2 adults and 2 kids), but I highly recommend it for those who wish to sample authentically prepared NOLA food.

The Court Of Two Sisters - Located adjacent to a large French Quarter courtyard, this restaurant features a daily "jazz brunch" in the scenic courtyard.

Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse - This long-standing restaurant features big USDA prime steaks as well as professionally-prepared Louisiana cooking. Very expensive.

We picked up some less expensive take-out from the Jackson Brewery food court. I ordered a great big batch of steamed, spiced crawfish for just $5. They are hard to eat politely. You rip the tails off the small crustaceans and pop the meat into your mouth. They have the texture of lobster, but with a more earthy taste. We picked up some pralines (pronounced PRAH-leen) at a candy store near the French Market. These local treats are flat, sweet and slightly brittle. Often made with pecans, they come in many different varieties. Don’t leave New Orleans without sampling one.

Zapp’s Potato Chips - We all enjoyed these locally-distributed chips. They are thicker and crunchier than Lay’s regular chips, but not super-hard like kettle chips. They come in several flavors... from regular to the usual flavors (e.g. BBQ, sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar)... to the unusual (e.g. cajun crawtator, jalapeno, cajun dill). You can even order them online. www.zapps.com

CLICK THUMBNAILS FOR LARGER IMAGE
FRENCH QUARTER
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MISSISSIPPI RIVER
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JAZZ BAND AT JACKSON SQUARE
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ARCHITECTURE
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NEW ORLEANS SUPERDOME
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CANAL STREET FERRY
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CANAL STREET FERRY INTERIOR
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STEAMBOAT NATCHEZ
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CREOLE QUEEN
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PASSING UNDER THE CRESCENT CITY CONNECTION

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Gray Line Tours:

Since New Orleans traffic and parking is difficult, a bus tour is a great way to see many of the area attractions in a short time period. Several companies offer New Orleans tours. We selected Gray Line because of its convenient location next to the Jackson Brewery and its reputation. Gray Line offers tours in many other cities around the world. They offer many tours in and around New Orleans. You may choose from city tours, a swamp and bayou tour, plantation tour, cemetery tour, garden district tour, night tour, ghost tour, a riverboat cruise and more. The tours vary in length. They are all somewhat expensive. We chose the Super City Tour and the Swamp Tour. I highly recommend both. (www.graylineneworleans.com)

Gray Line City Tour:

If you are spending more than 2 or 3 days in New Orleans, I recommend that you take the 2-hour Super City Tour on your first day in order to familiarize yourself with the city. Our friendly tour guide, Sebastian, was great. Even though he probably drives the same route day after day, he did not have the jaded monotonous voice inflection that less-professional tour guides develop after repeating the same narration over and over. He seemed to genuinely enjoy showing his city to visitors and he was very warm and cordial. Our tour took us around the French Quarter periphery as Sebastian explained the New Orleans architecture and landmarks. Our first of two stops was the St. Louis Cemetery #3, an above-ground cemetery. Because the high water table tended to float buried bodies to the surface, bodies are entombed above ground in small, ornate family mausoleums. We were allowed 10 minutes to take a look around the cemetery. Although the concept of cemetery-as-tourist-attraction seems moderately irreverent, we enjoyed learning about the cemetery and its history. We continued on to the north side of the city along Lake Ponchartrain. We had a 20-minute stop at a snack and gift shop in the gigantic City Park. From there, we drove past many antebellum mansions, Loyola and Tulane Universities... and along the path of the St. Charles Streetcars, of which we saw several. 2004 prices for the Super City Tour are $26.00 for adults and $13.00 for kids. Reservations are recommended for all tours.

GRAY LINE TOURS TERMINAL - LIGHTHOUSE-SHAPED BLDG.
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ST. LOUIS CEMETERY #3
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ST. LOUIS CEMETERY #3
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ST. LOUIS CEMETERY #3
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Gray Line Swamp Tour:

