New Orleans Trades Reality For Revelry

Though the climax of Mardi Gras is still to come, official data so far from the second celebration since Hurricane Katrina show a city on the rebound.

Last year's festivities were scaled down - fewer parades and only about 13,000 hotel rooms available. This year there are 30,000 hotel rooms ready and for the big weekend leading into Mardi Gras, most of them were filled.

Merchants, hotel operators and others felt the crowd would exceed the 700,000 who visited the city during the same time period last year, the first since the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005.

"It was an excellent weekend," said Michael Valentino, managing partner of three French Quarter hotels. "There is clearly more demand this year. It's feeling more like our normal Mardi Gras pressure."

Fat Tuesday is the last day of the Mardi Gras Carnival season. Highlights of the celebration were to be Rex and King Zulu parades in the French Quarter.

Three parades rolled Monday night, including Orpheus, the glitzy parade founded by singer Harry Connick Jr. Actress Patricia Clarkson and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton were celebrity monarchs for the parade.

This year, Orpheus organizers said they wanted to select monarchs who have been instrumental in the city's recovery from Katrina. Few have done more to lift the city's spirits than Payton and the New Orleans Saints, said Sonny Borey, the parade's captain.

"The weekend was surprisingly busy," said Earl Bernhardt, co-owner of two bars and a blues club in the French Quarter. "The crowd is bigger and they're spending a lot of money."

Big crowds lined the parade routes beginning late last week and continued through Monday night. Bourbon Street was also packed with revelers.

"We haven't paced ourselves at all," said Tracy Brown, 25, of Dallas. "We got here Saturday and I think we've only had about three hours of sleep since then."

Story courtesy of The Associated Press.