Gerald Herbert  /  AP
Partiers earlier this week raised their hands for beads and trinkets during the Krewe of Chaos Mardi Gras parade on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The city expects its largest crowd for the annual celebration since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
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updated 3/5/2011 3:27:14 PM ET 2011-03-05T20:27:14

Savoring her first taste of Carnival in New Orleans, Karimah Gottschalck broke into a shimmy as she strolled down Bourbon Street with a friend.

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Fat Tuesday was still days away, but at midweek the party already had started in the French Quarter. As the 25-year-old New Yorker soaked in the boozy sights, music blared from bars and people on balconies flung beads to eager recipients below.

"I love this!" Gottschalck shouted, raising her arms. "It's even better than I thought it would be."

Mardi Gras — the day capping the Carnival season — falls on March 8, the latest date in more than 150 years and nearly three weeks later than last year.

Big crowds expected
This year, warm weather and an influx of students on spring break promise to generate the largest crowds New Orleans has seen since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Along the old French Gulf Coast, from Mobile, Ala., to the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana, other communities also anticipate big crowds for the Carnival crescendo that rolls into high gear this weekend.

But the capital of Carnival is still New Orleans.

Story: Party in the streets! Rio celebrates as Carnival opens

"It's going to be one hell of a party," said Darren Livingston, a Bourbon Street cigar shop employee.

Tyler Reid, a 28-year-old student at Villanova University, is one of the spring breakers pouring into the city. New Orleans beat out the Dominican Republic as his destination, only in part because the airfare was cheaper and he could crash at a friend's place here.

Image: Mardi Gras revelers
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
A flambeau accepts a tip from a reveler during the Krewe of Chaos Mardi Gras parade on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans on Thursday. Festivities got cranked up early this year.

"Mardi Gras is legendary," he said. "My dad came here in the '80s, so I wanted to be here, too."

The big day — more than 1 million people typically pack the streets of the New Orleans area — can't come soon enough for the city's tourist-driven businesses, particularly restaurants that needed to convince customers their seafood is safe to eat after last year's BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lucien Gunter, chief operating officer for the Acme Oyster House, said the popular chain's business was down 20 percent last year compared to 2009. Gunter, however, said the losses are leveling off this year. He expects Acme to rake in more money for this Carnival weekend than it did during last year's pre-spill celebration.

"It's a blessing to see people haven't given up hope on this little city," Gunter said.

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City is filling up
Hoteliers, too, expected full houses.

David Teich, general manager of the 320-room Windsor Court Hotel and a board member of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, said Friday that the hotel was sold out through Fat Tuesday — with many guests checking in wearing full Mardi Gras costumes.

"The whole city is filling up," Teich said.

A Tulane University study found that Mardi Gras in 2009 was worth more than $322 million for the city's economy, including more than $56 million in hotel room revenue. A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city expects to exceed that total this year.

"We believe that we do this better than anybody in the world," Landrieu said during a City Hall news conference Wednesday.

Along with the celebrated merrymaking, flesh-flashing and bead-catching comes the traditional pomp and ceremony of gala balls where debutantes take their bow to society.

On Fat Tuesday, the city will be thrown open to the wildly popular Zulu krewe, marching clubs including one led by clarinetist Pete Fountain and the time-honored parade of Rex, King of Carnival.

In the bayou country, masked Mardi Gras riders on horseback will saddle up for the traditional rides through Cajun communities.

The parades in Mobile, Ala., draw smaller crowds than New Orleans, but the city's family-friendly Mardi Gras celebration bills itself as the nation's oldest. That's a point of friendly dispute with Louisiana, but it's all in good cheer.

'Energy in the air'
Stacy Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, said record crowds are expected this year.

"You can really feel the energy in the air," she said.

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Warm weather also is expected to swell the Mardi Gras crowds in Biloxi, Miss., where floats roll past casino resorts.

"It's really kind of a snow bird time," said Nancy Rogers, executive director of the Gulf Coast Carnival Association. "We do have lots of people coming south this time of year anyway."

Celebrities are a Carnival staple in New Orleans. The grand marshals for the Endymion parade — which normally rolls on Saturday — include CNN's Anderson Cooper, actress Kelly Ripa and the rock band Train. On Sunday, actor Andy Garcia will reign as Bacchus.

A stormy weather forecast for Saturday has forced Endymion organizers to move the parade to Sunday and it will follow Bacchus.

BP promises to be a prime target for the revelers who dress up in satirical costumes and pack the French Quarter, a dubious distinction once shared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina. For years after the storm, Mardi Gras doubled as an occasion for lampooning Katrina's villains while taking serious stock of the city's recovery.

