Bathed in spring-like warmth and showered with trinkets, beads and music, New Orleans reveled in the excesses of Fat Tuesday. A seemingly endless stream of costumed marching groups and ornately-decorated float parades led by make-believe royalty poured out of the Garden District, while the French Quarter filled up with thrill seekers expecting to see debauchery.
And they did.
Some in the Quarter had a sleepless night after Monday's Lundi Gras prequel party. The drinking was in full swing again shortly after dawn, and with it came outrageous costumes and flesh-flashing that would continue until police make their annual attempt to break up the merrymaking at midnight, when Lent begins.
Tom White, 46, clad in a pink tutu, bicycled with his wife, Allison, to the French Quarter. "I'm the pink fairy this year," he said. "Costuming is the real fun of Mardi Gras. I'm not too creative but when you weigh 200 pounds and put on a tutu people still take your picture."
His wife was not in costume. "He's disgraced the family enough," she said.
Brittany Davies struggled with her friends through the morning, feeling the effects of heavy drinking from the night before.
"They're torturing me," the Denver woman joked. "But I'll be OK after a bloody mary."
Indeed, the theme of the day was party hard and often.
Wearing a bright orange wig, a purple mask and green shoes, New Orleans resident Charlotte Hamrick walked along Canal Street to meet friends.
"I'll be in the French Quarter all day," Hamrick said. "I don't even go to the parades. I love to take pictures of all the costumes and just be with my friends. It's so fun."
Police reported no major incidents along the parade route.
Across the globe, people dressed up in elaborate costumes and partied the day away. In Rio de Janeiro, an estimated 850,000 tourists joined the city's massive five-day blowout. Meanwhile, the Portuguese, who have suffered deeply in Europe's debt crisis, defied a government appeal to keep working.
Steeped in tradition
In New Orleans, the streets filled with hundreds of thousands of people.
The predominantly African-American Zulu krewe was the first major parade to hit the streets, shortly after 8 a.m. Most krewe members were in the traditional black-face makeup and the Afro wigs Zulu riders have sported for decades. They handed out the organization's coveted decorated coconuts and other sought-after trinkets.
In the oak-lined Garden District, clarinetist Pete Fountain led his Half-Fast Walking Club on its annual march to the French Quarter.
Fountain, 82, gave a thumbs-up to start off and his band launched into "When The Saints Go Marching In" as they rounded the corner onto St. Charles Avenue shortly after 7 a.m. It was the 52nd time that Fountain's group has paraded for Mardi Gras. This year, the group wore bright yellow suits and matching pork pie hats for its theme, "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."
Costumes were the order of the day, ranging from the predictable to the bizarre.
Wearing a purple wig, New Orleans resident Juli Shipley carried a gallon of booze down Bourbon Street and filled her friends' cups when they got low. "We're going to wander all day and people-watch," Shipley said. "That's the best part of Mardi Gras — the costumes. They're amazing."
Partygoers were dressed as Wizard of Oz characters Dorothy and the Wicked Witch, bags of popcorn, pirates, super heroes, clowns, jesters, princesses and lots of homemade costumes with the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.
At New Orleans' antebellum former city hall, Mayor Mitch Landrieu toasted Zulu's monarchs and special guests. Among them was New Orleans native and former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young who was on a float with National Urban League President Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, his wife, Michelle, and their two children.
"It's good to be home," Young said. And saluting the good weather of the day, he added, "God always smiles on New Orleans when it needs it."
After Zulu, the parade of Rex, king of Carnival, made its trek down St. Charles Avenue and to the city's business district. Along the way, parade-goers pleaded for beads and colorful aluminum coins, known as doubloons.
Small groups of families and friends had parades of their own. The Skeleton Krewe, 25 people dressed in black skeleton outfits, wandered along the parade route, heading toward St. Louis Cathedral.
Along the parade route that follows the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, die-hards had staked out prime parade-watching spots as early as Monday. Some had a Carnival-esque tailgate party under way early.
Stephanie Chapman and her family claimed their usual spot about 4 a.m. Tuesday and would be staying for the duration.
"This is a beautiful day and we'll be here until it's over. It won't rain on my parade, but if it does I won't pay any attention," she said.
Rain stayed away and temperatures were in the 70s. As the day wore on and drinking intensified, the combination encouraged raunchy acts in the French Quarter, where women bared flesh in pleadings for beads tossed to the street by revelers on balconies.
By midafternoon, some folks were tuckered out.
Alison Scott, 35, of New Orleans, was part of a group that had a small city of tents and canopies set up at Lee Circle. She and her family had been coming to the spot for about 40 years. "Believe me, I'm always glad to get here and then I'm always glad to go home," she said.
Her 6-year-old daughter, Shannon, was asleep nearby under a blanket of beads.
"She just pooped out. This is the first time she's stopped. She's been so excited all day," Scott said.
In the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana, masked riders went from town to town, making merry along the way in the Courir du Mardi Gras. And parades were scheduled elsewhere around Louisiana and on the Gulf coasts of Mississippi and Alabama.
The celebration arrived in Louisiana in 1682 when the explorer LaSalle and his party stopped at a place they called Bayou Mardi Gras south of New Orleans to celebrate.
Parading and street revelry would give way to Mardi Gras' elegant side, with the lavish and private grand balls of the Rex and Comus krewes on Tuesday night signaling the traditional end of the celebration.
Mardi Gras gives way to the beginning of Lent, the period of fasting and repentance before Easter Sunday.