By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Revelers in New Orleans celebrated Carnival and Mardi Gras with parades, giant floats and parties that were expected to attract about a million people to the city and its historic French Quarter and generate an estimated $300 million.
Eight years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, local organizers of the celebrations predicted Carnival 2013 would be one of the best ever.
"People are just amazed by Carnival in New Orleans," said Ed Muniz, the 72-year-old founder and captain of Krewe of Endymion, one of the largest parades during Mardi Gras, whose celebrity grand marshals have included Britney Spears and Dolly Parton. Pop star Kelly Clarkson has the honor this year.
"And Mardi Gras is bigger now than it has ever been in my lifetime," Muniz added.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the final day of the weeks- long Carnival season. It is devoted to unfettered frivolity and partying in the final hours before Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season of sacrifice in the Catholic Church.
This year's celebration comes less than two weeks after New Orleans hosted Super Bowl XLVII, which stuffed local hotels to capacity.
Muniz decided that his krewe, or parade organization, should try to capitalize on the Super Bowl lead-in by putting on an even bigger show than usual, so he capped this year's parade with the largest float ever seen in New Orleans.
Stretching 330-feet (101-meters) long, the nine-segment float carried more than 220 riders, with each segment represented by an amusement park ride. It was the highlight of the three-hour Krewe of Endymion, one of dozens held during Carnival.
Troy Johnston of Jackson, Miss., looked slightly dazed in his purple, green and gold jester costume as he prepared to climb aboard a float during the weekend parade.
"This is really going to be something," he said.
Spectacularly colored, lighted floats filled with masked riders stretched as far as the eye could see, and marching bands and dancers practiced their struts.
Johnston, who had been coming to Carnival for years, was convinced by a former college friend to ride in the Endymion parade.
"We always came to Endymion when we were in college. Now we both have families and we're both 40, it's a bucket list thing," he said as he joined a dozen other riders on a two-level float painted with flowers and mythical figures engulfed in flames.
Most of Carnival's revenue is generated in the city's hotels, restaurants and bars. But Carnival krewe members contribute millions of dollars by buying costumes and "throws" - the plastic-bead necklaces and krewe-themed trinkets that float riders toss to the crowds as parades move along the streets.
"We bring in eight million pounds of plastic a year," said Dan Kelley, who is president of Krewe of Endymion and the CEO of the Beads by the Dozen LLC, which provides the materials for the throws.
Parade riders will toss countless handfuls of the trinkets as the Carnival 2013 season winds toward its Tuesday night close.
(Editing by Paul Simao)