NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A costumed club dressed as King Arthur's knights paraded through New Orleans' crowded streets Tuesday in what has become the city's unofficial opening of Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the raucous end to the pre-Lenten Carnival season, with 12 days of parades, parties, drinking and lots of near-nudity in the city's famed French Quarter.
Several members of the Half-Fast Walking Club, whose parade opens the celebration, wiped sweat from their foreheads in unusually warm, muggy weather.
"Oh, I'm feeling fine. You always feel fine on Mardi Gras," the club's leader, 77-year-old Pete Fountain, said.
New Orleans' celebration seems to have bounced back strongly since Hurricane Katrina flooded more than 80 percent of the city in 2005. Before Katrina, Mardi Gras crowd estimates hovered around 1 million, but the crowd reached about 800,000 last year.
Near dawn Tuesday, crowds started forming in the Quarter, and some people had not slept after Monday night's reveling. Police reported no unusual incidents.
While many Americans cast ballots in party primaries in nearly two dozen states, the presidential race inspired some revelers to don costumes with political themes. Kim Disselliss, 49, simply taped a sign to her back that depicted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton dressed up as George Washington and read, "Monica Lewinsky's X-Boyfriend's Wife for President. 2 for 1 Sale."
Meanwhile, the Black community's oldest parade, Zulu, headed for its starting point with 1,200 riders on 27 gaily decorated trucks, called floats. It would be followed by the massive Rex parade, along with hundreds of floats, many created by families and neighborhood Carnival clubs.
Police expected the last floats would not reach the end of the parade routes until late afternoon.
In Cajun country in southern Louisiana, hundreds of costumed riders on horseback or in pickup trucks set out on their annual Courir du Mardi Gras, a town-to-town celebration.
"It's just heritage. It's Louisiana. We're crazy," said Courir participant Cody Granger, 24.
The New Orleans celebration has been marred this year by shootings that have injured eight people.
Police said 1,100 officers, state troopers and National Guardsmen have been positioned along parade routes since the season began.
Police declined to project the size of Tuesday's crowd in New Orleans, but the city's hotel association said occupancy in the area's 32,000 hotel rooms should exceed 90 percent for the long weekend that ends on Ash Wednesday.