We enjoyed the city tour, but we enjoyed the swamp tour even more. From the Gray Line terminal downtown, we took a narrated 45-minute bus ride to Westwego, just northwest of New Orleans. When we arrived at the boat docks, we watched a 15 minute alligator presentation. We were shown only one 18-inch alligator for demonstration purposes, but my daughter got to hold it and the alligator information was interesting. Our boat was about 30-35 feet long and could probably seat 40 people at full capacity, but there were only about 20-25 aboard for our tour, so we had plenty of room. The boat was large and stable enough to easily walk around while it was moving. It had a canvas top, so we didn’t have to worry about rain or excessive sun. Upon departure, we traveled past many other docked boats. Most were junky looking, some had even sunk. As we continued up the 200-food wide bayou, we saw numerous shorebirds, including several beautiful white snowy egrets. We passed a couple of dilapidated, yet occupied dwellings where the inhabitants appeared to be living in hostile and primitive conditions. We saw many beautiful cypress trees covered with Spanish moss. The last part of our tour was up a narrow and spooky arm of the bayou. The scummy water and thick vegetation fit my preconceived image of a "swamp." Of course, everyone was on the lookout for gators... and we were not disappointed. The alligators and raccoons have been conditioned to associate the tour boat with food. Our Cajun guide parked the boat in a little cubby-hole after a family of raccoons had followed us up the shore. Alligators swam right up to the boat in anticipation of being fed. Our guide fed marshmallows to both the coons and the gators. We probably saw about 10-15 gators in all. Some swam up to the boat. Others were seen sunning themselves or swimming near the shore. We were all wearing light summer attire, but none of were bitten by mosquitos. In fact, none of us even saw one. We had sunny skies and pleasant temperatures and it was a nice break from the fast pace of downtown NOLA. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience and I highly recommend this tour, but it’s very expensive. 2004 rates are $40.00 for adults and $20.00 for kids. The tour is about 3 ½ hour long, including bus shuttle to and from the swamp.

 

 
ALLIGATOR DEMONSTRATION
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DAUGHTER WITH ALLIGATOR
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OUR SWAMP TOUR BOAT
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  SNOWY EGRET   SWAMP STRUCTURE   CYPRESS TREE   SWAMP SCENE   SHOREBIRD
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  ALLIGATOR   ALLIGATOR   ALLIGATOR   ALLIGATOR   VULTURE
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Audubon Aquarium Of The Americas:

This aquarium is rated as one of the nation’s best. It has a wide variety of exhibits including sharks, stingrays, seahorses, a large jellyfish collection and a Mississippi River exhibit. It’s modern-looking and well laid out. The Audubon Aquarium is a nice indoor family attraction if you’d like to escape the heat or rain. For more details, check my Audubon Aquarium page.

John James Audubon Riverboat:

This riverboat is the most convenient way to travel back and forth between the Audubon Aquarium in the French Quarter and the Audubon Zoo, about 45 minutes and 7 miles up the Big River. The 3-deck boat looks slightly like a 19th century riverboat, and it’s powered by a modern inboard motor. I estimate that the boat has a capacity of about 150-200. The boat has three levels and it’s easy to stay out of the rain or heat if necessary. The bottom deck is air-conditioned. I don’t know if this is done daily... but they offered $1.00 chicken fingers, burgers and hot dogs on the lower level on our return trip to the aquarium. Round trip tickets (2003) are $16.00 for adults and $8.00 for kids (2-12). Combination zoo / aquarium / cruise tickets are available at substantial savings.

Audubon Zoo:

Unfortunately, it rained relentlessly when we visited this fine zoo. The rain did not stop for 2 or 3 hours, so we were unable to fully enjoy everything the New Orleans Zoo has to offer. We defiantly walked around in the pouring rain for awhile, as I embarrassed my kids by warbling "Singin’ In the Rain" loudly and off-key. We gave up after we became soaked to the skin and our zoo maps were saturated and falling apart. We probably saw about half of the zoo. The Audubon Zoo claims to be one of the nation’s top 5 zoos (criteria unknown). The beautiful oak trees, realistic habitats and general landscaping make the facility very beautiful and natural-looking and distinguish it from other zoos. The zoo is very photogenic. You do not see a bunch of poles, ugly fences, or other equipment or items that detract from the zoo’s pleasing aesthetics. The exhibits include Louisiana Swamp, Jaguar Jungle, South American Pampas, Australian Outback, Monkey Hill, African Savanna, World Of Primates, Asian Domain, Sea Lion Pool and a good-sized petting zoo. They have just a few indoor exhibits. Their collection of colorful birds is impressive and they have a small reptile house (with komodo dragons). The white tigers and white alligators are their signature exhibits. At 58 acres, the Audubon Zoo is small in area for a major zoo, but it’s flat and easy to walk, and each animal species appears to have plenty of space. The wide variety of authentic-looking animal habitats make the zoo seem larger than it is. The Audubon Zoo’s layout is willy-nilly. Unless you study your map carefully, a certain amount of backtracking is necessary to cover the entire zoo. My favorite exhibit was a pair of giant anteaters. These strange looking critters seemed unfazed by the rain. They are hard to photograph because they are in constant motion, presumably because they are perpetually in search of ants. My older daughter liked the huge hippo. We stood in the rain for several minutes waiting for him to come up out of his pool for air. Hippos can hold their breath for a long time. Another of my favorite animals was the nutria (a.k.a. swamp rats). Native to South America, these curious aquatic rodents are now well established in several U.S. locations, including Louisiana. They're seen as destructive vermin by the locals, but their playful nature, long white whiskers and webbed feet make them an interesting curiosity to outsiders. The Audubon Zoo exhibits many of the popular animals commonly seen in top-quality zoos. You’ll see elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, gorillas, orangutans, kangaroos and many other cool animals from around the globe. Parking is free. The zoo is also accessible via St. Charles Streetcar / Zoo Shuttle and by the Audubon Riverboat from the aquarium. Rental wheelchairs, strollers and wagons are available. The zoo is moderately priced... $10.00 for adults... $5.00 for kids (2-12)... $6.00 for seniors (65+). Zoo / aquarium combo tickets are available at significant savings over individual tickets... Zoo / aquarium combo tickets are $18.00 for adults, $9.25 for kids and $13.50 for seniors.