"That's done. That's not even on the table anymore. And that's very healthy," said Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy.

Reporter Alan Sayre in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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

Photos: Carnival around the world

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  1. Binche, Belgium

    The Gilles of Binche take part in the Carnival parade in Binche, Belgium. The Binche carnival, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage event, is the biggest and the liveliest annual event in Belgium. (Francois Lenoir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. New Orleans

    Rex, the King of Carnival, rides in the Krewe of Rex as he arrives at Canal St. along St. Charles Ave. Tuesday on Mardi Gras day in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. New Orleans

    Lee Chance laughs as he shows off his collection of beads that he caught during the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade Tuesday on Mardi Gras day in New Orleans. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers of the Salgueiro samba school participate in the second night of the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on March 7. (Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Port of Spain

    A masquerader from the band "What I Saw" presented by Robert Lakhan poses on the stage on Carnival at Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain on March 7. (Andrea De Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers dressed as clowns participate in a carnival parade in Sesimbra village on March 7. The clown parade in Sesimbra village became a tradition after a world record for the biggest clown march was set in 2004. (Jose Manuel Ribeiro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers of the Porto da Pedra samba school participate in the second night of the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on March 7. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rio de Janeiro

    Brazilian pop singer Roberto Carlos waves from atop a float of the Beija-flor samba school on the second night of the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on March 7. (Ricardo Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Sao Luis do Paraitinga, Brazil

    Revelers kiss on a street during the Carnival of Sao Luis do Paraitinga, 106 miles from Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 7. The event is part of the ongoing Carnival celebrations taking place across the country. (Nacho Doce / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers of the Salgueiro samba school participate in the second night of the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers of Uniao da Ilha samba school perform at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro on March 7. Uniao da Ilha lost fancy dresses and floats in a fire that took place three weeks ago. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Rio de Janeiro

    Members of Uniao da Ilha participate at the Carnival Rio 2011 parade at the sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro on March 7. More than 3,000 drummers and dancers ferried into Rio‘s Sambadrome, the massive stadium where the samba schools compete, wearing costumes and lavish outfits. (Antonio Lacerda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Rio de Janeiro

    Members of Uniao da Ilha Samba school parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, on Monday. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Rio de Janeiro

    Members of Uniao da Ilha Samba school parade during Carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, March 7. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rio de Janeiro

    A reveler of Uniao da Ilha Samba school performs at the Sambadrome on Monday. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rio de Janeiro

    Dancers perform on their Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school float during a carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro on March 6. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Barranquilla, Colombia

    Revelers perform during carnival celebrations in Barranquilla, Colombia. In 2003, UNESCO declared Barranquilla's carnival as a "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." (Fernando Vergara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rio de Janeiro

    Imperatriz Leopoldinense dancers perform during their carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro on March 6. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

    A fire breather performs during a carnival parade in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on March 6. (Erika Santelices / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Port of Spain, Trinidad

    A girl participates in the Red Cross Children's Carnival competition at Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on Feb. 26. (Andrea De Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Venice

    Latvian-born artist Kathrina Asfardi performs with her flying piano at the Fenice theater in Venice, Italy, late on March 5, during the "Cavalchina," a historic annual Venetian carnival ball. (Andrea Pattaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Duesseldorf, Germany

    A carnival reveller celebrates the traditional Rose Monday carnival parade in the western German city of Duesseldorf on March 7. The Rose Monday parades in Cologne, Mainz and Duesseldorf are the highlight of the German street carnival season. (Ina Fassbender / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Paraty, Brazil

    A woman dances amid orange smoke during the 'Bloco da Lama', or Mud Block carnival parade in Paraty, Brazil, March 5. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Venice

    A horse is brought into the Fenice theater in Venice late on March 5, at the start of the "Cavalchina". (Andrea Pattaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Venice

    People dressed in carnival costumes pose in San Marco square in Venice on March 5, during the annual Venice Carnival. (Andrea Pattaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Recife, Brazil

    An aerial view of millions of revellers during the "Galo da Madrugada" (Rooster of the Morning) parade in Recife, in the northern coastal state of Pernambuco, Brazil, March 5. (Stringer/brazil / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Limassol, Cyprus

    People dance through the street during a traditional parade to mark the end of the carnival period in southern port city of Limassol, Cyprus, on March 6. (Petros Karadjias / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Evolene, Switzerland

