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New Orleans revs up for Mardi Gras celebration

A member of the Krewe du Vieux parades through the streets of the French Quarter on Feb. 4 in New Orleans. The parade is one of the earliest of the Mardi Gras season and is known for its satirical themes.

The beads are ready to be tossed, the costumed crowds are in the mood to party and tourism officials are smiling.

It can only mean one thing: It’s Mardi Gras time in New Orleans.

“It is the event of the year. It’s our largest, in terms of economic benefit. It is probably the most iconic celebration for the city,” said Jennifer Day-Sully, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

About a million people are expected to take part in the festivities over the 12 days leading up to Fat Tuesday, which falls on Feb. 21 this year, Day-Sully said. The city doesn’t break that number down into out-of-town visitors and local attendees.

A similar attendance figure was reported last year, but Mark Romig, the CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, is hoping 2012 will end up the biggest Mardi Gras in 25 years.

“We’re working 24/7 to make sure that happens,” he said. “I think the numbers are moving in that direction.”

There’s a lot at stake for the city. A Tulane University study showed the economic impact of Mardi Gras on New Orleans amounted to $300 million in 2011, Romig said. For every $1 the city spent on services to support Mardi Gras — such as sanitation and security — it received $8.50 back in tax revenue. So officials are happy to see the party recover to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels.

New touches for 2012 include the debut of an all-female krewe — or a club that puts on a parade. Meet the Mystic Krewe of Nyx, which paraded through New Orleans on Feb. 15. (Nyx, in case you’re wondering, is the Greek goddess of night.) The parades have historically been dominated by men so it’s always fun to see an all-ladies club, Day-Sully said.

Visitors will also see new floats unveiled this year, including the highly anticipated Butterfly King float from the Rex Organization, Romig said.

“It’s going to be gorgeous,” he predicted.

A big trend this year is the growth and popularity of grassroots marching clubs, Day-Sully said. So while visitors may be most familiar with the big parades involving elaborate floats surrounded by huge crowds, the celebrations organized by marching clubs are far more informal, accessible affairs.

“Basically, they involve dressing up in a costume and meeting up in some pre-determined area. Usually there’s a brass band coming along and dancing through the street,” Day-Sully said.

“I really encourage people who are coming for Mardi Gras to really do their research and try to seek out one of these … to not just be a spectator but to participate.”

She suggested checking out Mondo Kayo, a Caribbean-themed marching club that hits the streets on Mardi Gras morning, or the Saint Anne parade that starts in the Bywater neighborhood.

Mardi Gras is bigger than Halloween in New Orleans as far as costumes go, Day-Sully said, so you’ll want to dress up, or at least wear a wig or some sparkly clothing.

Costumes often reflect what’s happening in popular culture. Day-Sully has a friend who is planning to dress up this year as one of the young beauty queens from the controversial TLC reality show “Toddlers & Tiaras.” There might also be a few people channeling Whitney Houston, she predicted. It’s all part of the creative spirit of the city.

“The more you put into Mardi Gras, the more you get out. So if you dress up or you make funny signs, you’ll be tossed better presents and it really contributes to the overall feeling,” Day-Sully said.

Lucas Jackson / © LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters/Corbis

New Orleans has reclaimed its vibrancy after Hurricane Katrina and will delight and woo you with its mojo.

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