 

AUDUBON ZOO - RIVER ENTRANCE
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FLAMINGOES
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GIANT ANTEATER
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GIRAFFES
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PELICAN
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NUTRIA
 

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  "THE SWAMP CREATURE"   WHITE ALLIGATOR   WACKY BIRD   ABOARD JOHN JAMES AUDUBON   JOHN JAMES AUDUBON RIVERBOAT
       
  Canal Street Ferry:

The Canal Street Ferry links the French Quarter with Algiers, NOLA’s second oldest community, just across the river. Part of the New Orleans transit system, the ferry is used heavily by the locals. You’re likely to see a few characters. The ferry runs from 5:45 AM to midnight and transports both people (free) and cars ($1.00). Ferries depart from Algiers on the hour and half hour, and the French Quarter on the quarter hour and three quarters hour. It’s a good-sized very steady boat. I would estimate it’s passenger capacity at about 300 although it wasn’t crowded at all when we rode it at about 4PM and 7PM. The French Quarter dock is where Canal Street meets the river... right next to the aquarium. The ferry and the east dock afford great views of the St. Louis Cathedral and the New Orleans skyline.

Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World:

This attraction is a great way to learn about NOLA’s Mardi Gras celebration and parade floats any time of the year. Blaine Kern is a designer and builder of Mardi Gras floats. Mardi Gras World is a guided tour through the workshop where these spectacular floats and costumes are created. Visitors learn about the history of Mardi Gras, how the floats are made and how they operate. Sometimes you can see the artists in action. Aside from the floats, costumes and decorations themselves, Mardi Gras world is not fancy nor polished. It looks like... and is... a warehouse... complete with visible rafters and roof supports, dirty cracked cement floors with yellow fork lift guide lines and basic industrial fluorescent lighting. The guided tour takes about 45 minutes, and of course, there’s a cheesy gift shop. This was the first New Orleans attraction we visited. The floats and decorations are truly remarkable, and the girls enjoyed it, but I would recommend Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World only to those who are especially interested in Mardi Gras. It is expensive. Adults are $13.50 (2004), kids 11 and under are $6.50, students with high school or college ID are $10.00 and seniors are $10.00. Mardi Gras World is accessible by taking the Canal Street Ferry to Algiers where a shuttle van will take you the rest of the way.

 

 
MARDI GRAS WORLD
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MARDI GRAS WORLD
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MARDI GRAS WORLD
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MARDI GRAS WORLD
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MARDI GRAS WORLD
 

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  Shopping:

Unlike many travelers, shopping is never a crucial part of our experience. However, we really enjoyed the Riverwalk Marketplace. This colorful modern mall bustles with activity and features today’s trendiest stores (e.g. Abercrombie & Fitch, The Sharper Image) as well as many interesting specialty stores... some with local flavor (e.g. The Tabasco Country Store, Messina’s Cajun Market) . Located along the river, next to the aquarium, the Riverwalk Marketplace has over 150 stores and restaurants. The Shops at Canal Place is another mall on Canal Street, attached to our hotel (The Wyndham At Canal Place). Just a 5 minute walk from Riverwalk, The Shops At Canal Place is an upscale (read: expensive) mall featuring stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Brooks Bros., and Gucci. The French Quarter is loaded with touristy gift shops and spooky voodoo shops (see my French Quarter review). The French Market is located on the east end of the French Quarter and is a big open air market where you’ll find dozens of vendors peddling the area’s most affordable souvenirs as well as some unusual items. The French Market was popular with my kids. Jackson Brewery Shopping and Dining is a small and somewhat typical mall, but avid shoppers may find it worth a look. Its central location makes it a good place to pick up a less expensive meal.

