NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans is bracing for record crowds as the biggest sportingevent of the year, the NFL Super Bowl, collides with Mardi Gras season in what many locals arecalling "Super Gras”Mardi Gras floats are getting finishing touches, including one float being touted as the biggestthe citys Carnival has ever seen. Bakeries are hiring extra hands to decorate the thousands ofking cakes, a traditional Mardi Gras treat, being pre-ordered for the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. MardiGras falls nine days later on Feb. 12.The citys 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 VisitorsBureau."We are ready to give the world a show," said Perry.Carnival season, with parades, parties and masked revelry in the weeks before Mardi Gras, isalways one of the most expensive times of year to visit New Orleans. But Super Bowl weekendhas driven prices higher than usual. Smaller boutique-style hotels that usually go for $300 to$500 a night during Carnival are as high as $800 during Super Bowl. Rooms at some major Likethe Windsor Court and the Royal Sonestahotels are up to $2,000 a night, according to onlinelistings.Carnival parades will not be held downtown during Super Bowl weekend, but dozens will roll inthe city on the weekends before and after the game. Some sports fans are extending their stays totake in the masked riders tossing beads, costumed marching groups and make-believe royalty.Parades normally held in the suburbs will take place as scheduled on game weekend.
"There will be so much energy in the street," Perry said. "Its a very unique situation to haveSuper Bowl, which is truly an experience of a lifetime, coinciding with a unique cultural eventlike Mardi Gras."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 NewOrleans in the weeks leading up to and including Mardi Gras.This will be New Orleans 10th Super Bowl, tying Miami for the city thats hosted the mostSuper Bowls. Its also the seventh Super Bowl taking place in the Superdome, now named for itssponsor Mercedes-Benz. But more importantly, it will be the Superdomes first Super Bowl sinceHurricane Katrina ripped off its roof and flooded surrounding streets when levees gave way in2005. Thousands of evacuees were housed in filthy conditions in the damaged arena for daysafter the storm with no air conditioning or working bathrooms.The dome has since undergone more than $336 million in renovations, including new suites,concession stands, and bathrooms, and new electrical, video and audio systems. All seats werecleaned or replaced, and club lounges got new windows with views of downtown.The domes outer shell — faded a dull gray by more than three decades of Louisiana sun anddented by flying storm debris — has also been replaced. The new siding restores the stadium tothe champagne color it had in 1978 when it hosted its first Super Bowl.Though there are no public tours of the dome, anyone can attend the Jan. 29 Super Bowl mediaday. For $25, fans can sit in the stands, listen to NFL Network coverage and player interviewswith portable head-sets, and get a look at the newly-renovated space.
Also open to the public is the NFL Experience, a theme park for football lovers set up at theErnest N. Morial Convention Center Jan. 30-Feb. 3. Its $25 to enter and includes interactivegames and a regulation-size goal post where fans can kick field goals. Fans can also visit theNFL Experiences media area, where player and celebrity interviews are held."We opened the area to fans for the first time last year, and the feedback was incredible," saidMary Pat Augenthaler, the NFLs director of special events. She said the media area includes"Radio Row" and the NFL Network. "Last year some fans spent hours just in that one section.Not everybody can go to the game, but in here you feel like youre a part of the central nervoussystem of the Super Bowl."As Super Bowl fans leave town, a new wave of revelers will arrive for Mardi Gras weekend.Thats when some of the citys largest parade organizations, known as superkrewes, hold theirglitzy balls and parades.Parade groups have been working for months to make this year bigger and better than ever. TheKrewe 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 Orpheusparade rolls on Feb. 11 — the eve of Fat Tuesday known as Lundi Gras — with actor GarySinise, Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress MariskaHargitay and New Orleans musiciansTroy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and Harry Connick Jr.Visitors who cant catch the parades in person may opt for a visit to Mardi Gras World, theenormous studio and warehouse where floats are made and stored. Tours include a stop in theprop shop, where artists create and paint float decorations and sculptures.
This year, Mardi Gras World is also the site of a Guinness World Record attempt by NewOrleans artist Stephan Wanger to create the worlds largest Mardi Gras bead mosaic. Visitors canhelp cut and place beads one by one onto a 42-foot-long, 8-foot-tall board etched with the NewOrleans skyline."Its something we want hands from all over the world to be a part of," Wanger said. The firstbead was placed in November, and the last will be placed on Feb. 13, the day after Mardi Grasknown as Ash Wednesday.One thing the city wont be short on is music. Super Bowl weekend kicks off with a gospelconcert on Feb. 1 at the UNO Lakefront Arena with performances by Fantasia, DonnieMcClurkin, Marvin Winans and Bishop Paul S. Morton of New Orleans. Dozens of local actswill be performing throughout the weekend on stages along the Mississippi River and in theFrench 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 andNew Orleans Museum of Art by City Park. Just outside the city, options include airboat tours ofLouisiana swamps and bayous and plantation home tours.Foodies can indulge in charbroiled oysters, seafood gumbo, fried softshell crab po-boys andshrimp and grits. The city has 52 more restaurants than it did in 2002 — the last time NewOrleans hosted a Super Bowl. Newer restaurants include Susan Spicers Mondo and DonaldLinks Cochon. Chef John Besh, who owned two restaurants before Hurricane Katrina in 2005,now owns eight — including Luke, Domenica and Borgne.But with the two major events bringing thousands of people in, reservations are going fast at oldfavorites likeThe Grill Room inside Windsor Court,Commanders Palace, Galatoires andBrennans."We had one party book the entire restaurant for the Friday before Super Bowl, so we have notables that night," said Regina Keever, co-owner of Bayona, a Spicer restaurant in the FrenchQuarter.