Mobile expects larger Mardi Gras crowds

Sunday, February 5, 2006

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.

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