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