Ponchartrain Causeway:

Always on the lookout for engineering marvels, I actually drove a few extra miles so we could cross the world’s longest bridge. The nearly 24-mile Ponchartrain Causeway joins rural St. Tammany Parish on the north side of Lake Ponchartrain with New Orleans (actually Metarie) on the south. The causeway consists of a pair of two lane bridges, one for northbound traffic and one for southbound traffic. The bridges are made of pre­stressed panels supported by over 9,000 concrete pilings. The first span opened to the public in 1956, the second in 1969. A bascule drawbridge is located about 2/3 of the way across the bridge (southbound). There are no majestic towers, cables, arches or steel framework... just a highway built upon pilings in the shallow lake. The bridges are actually kind of bland looking. Nevertheless, it was a unique experience. The causeway speed limit is 55 mph. Southbound toll is $6.00 for a 2-axle vehicle.

Other New Orleans Family Attractions:

Here are some of NOLA’s other family attractions that we did not visit:

Six Flags New Orleans - Formerly known as Jazzland, this 140-acre family theme park features over 30 thrill rides, live music, water shows and regional cuisine. 2003 rates are $32... $25 for seniors and kids under 48 inches. Parking is $5.

New Orleans Museum Of Art - This beautiful building is located in the scenic City Park. Some of the highlights are paintings by Monet and Renoir, a Faberge egg collection, sculpture and photography. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for kids 3-17 and $5 for seniors and students.

Preservation Hall - Located in the French Quarter, visitors can hear live traditional jazz nightly for just $5.00. Food and beverage is not permitted.

Musee Conti Wax Museum - This museum on Conti Street features wax depictions of New Orleans historical figures such as Napoleon, Andrew Jackson and Louis Armstrong. Admission is $6.75 for adults, $6.25 for seniors, and $5.75 for kids 4-17.

National D-Day Museum - Located on Magazine Street, this World War II museum features artifacts, photos, film and more preserving this tumultuous time in world history. Admission is $10, kids 5-17 are $5, seniors, active / retired military and students are $6.

St. Charles Avenue Streetcar - Running through some of the city’s most scenic areas, The St. Charles Streetcars are a nostalgic, but convenient way to travel between The French Quarter, Garden District, Tulane and Loyola Universities, Audubon Park and the zoo. The streetcars run 24 hours daily. Fare is $1.25 and exact change is required.

Riverboats - You may choose from several riverboats and paddlewheelers offering narrated tours, dinner cruises, live entertainment and more. Among the most popular are the Steamboat Natchez, Cajun Queen and Creole Queen.

Harrah’s Casino - Not exactly a "family" attraction, but listed here FYI. Harrah’s Casino is located on Canal Street, right across from the aquarium.

Final Thoughts:

The French Quarter’s wild reputation is deserved. For those seeking the ultimate party experience... New Orleans is the place. Throughout the year, and especially during Mardi Gras, the Bourbon Street / French Quarter district is a mecca of alcohol-fueled revelry and excess. Because of this well-deserved reputation, some families with young children may dismiss the whole of New Orleans from being a wholesome and enjoyable family experience. However, even if the French Quarter is totally avoided (not that it necessarily should be), the New Orleans area is home to at least a week’s worth of fascinating and diverse family-friendly attractions. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

 

   
 
 
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PONCHARTRAIN CAUSEWAY TOLL PLAZA
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PONCHARTRAIN CAUSEWAY
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Read my reviews from our 2003 travels on epinions.com:

The Parthenon - Nashville, Tennessee

A Family Guide to New Orleans, Louisiana

How FAMILIES can enjoy Bourbon Street

The Wyndham Hotel - Downtown New Orleans

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas - New Orleans

Pensacola Beach, Florida

Best Western Resort - Pensacola Beach, Florida

Rock City & Ruby Falls - Chattanooga, Tennessee

A Family Guide to Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Ripley's Haunted Adventure, Gatlinburg

Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, Gatlinburg

Park Vista Hotel, Gatlinburg

A LIST OF ALL OF MY EPINIONS.COM REVIEWS

   
 

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