By Stacey Plaisance Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans is bracing for record crowds as the biggest sporting event of the year, the NFL Super Bowl on Feb. 3, collides with Mardi Gras season in what many locals are calling “Super Gras.”
Mardi Gras floats are getting finishing touches, including one float being touted as the biggest the city’s Carnival has ever seen. Bakeries are hiring extra hands to decorate the thousands of king cakes, a traditional Mardi Gras treat, being preordered for the Super Bowl.
Carnival season is already in full swing along the Gulf Coast and continues until Mardi Gras on Feb. 12.
The city’s hotels are more than 90 percent occupied for the weeks before and after the big game, according to Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We are ready to give the world a show,” Perry said.
Carnival parades will not be held downtown during Super Bowl weekend, but dozens will roll in the city on the weekends before and after the game. Some sports fans are extending their stays to take in the masked riders tossing beads, costumed marching groups and make-believe royalty.
Tourism officials estimate 125,000 to 150,000 people will be in town for Super Bowl weekend, with 75,000 at the game and the rest taking in the fanfare. Another million typically visit New Orleans in the weeks leading up to and including Mardi Gras.
This will be New Orleans’ 10th Super Bowl, tying Miami for the city that’s hosted the most Super Bowls. It’s also the seventh Super Bowl taking place in the Superdome, now named for its sponsor Mercedes-Benz.
But more importantly, it will be the Superdome’s first Super Bowl since Hurricane Katrina ripped off its roof and flooded surrounding streets when levees gave way in 2005.
The dome has since undergone more than $336 million in renovations. Though there are no public tours of the dome, anyone can attend the Super Bowl media day Tuesday. For $25, fans can sit in the stands, listen to NFL Network coverage and player interviews with portable headsets, and get a look at the renovated stadium.
As Super Bowl fans leave town, a new wave of revelers will arrive for Mardi Gras weekend. That’s when some of the city’s largest parade organizations, known as superkrewes, hold their glitzy balls and parades.
Parade groups have been working for months to make this year bigger and better than ever. The Krewe of Endymion is boasting it will have the largest float in city history for its Feb. 9 parade, led by pop singer Kelly Clarkson.
The Bacchus parade and its yet-to-be-named celebrity rider rolls on Feb. 10, and the Orpheus parade rolls on Feb. 11 — the eve of Fat Tuesday known as Lundi Gras — with actor Gary Sinise, Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress Mariska Hargitay and New Orleans musicians Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Harry Connick Jr.
Visitors can also go to Mardi Gras World, the enormous studio and warehouse where floats are made and stored.
This year, Mardi Gras World is also the site of a Guinness World Record attempt by New Orleans artist Stephan Wanger to create the world’s largest Mardi Gras bead mosaic. Anyone can help cut and place beads on a 42-foot-long, 8-foot-tall board etched with the New Orleans skyline.
“It’s something we want hands from all over the world to be a part of,” Wanger said. The first bead was placed in November, and the last will be placed on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13, the day after Mardi Gras.
One thing the city won’t be short on is music. Dozens of local acts will be performing throughout the weekend on stages along the Mississippi River and in the French Quarter. On game day, Beyonce will be the half-time performer.
Other local attractions include steamboat cruises — many with live jazz — on the Mississippi, the recently-expanded World War II Museum, Audubon Zoo, Aquarium of the Americas and New Orleans Museum of Art by City Park. Just outside the city, options include airboat tours of Louisiana swamps and bayous and plantation home tours.
Foodies can indulge in charbroiled oysters, seafood gumbo, fried softshell crab po-boys and shrimp and grits. The city has 52 more restaurants than it did in 2002 — the last time New Orleans hosted a Super Bowl.