City expects a return to Mardi Gras grandeur

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The Big Easy is bracing itself for what it expects to be the largest Mardi Gras turnout since Hurricane Katrina left the city in shambles just over three years ago.

New Orleans' largest and best-known annual event is expected to vastly increase its number of participants in 2009 due to a relatively late date. This year, Mardi Gras falls on Feb. 24; in 2008, the holiday was celebrated Feb. 4, the earliest date possible. With Fat Tuesday falling so close to the end of the holiday season, New Orleans saw lower attendance than usual.

Some said they see the festival finally returning to its pre-Katrina grandeur.

"We'll see a more ordinary Mardi Gras than we have in the past, [and] for us, normal is good," said Arthur Hardy, publisher of the Mardi Gras Guide. "We're getting closer and closer to what it used to be like."

Hardy reported that the city's Mardi Gras parades, reduced in size after the hurricane, are back to full strength. Music star Kid Rock was recently announced as grand marshal for the Krewe of Endymion parade, Mardi Gras' largest, with more than 2,500 participants and 35 floats.

Several hotels are reporting stronger reservations and booking rates this year over last year, according to Mary Beth Romig, public relations director for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Our pace is ahead of where we were this time last year," said Myra deGersdorff, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotels of New Orleans. "We're almost completely sold out for the weekends leading up to Mardi Gras."

DeGersdorff said that when the Professional Convention Management Association recently held its convention in New Orleans, attendees "commented that it was a home run on every single level. They weren't sure they were going to book [New Orleans], but when they saw how great the city felt, how welcoming it was for the people were in town, they couldn't wait to book our spaces."

Les bons temps

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Zulu parade, which is run by the city's largest African-American krewe. To commemorate the occasion, the Presbytere, part of the Louisiana State Museum, will display "From Tramps to Kings: 100 Years of Zulu," an exhibit of photos and artifacts, through January 2010. See www.kreweofzulu.com.

From Feb. 13 to 15, neighboring Jefferson Parish will host its second annual Family Gras, a Mardi Gras-inspired event geared for families and featuring free musical entertainment from Tony Orlando, Gavin DeGraw and Lee Ann Womack. For more information, go to www.experiencejefferson.com/familyGras.html.

For travelers looking to dive headfirst into the Mardi Gras experience, Blaine Kern, the biggest name in Mardi Gras float making, offers Mardi Gras World, where visitors can watch as floats and other props are made. The attraction, which is moving in February to a new warehouse location adjacent to the Morial Convention Center, is open year-round. Visit www.mardigrasworld.com.

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