NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The economic downturn could not overshadow the revelry of Mardi Gras on Tuesday as partiers jostled for beads on parade routes and the French Quarter swelled with boozy fun and masked crowds.
In fact, many revelers poked the recession in the eye, dressing in costumes riffing on the bailouts, the stimulus package and busted budgets.
Suzanne Gravener dressed as the Statue of Liberty - but without a crown. That, she joked, had to be sold for cash because of the hard times. Her husband lost his job as a dairy salesman, she said.
"I still have my torch, though," the 59-year-old New Orleans school teacher said.
Carnival was one luxury the family could afford, she said. "This is the greatest free show on earth."
The day opened with clarinetist Pete Fountain leading his Half-Fast Walking Club out onto Uptown streets and headed for the French Quarter in a trolley car. The marching club marks the unofficial opening of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the last day of celebration before the solemnity of Lent.
By dawn, spectators crammed parade routes in anticipation of the day's biggest parades and costumed revelers mingled with all-night partiers in the French Quarter's narrow streets.
"It was cold, but nobody minded," said Delores Johnson, 53, of Slidell, La., who staked out a place on St. Charles Avenue with a group of friends dressed in matching green and gold shirts. They arrived on the oak-lined historic parade route just after midnight Monday.
The first parade of the day was Zulu, the traditional African-American parade, followed by Rex, the king of Carnival, and hundreds of truck floats.
At 4 a.m., Zulu members got into costume, which for them means blackface, huge afro wigs and grass skirts. Zulu marks its centennial this year.
"Oh, my God, if my family could see me now, the only good news is that they wouldn't recognize me," said Zulu member John Rice after his face was painted. "This is the only city in the world where you can get away with this."
In the company of Zulu rode Mayor Ray Nagin on horseback. The mayor was outfitted as a gladiator, or as he called himself a "recovery gladiator," in honor of a city's rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina was on the mind of Cherry Gilbert, a 42-year-old Seattle bus driver who helped organize a family reunion for about 80 members of the Gilbert clan, many displaced to cities like Dallas and Atlanta by the 2005 storm.
"This is the first time since Katrina we've all gathered here and it's a beautiful thing. There's nothing like New Orleans ... and family," Gilbert said, camping out on St. Charles.
It was the 49th time Fountain, 78, has made the journey from Commander's Palace, one of the city's most famous restaurants. Costume-clad revelers snapped photographs of Fountain and his entourage of men dressed as toy soldiers in reds, greens and aqua blues. Fountain has had health problems since Hurricane Katrina, but still plays his clarinet during the parade.
Along for the walk for the 43rd time was Jim Ponseti, 74, of Gretna, La. "We don't play, we just play around," Ponseti said of himself and his fellow nonmusical marchers.
The weather was expected to be mild, with temperatures in the 60s and the skies sunny.
Big crowds over the weekend and nearly full hotels bode well for a busy Mardi Gras. Visitors bureau spokeswoman Mary Beth Romig said officials were cautiously optimistic because of the slumping national economy.
Tourism officials hope to match last year's crowd of about 750,000. Before Katrina, Fat Tuesday typically brought in about 1 million people.
There was a shooting after Friday's parades and police said there was another shooting about 6 a.m. Tuesday near Bourbon Street. Still, police said the celebration was mostly peaceful.
"Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and not making trouble for anyone else," spokesman Bob Young said.
Many visitors gather in the French Quarter area, where Carnival's more ribald side takes place.
"I just keep calling my friends at work and telling them what they're missing," said Bud Weaver, 31, of Philadelphia. "It's 40 degrees colder there and none of them had beer for breakfast."
Mardi Gras officially ends at midnight Tuesday. Police, followed by street sweepers, move down Bourbon Street announcing the event is officially over and Lent has begun.
In heavily Catholic New Orleans, many revelers will be in church Wednesday to have ashes daubed on their foreheads as they begin 40 days of prayer, penitence and self-denial leading up to Easter.
The Spanish Town parade was awesome, as usual!!! Unfortunately, we can't make it to NOLA this year.
Have a Safe and Happy Mardi Gras!!!