    "Empailles" (Straw man) wearing a costume made of a jute bag stuffed with straw and scary mask walk through the streets of Evolene during a traditional carnival procession on March 6. "Empailles" along with "Peluche" who wear costumes made of animal skins and masks invade the streets of the village and scare residents with their broomsticks or their bells during carnival. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Oruro, Bolivia

    A dancer performs during Carnival celebrations in Oruro, Bolivia, March 5. (Juan Karita / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Torres Vedras, Portugal

    Carnival revelers look at a float depicting Portugal's Prime Minister Jose Socrates, left, and Spain's Jose Zapatero, threatened by an "IMF beast" during the parade on the streets of Torres Vedras on March 6. Torres Vedras village carnival organization devoted 2011 carnival to the subject "The Jungle". (Jose Manuel Ribeiro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Prague, Czech Republic

    A girl in a costume is pictured during the Malostranky carnival parade in Prague, Czech Republic, March 5. (Filip Singer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Baranquilla, Colombia

    A reveler performs during Carnival festivities in Baranquilla, Colombia, on March 5. The Carnival of Barranquilla was declared to be a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003. (Joaquin Sarmiento / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Rio de Janeiro

    People dance during a "Ceu na Terra" street parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 5. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Sao Paulo, Brazil

    Revellers of the Vai-Vai samba school dance atop a float during the opening night of parades at the Sambadrome, as part of Carnival celebrations in Sao Paulo on March 5. (Mauricio Lima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Lucerne, Switzerland

    Carnival goers celebrate the opening of the festivities in Lucerne on March 3. For five days the traditional carnival will be celebrated in the city of Lucerne. (Sigi Tischler / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers perform during the 'Mameludicos Euforicos' street carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro on March 3. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Venice, Italy

    People dressed in carnival costumes pose in San Marco square in Venice on Feb. 27 during the annual Venice Carnival. (Andrea Pattaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Canary Islands

    A nominee for Queen of the Santa Cruz carnival shows off her outfit to a jury at Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the Spanish Canary island of Tenerife on March 2. (Desiree Martin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Jacmel, Haiti

    Women dressed in party attire prepare to participate in a parade during carnival weekend in Jacmel, Haiti, on Feb. 27. This year's celebration was met with mixed emotion as the memory of the 2010 earthquake, which forced the cancellation of last year's event, loomed large. (Allison Shelley / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Viareggio, Italy

    A giant carnival float called ReXpubblica showing a mask of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi during the annual carnival of Viareggio on Feb. 20. (Fabio Muzzi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Oruro, Bolivia

    Women from Orinoca town, where Bolivia's President Evo Morales was born, join in celebrations in the Anata Andina (Andean carnival) in Oruro on March 3. Hundreds of ethnic groups from Oruro province participated in the carnival. (David Mercado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Nice, France

    The Queen of Nice's float takes part in a parade at the 127th Nice carnival in Nice on Feb. 19. The 127th edition of the carnival, celebrating the "Mediteranean King," runs until March 8. (Sebastien Nogier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. New Orleans

    Young girls and their dogs parade through the French Quarter during the Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans on Feb. 27. The parade of dogs and their owners, a twist on the Krewe of Bacchus, benefits animal welfare organizations. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Lucerne, Switzerland

    A carnival goer celebrates the opening of the carnival in Lucerne, Switzerland, on March 3. (Sigi Tischler / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Viareggio, Italy

    A float depicting United States President Barack Obama with his hat topped off by a man masked as al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, titled "Barack-Adabra and the Great Circus of the Fleas," is shown at the traditional Viareggio carnival parade in Viareggio, Italy, on Feb. 20. (Paolo Lazzeroni / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Montevideo, Uruguay

    Members of group Cuareim 1080 participate in a parade to inaugurate the Carnival of Uruguay, in center Montevideo, Uruguay, on Jan. 27. The Carnival in Uruguay is one of the longest in the world, with more than 80 days of celebration, generally occurring in January through mid March, with celebrations in Montevideo being the largest and brightiest. (Ivan Franco / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Bremen, Germany

    A dressed up participant stands on the market square during the 26th Samba Carnival in Bremen, Germany, on Feb. 26. Samba groups from all over Germany take part in the street carnival. (Carmen Jaspersen / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Rio de Janeiro

    A dancer of Uniao da Ilha samba school performs while parading during carnival celebrations Monday at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. New Orleans

    Revelers reach out for items thrown by riders on a float in the Rex parade Tuesday on Mardi Gras day in New Orleans. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: The Gilles of Binche take part in the carnival parade in Binche
    Francois Lenoir / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (49) Carnival around the world
  2. USA - Hurricane Katrina - Aftermath
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    Slideshow (8) Big Easy returns

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