NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Mardi Gras falls on a Sunday this year.
The city of the Saints is filling up with ex-New Orleanians and others ahead of the Super Bowl, many looking to cast off a legacy of football futility and natural disaster - others just looking to party down in one of the world's greatest party towns.
"We're gearing up for Sunday just like Mardi Gras day," said Earl Bernhardt, a bar owner in the French Quarter. "We're staffing just like we do for Mardi Gras, and if the Saints win, we won't close at all. We'll stay open as long as people are standing." After 43 years in existence, the Saints will make their Super Bowl debut in Miami on Sunday, facing the favored Indianapolis Colts.
Fans from most cities would be headed to South Florida about now. But for ex-pat New Orleanians, the game is triggering a pilgrimage home. And for everybody back in town, the party's already started.
A few are taking the week off in the countdown to game day. Others are punching the clock, but not getting much done. Saints jerseys, "Who Dat?" T-shirts and black and gold beads are the uniform everywhere you go.
The French Quarter's narrow streets also are awash in the team colors. As revelers cruise down its streets, strangers give each other high-fives.
"It's been all Saints all the time," said Steve Sabrier, an oil field worker who marched from the Superdome to the French Quarter after the NFC championship. "I pity anybody who needs something done in New Orleans these days. We can't concentrate on anything but the game."
Sister Mary Rose, a Dominican nun who attends every Saints game and teaches at a Catholic school in the Quarter, said the feeling of sheer excitement in the city is almost tangible. "I think 'exuberant joy' is the word," the nun said. "And it has brought such a unity to us, such a bond between all the people here it's just amazing."
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, New Orleans transplant Belinda Hernandez vowed to be in Miami if the Saints made the big game.
"But seeing the fever pitch in New Orleans and knowing how we party, I changed my mind," Hernandez said.
"Who wants to be on Miami Beach when they can be in the French Quarter with the Who Dats for the game?"
So Hernandez turned down some friends in South Florida, who offered to get her tickets.
Besides being Super Bowl weekend, this is the start of carnival season that ends Feb. 16 on the real Mardi Gras. There are four parades scheduled in New Orleans on Saturday and two on Sunday - but they're rolling early to avoid conflicting with the game.
All eyes on the game, starting Sunday at 5:25 p.m. local time.
Mary Beth Romig of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau says there's no question the Saints have created something special - this time for the city's tourist trade.
"This is turning into a very big weekend for the hotels in downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter," said Romig. "We did a survey and hotels are running about 90 percent full late in the week, and that jumps to 95 percent on Sunday. People are definitely coming to New Orleans for Super Bowl."
Sorry, Colts fans, but it's a different story up north.
Kimberly Harms, a spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, said there was no noticeable jump in hotel occupancy there for the weekend. She noted, however that one hotel had set aside 44 rooms at the special rate of $144 in honor of the 44th Super Bowl. If Indianapolis wins, she said, the rooms will be free for those staying in them.
At New Orleans' Roosevelt Hotel, an upscale hotel where suites start at $259 a night and go up, marketing director Mark Wilson said they are seeing a "huge surge" of people who want to celebrate the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
"Let's face it, not everybody can get a ticket to the game," Wilson said. "And a lot of people seem to think being in New Orleans is a good alternative."
The Roosevelt is about 80 percent booked, which is 10 percent to 15 percent more than normal for a weekend with no convention in town, Wilson said. The big seller is the hotel suites, with much of the business coming from Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.
"People are booking the entertainment suites, which are great for parties of 25, 35 people," he said.
"Some are probably just people looking for a party. But a lot are former residents, I think. People in New Orleans have looked for this day a long time and now they want to be here for it."
Police will increase their coverage in the French Quarter this weekend, adding approximately 600 officers, police spokesman Bob Young said. That's about the number the city would deploy if New Orleans were hosting the game.
Rick Watson, and his wife, Katherine, are among the natives coming back.
Now residents of North Carolina, 35-year-old Watson said it took them a long time to believe the Saints had really made the big game, but not much time to decide where to watch it.
"When something big happens, you go home, and this is big," Watson said. "Besides, where would you rather be if the Saints win, the French Quarter or Miami? Even if they lose you want to be in New Orleans."
