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Mardi Gras Revelry Turns Louisiana Into Tourist Magnet

"It really is the greatest free show on earth."

So says Arthur Hardy, who for 28 years has been publishing an elaborate guidebook to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana.

On Tuesday, that city -- and communities across Louisiana and the U.S. Gulf Coast from Alabama to Texas -- celebrate Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday). It's a day of merrymaking before the solemn Christian holiday of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten fast.

In backwoods bayous and small towns, Mardi Gras is festive and somewhat subdued. But not in New Orleans, the city they call The Big Easy. There, Mardi Gras means endless parades, fancy balls…and a bit of debauchery.

In fact, it's said that on Mardi Gras, New Orleans loses its mind -- or at least its inhibitions. Drinking is not only allowed on the streets -- it's practically encouraged. Mr. Hardy says an extra one million people -- many dressed in costumes of the purple, gold, and green colors of the day -- cram into the old port city for spicy food, music and world-famous parades.

By law, there are no corporate sponsors of the celebration, no official Mardi Gras products. Just members of neighborhood organizations called krewes dressed up in masks and bright costumes, tossing cheap coins, beads, and plastic trinkets to frenzied crowds from floats that have storybook themes.

Lots of Dixieland jazz music, too, including the song that goes,

"Yes I'm goin' to New Or-leens.
I want to see that Mardi Gras…"

Arthur Hardy knows that part of the lure of New Orleans' Mardi Gras involves women baring more than their souls…and gay men, cavorting in skimpy outfits. "A lot of attention revolves around the old French Quarter, where there have been no parades since 1973," he says. "This is where the nudity occurs."

The celebrating in other parts of the city is less revealing, but no less spirited. "A lot of people have the misconception that Mardi Gras is a drunken orgy," says Mr. Hardy. "And it is not. It's an amazing spectacle."

Mardi Gras -- and dozens of parades and parties earlier in the Carnival season -- pump more than one billion dollars into the New Orleans economy. Trash, which is weighed at the end of it all, tops 2,000 tons.

Out in the countryside, the holiday is altogether different. In the swampy, subtropical bayou country of French-speaking Acadiana -- from which the word Cajun is derived -- Fat Tuesday is a chance for the average crawfisherman, rice farmer or housewife to be King or Queen for a Day.

Karen Collins, the fiddler for the Cajun band Squeeze Bayou, says families ride old wagons door-to-door, gossiping and gathering ingredients for a big, communal Mardi Gras gumbo stew. "The people dress up in costumes," she says, "and they go around and beg for chickens and stuff to put into the gumbo. At the end of the route, they make a big gumbo for the whole community to eat. And they have King Cake to go along with it."

King Cake is a sugary pastry, with a small figure of a baby baked into the batter. The tradition is that whoever gets the baby in his or her slice bakes the next King Cake.

Guidebook author Arthur Hardy notes that at midnight sharp -- whether you're in the bayou or the big city - the Mardi Gras fun is over. "The police clear the streets," he says. "The same people you saw drunk on Bourbon Street on Tuesday, you will see at the Saint Louis Cathedral on Wednesday getting ashes on their foreheads. Mardi Gras is wedded to the Catholic religion. We kind of repent for the sins we did on Tuesday on Wednesday by going to church."

37,000 New Orleans hotel rooms and countless private guest bedrooms are packed for Mardi Gras -- as are the streets of the city where the good times roll.