Image: Mardi Gras reveler
Bill Haber  /  AP
A masked Mardi Gras float rider in the Iris Parade yells to the crowd during last year's festivities.
updated 2/14/2011 4:40:01 PM ET 2011-02-14T21:40:01

Alexa Von Staden and her fiance had just one thought when it came to spring break this year: Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

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"We figured it was now or never," said Von Staden, who recently completed her master's at the University of Florida. "Because Mardi Gras is so late this year that it matches up with spring break. Who knows when that will happen again?"

Mardi Gras is March 8. The next time it will be this late is in 2038, when it falls on March 9.

New Orleans tourism officials, who have begun an advertising campaign to attract younger visitors, believe the happy convergence will give them a boost over Mardi Gras 2010, which was the biggest since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

Slideshow: Big Easy returns (on this page)

A study done for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau said the city was not getting its share of 18- to 34-year-old visitors, despite its reputation as a party town. New advertising campaigns are being geared to that demographic, said bureau spokeswoman Kelly Schulz.

"I was kind of surprised by it," Schulz said. "We are family friendly, but we also think people should see more of our night life."

The campaign, with the theme "New Orleans, you're different here," puts further emphasis on the city's food, music and night life.

At Mardi Gras, the party takes to the streets, packing the parade routes in many areas, and turning Bourbon Street into a raucous, X-rated celebration for the young and free-spirited.

Certainly those in the hospitality business are expecting a nice bump, even above last Mardi Gras when the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl victory was helping to draw people to the city.

"This year we are about 30 to 35 percent ahead of the pace compared to last year and we had a very good year last year," said Gil Zanchi, general manager for the New Orleans Marriott and the five other Marriott hotels in the city.

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Students looking for spring break adventures can't be credited for all the boost in room bookings, said Diana K. Schwam, who wrote the "Frommer's New Orleans" guide book.

"A lot of them stay with family or friends, or they crash 40 to a room, you remember those days," she said.

Mardi Gras has a lot of cachet for college students, but the later date will draw other celebrants as well, assuring visitors of good weather. And because it falls more than two months after Christmas, "people have paid off some of those bills and have more money to spend," Schwam said.

According to CheapOair.com, New Orleans moved up the rankings as a spring break destination from 27th to 24th this year over last year, with Orlando, Las Vegas, Los Angeles Fort Lauderdale, and Phoenix as the top five U.S. spring break destinations.

"I think New Orleans will get some spring breakers, certainly," said Bill Miller, a senior vice president of CheapOair. "But with the millions of kids who head out for that period, there won't be a substantial swing from Cancun," the Mexican beach resort that remains the No. 1 international destination for spring break.

Bookings on Orbitz.com for the week of March 7-11 have New Orleans in the top three, along with Las Vegas and Orlando.

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"Hotels are filling up very quickly for that week," said Jeanenne Tornatore, a senior editor at Orbitz. "Bookings are so strong they are getting back to requiring a three- or four-night minimum stay, which they had gotten away from after Hurricane Katrina."

Still, college students who show up on Bourbon Street can look forward to round-the-clock partying, according to Earl Bernhardt, owner of five French Quarter bars, including one that sports the biggest balcony on Bourbon Street.

"They like to get their drinks and walk around, or go on the balcony and toss beads down," Bernhardt said. "All I know is we'll be cleaning up a lot of beads and drink cups all Mardi Gras long."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Big Easy returns

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  1. Katrina's mess

    A junked car lies near empty houses in the Lakeview neighborhood near the site of the levee breach on the 17th Street Canal, August 29, 2005. More than five months after caused by Hurricane Katrina made landfall, there was little progress in some areas of New Orleans. Today, tours are offered to visitors to have a better understanding of events pre and post Katrina. (David Rae Morris / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Big Easy blues

    Costumed revelers dressed as blue roof tarps pose at the annual MOMs Ball, thrown each year by the Krewe of Misfits, Orphans and Mystics in New Orleans. Many of this years Mardi Gras floats and costumes reference the blue tarps that still protect broken roofs across the city after Hurricane Katrina. (Matthew Cavanaugh / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Soul sounds

    Jen Pearl (L) and Michelle Loughnane stand under an umbrella with a reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, April 2006. Jazz Fest '07 will be held on April 27-29 and May 4-6. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dancing in the streets

    A member of the Young Olympia Aide and New Look Social Aid and Pleasure Club dances in a second line parade at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jeweled celebration

    Members of the Krewe of Thoth throw beads as they travel down St. Charles Avenue where thousands of revelers showed up to enjoy 2006 Mardi Gras festivities. Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") is the day before Ash Wednesday, and a celebration of the last the day before the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Mardi Gras 2007 will be observed on Feb. 20. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Eye candy

    Revelers ogle a woman exposing herself on Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras festivities in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Closing time

    Orleans Parish mounted Police Officers march down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter announcing the official end of Mardi Gras 2006. (Sean Gardner / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A shout for freedom

    "Big Chief" Victor Armstrong wears an elaborate Mardi Gras Indian costume. The Indian tradition of Mardi Gras pays homage to the relationship between Native Americans and escaped African slaves of the 1700s. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (8) Big Easy returns
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    Slideshow (29) Carnival celebrations around the world

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