MOBILE, Ala. - A scaled-down Mardi Gras in New Orleans could boost turnout for the rollicking festivities in Mobile, where carnival was first celebrated in the United States in the 1700s.
"It's going to be nuts. We're preparing for the insane, just in case," says bartender Danielle Hamilton at Hayley's on Dauphin Street, the city's downtown entertainment strip.
She says the bar will hire extra bouncers and bartenders to deal with the crowds.
Millions of tourist dollars are up for grabs in carnival cities along the Gulf of Mexico from Galveston, Texas, to Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, takes place on Feb. 28 this year, and celebrations and parades are typically held for days beforehand.
Because of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' celebration will take place for just a week leading up to Fat Tuesday this year instead of the usual 12 days. The city was left with only a third of its population after the Aug. 29 storm broke levees and flooded many neighborhoods. Parade schedules and routes have been consolidated, and the city is seeking corporate sponsors to help defray police and cleanup costs.
"All indications show Mobile Mardi Gras attendance increasing due to this unique situation," said Leon Maisel, president and CEO of the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Mobile has advertised its "family-oriented" carnival in markets within a 150-to-200-mile radius, including Jackson, Miss., Hattiesburg, Miss., Baton Rouge, La., Birmingham and Montgomery, Maisel said.
Mobile's deep-rooted carnival traditions include riders who chase colorful floats throwing stuffed animals, Moon Pies and scores of other treats, or just mixing music and family-reunion cookouts.
"I've been going since I was a baby. I'm 22 years old now," said Shrie Dodge. "Almost 50 of us in trucks have tailgate parties at parades."
The carnival yielded $227 million in direct spending in Mobile and Baldwin counties in 2004, the latest figures available in an economic study paid for by the Mobile Carnival Association.
Police estimate the two weeks of main parades downtown by some 36 organizations each draw up to 90,000 revelers, filling hotels to capacity.
Locals are convinced this year's festivities will be bigger than usual.
"It's supposed to be a lot bigger here because of Katrina," says 24-year-old Jaime Huffman, buying some beads to throw when she rides a Mardi Gras float for the first time. "It's really good for the city."
"I just can't see not having more people," said float-rider Billy Jones of Daphne, a Mobile suburb that is also taking part in the parade tradition. But she added, "I'm sorry for the people in New Orleans. We're like sister cities."
Neighboring Biloxi, Miss., will have only one parade on the afternoon of Feb. 28, said Nancy Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Gulf Coast Carnival Association. But she said the traditional nighttime parade won't be held this year because the city can't accommodate the overnight visitors who might turn out to see it. Rooms in Biloxi are hard to come by following Katrina because some hotels were damaged by the storm and others are housing workers involved in reconstruction.
However, turnout for Biloxi's daytime festivities is not expected to be affected. "We expect about 85,000 people, which is what we normally have," Rogers said.
Elsewhere on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there will be Mardi Gras parades in Ocean Springs, Pascagoula and Gulfport.
Historians say the carnival was born in Mobile among the French colonists in the 1700s, but it didn't really catch on until 1830, when a group of rowdies hit the streets with cowbells and rakes taken from a hardware store. They called themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.
Visitors to the Mobile Carnival Museum in the historic Bernstein-Bush mansion on Government Street can view the jeweled robes, crowns and other regalia that launched Mardi Gras in the United States.
Museum curator Gordon Tatum, Jr. said the museum offers a recreation of the elaborate King's Supper, allowing anyone to be part of the royal court.
Carnival retailer Stephen V. Toomey this month opened a store in the museum.
"Tourists can take a piece of Mardi Gras back home year-round," he said.
If You Go...
NEW ORLEANS MARDI GRAS: http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/ or (504) 524-4784.
MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST MARDI GRAS: http://www.gulfcoast.org (click on "event calendar" for Mardi Gras parades on Feb. 4 and Feb. 25-28 among other listings) or (228) 896-6699.
MOBILE TOURISM: http://www.mobilebay.org or (800) 566-2453.
MOBILE CARNIVAL MUSEUM: 355 Government St.; http://www.mobilecarnivalmuseum.org or (251) 432-3324.
MOBILE MARDI GRAS PARADE SCHEDULE:
Feb. 10 - Conde Cavaliers, 6 p.m.
Feb. 11 - Pharoahs - http://www.thepharaohs.org - 6:30 p.m. Conde Explorers, 7 p.m.
Feb. 16 - Polka Dots, 6:15 p.m.
Feb. 17 - Incas - http://www.orderofinca.com - 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 18 - Mobile Mystics - http://www.mobilemystics.com - 2 p.m. Maids of Mirth, 6:30 p.m. Order of Butterfly Maidens and Mobile Married Mystics, 7 p.m.
Feb. 19 - Neptune's Daughter, 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 20 - Krewe of Marry Mates, 6:30 p.m. Mystical Ladies, 7 p.m.
Feb. 21 - LaShe, 6:30 p.m. Venus, 7 p.m.
Feb. 23 - Mystic Striper, 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 24 - Crewe of Columbus, 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 25 - Floral at noon. Knights of Mobile, 12:45 p.m. Mystics of Time, 6 p.m. Coronation of King Felix III and Queen at the Mobile Convention Center, 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 26 - Arrival of King Elexis I, at the foot of Government Street, 2 p.m. Joe Cain, 2:30 p.m. Le Krewe de Bienville, 5 p.m. Les Femmes Cassettes, 5:30 p.m. Coronation of King Elexis I, and Queen at the Mobile Civic Center, 8:15 p.m.
Feb. 27 - Arrival of King Felix III, at the foot of Government Street at noon. Infant Mystics, 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 28 - Mardi Gras Day. Order of Athena, 10:30 a.m. Knights of Revelry, 12:30 p.m. King Felix, 1 p.m. Comic Cowboys, 1:30 p.m. Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, 3 p.m. Order of Myths, 6:30 p.m.