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A Letter to Miami…
The Saints are coming. And so are we, their loyal, long-suffering and slightly discombobulated Super Bowl-bound fans.
While there's still time to prepare -- although a few hard-core Who Dats will begin trickling in Monday, most of us won't arrive until Thursday or Friday -- we thought we'd give you a heads-up about what you should expect.
First things first: You need more beer. Yeah, we know. You ordered extra. You think you have more than any group of humans could possibly consume in one week. Trust us. You don't. New Orleans was a drinking town long before the Saints drove us to drink. But it turns out beer tastes better when you're winning. (Who knew?) So let's just say we're thirsty for more than a championship; adjust your stockpiles accordingly.
And look. When we ask you for a go-cup, be nice to us. We don't even know what "open container law" means. Is that anything like "last call"?
It's Carnival season in New Orleans (that's Mardi Gras to you), and we'll be taking the celebration on the road. So don't be startled if you walk past us and we throw stuff at you; that's just our way of saying hello.
Oh, and sorry in advance about those beads we leave dangling from your palm trees. We just can't help ourselves.
February is also crawfish season, and you can be sure that more than one enterprising tailgater will figure out a way to transport a couple sacks of live mudbugs and a boiling pot to Miami.
When the dude in the 'Who Dat' T-shirt asks if you want to suck da head and pinch da tail, resist the urge to punch him. He's not propositioning you. He's inviting you to dinner.
And if you see a big Cajun guy who looks exactly like an old Saints quarterback walking around town in a dress ...don't ask. It's a long story. We know that crowd control is a major concern for any Super Bowl host city. Our advice? Put away the riot gear.
Reason No. 1: Indianapolis is going to lose, and their fans are way too dull to start a riot.
Reason No. 2: New Orleans showed the world on Sunday that we know how to throw a victory party. We don't burn cars. We dance on them.
Reason No. 3: Even if we did lose, which we won't, leaving the stadium would be like leaving a funeral, and our typical response to that is to have a parade.
Speaking of which: If you happen to see a brass band roll by, followed by a line of folks waving their handkerchiefs, you're not supposed to just stand there and watch. As our own Irma Thomas would say, get your backfield in motion.
And hey, Mister DJ! Yes, we know you've already played that stupid Ying Yang Twins song 10 times tonight, but indulge us just one more time.
To us, "Halftime (Stand Up and Get Crunk)" isn't just a song; it's 576 points of good memories. It's the sound of a Drew Brees touchdown pass to Devery Henderson, a Pierre Thomas dive for first down on 4th-and-1, a Garrett Hartley field goal sailing through the uprights in overtime.
It's what a championship sounds like. You may get sick of hearing it. We won't. Encore, dammit.
Inside Sun Life Stadium, you may find your ears ringing more than usual. We're louder than other fans. Seven thousand of ours sound like 70,000 of theirs. Don't believe us? Ask the 12th man in the Vikings huddle.
Some people think it's just the Dome that heightens our volume. But you're about to discover a little secret: We can scream loud enough to make your head explode, indoors or out.
It's not the roof. It's the heart. Well, OK, and the beer.
Don't be surprised if there are more Saints fans outside the stadium than inside. A lot of us are coming just to say we were part of history, even if we can't witness it up close. The Saints are family to us, and you know how it is with family: We want to be there for them, whether they really need us or not. Because we know our presence will mean something to them, whether they can see us or not.
Come to think of it, seeing as how you're taking us in for the week, we pretty much regard you as family, too. So we're warning you now: If you're within hugging distance, you're fair game.
Hugging strangers is a proud Who Dat tradition, right up there with crying when we win.
Most sports fans cry when their teams lose. Not us. We've been losing gracefully and with good humor for 43 years. Tragedy and disappointment don't faze us. It's success that makes us go to pieces.
Hurricane Katrina? We got that under control. The Saints in the Super Bowl? SOMEBODY CALL A PARAMEDIC!!!
So anyway, don't let the tears of joy freak you out. We're just ... disoriented.
OK. Let's review:
Order more beer. Throw me something, mister. Suck da heads. Wear da dress. Stand up. Get crunk. Hug it out. Protect your eardrums. Pass the Kleenex. Hoist the trophy.
See you at the victory party.
The Who Dat Nation