Among the strange personalities visitors can meet along the Riverfront is Patience. She's 21 years old, friendly, single and perhaps looks a tad overdressed in summer. But it goes with the territory for penguins. The African Black Footed penguin is one of the stars of the Aquarium of the America's Behind the Scenes Tour. It's one of the exciting new programs at the popular Aquarium. As the Fourth of July and high summer roll around, it's one of the many attractions to check out at the continually developing downtown Riverfront. Patience has been a Riverfront resident since the Aquarium opened in 1990. But it's only recently that she started meeting her adoring public. Raised entirely in captivity she's quite accustomed to humans and shares meet and greet duties with one other penguin.
These creature features are part of Behind the Scenes tours offered during the summer on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Guides give extra information on exhibits and take the tours into special areas. So while everyone gets to see the Caribbean Reef exhibit from below, the tour takes visitors to the feeding station and catwalk above the reef. The behind the scenes tours wouldn't be complete without a little dish either. For example, the rainbow trout who share the penguin tank were originally roommates with the Otters, one guide reveals on a tour. But the female otter, Emma, thought they were toys and made a habit of catching them and pushing them into holes and cracks of the rocks in her space.
Patience has been much friendlier. While penguins do mate for life, she has never found a partner. Though the staff suspect she is continually courting them. With visitors she is also friendly, waddling fearlessly at their feet and letting strangers pet her ultra-fine feathers. Like the Aquarium, the Riverfront is continually developing. The whole Riverfront was behind the scenes until fairly recently. The Port of New Orleans had all but sealed off the river with warehouses and wharves until the 1970s. The 1984 Louisiana World Fair got development rolling. While not a financial success, the fair showed the potential of all the unused space along the river.
The Fair was held roughly where the Riverwalk Marketplace is now. The Riverwalk now fills the space between the Convention Center and the bottom of Canal Street. Extending from those blocks was a wasteland of crumbling, empty warehouses. In the '90s, it changed into an exciting new district of art galleries, lofts, professional offices, high profile restaurants and music clubs. In the last few years, it has coalesced into a museum district as the National D-Day Museum opened and construction has neared completion for the Odgen Museum of Southern Art, due to open in late August. They joined the Contemporary Arts Center and the quirky Confederate Museum.
Besides the Aquarium, several new tenants have come to the riverfront. The Aquarium added an IMAX theater, presenting super-high definition films on a five and a half story screen. This summer they break out the blockbusters with Matrix Reloaded and a film fest of thrill-rides. Every week in July presents a different film at 6pm from Adrenaline Rush to Straight Up: Helicopters In Action to Pulse, an IMAX adaptation of the musical Stomp. The Audubon Institute, which runs the Aquarium and IMAX, is also adding an Insectarium to the French Quarter. The biggest new construction downtown is Harrah's New Orleans Casino at the base of Canal Street. Among the clinking and flashing lights of the thousands of slots, the décor presents New Orleans in microcosm. A towering imitation live oak tree sits in a center court under a fiberoptic canopy of lights. Elsewhere Mardi Gras artists have created wild sculptures depicting Mardi Gras floats and the pirate world of Jean Lafitte.
Across the river, Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World presents the real thing. Tours of the dens provide a continual behind the scenes experience. Artists work year-round to design, build and paint hundreds of floats. The dens are also home to the most recognizable signature floats from the largest parades. A free shuttle takes visitors to Mardi Gras World from the ferry terminal, also a free ride departing from the dock at the bottom of Canal Street.
Many downtown attractions are quite established. The French Market has been an open air market since the colony was founded. Native Americans traded there with the French settlers. Jackson Brewery, at Jackson Square was founded in the 1890s. Brewing ended in the '70s and the buildings have been converted into a shopping mall. Harkening back to the days when the riverfront was a port, paddlewheelers cruise the river, but for pleasure excursions only. New Orleans Paddlewheels offers hour-long harbor cruises and evening dinner jazz cruises.
For the Fourth of July, Downtown attractions host Go Fourth on the River. The celebration includes music at Spanish Plaza, at the pavilion near the Aquarium and in the French Market. Then at 9pm, a fireworks show lights up the sky. The Fourth of July has a special significance this year as the entire state celebrates the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Though the deal was struck in April, President Thomas Jefferson didn't announce it to the American people until the Fourth of July. He thought that was a fitting moment to announce the bold step forward for the young nation.