Joyous Parades and Parties Kick Off New Orleans' Mardi Gras

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A venerable fine-dining fixture on Bourbon Street helped kick off the final frantic days of New Orleans Mardi Gras season Friday -- relaxing its jackets-required dress code and briefly ditching its no-pets policy for a pair of crown- and cape-wearing rescue dogs.

The tennis-ball-loving silver Labrador retrievers -- named for Pete Sampras and Billie Jean King -- chowed down on lamb chops at Galatoire's as they were declared king and queen of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus. The animal welfare organization founded 30 years ago took its name as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the major Carnival krewe Bacchus. The annual Galatoire's gathering aids fund-raising efforts.

"The impact this has on other homeless dogs, it just goes on and on," Billie Jean's owner, Katherine Gelderman.

Outside, music was already blaring from some Bourbon Street bars as the city prepared for three major parades Friday evening on historic St. Charles Avenue. Other Friday night parades were scheduled in neighboring Metairie, and there will be more than two dozen other such processions almost nightly until Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which this year falls on Feb. 21.

"If you think about the complex logistics, over multiple neighborhoods, multiple krewes, multiple law enforcement agencies -- this is like Times Square on New Year's Eve for two weeks," Kelly Schulz of New Orleans & Company, the city tourism industry's trade association, said during a city news conference Thursday.

Complicating that effort has been a rise in crime and a shortage of police officers, which somewhat muted the celebration's comeback last year. Since parades in 2021 were canceled because of security concerns and the pandemic, some of the routes for the 2022 parades were trimmed.

This year, the original routes have been restored and the local police department is bolstered by a contingent of 125 state troopers and another 170 law enforcement personnel from other state and local police agencies to help keep order. By various estimates, the local police force has dwindled to about 900 members, which is hundreds fewer than what local experts say is needed.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other city officials said they are confident safety can be maintained.

Joe Bikulege -- co-owner of Le Bon Temps Roule, a neighborhood bar and music club on Magazine Street -- said that businesses and residents welcome the restored routes. "People get traditions and routines based around seeing certain parades," he said in a recent interview.

"That's been taken away for three years," he said.

And, Schulz said, it appears tourists are planning to return in strong numbers.

"We are seeing strong hotel bookings so far," Schulz said. "We are seeing a lot of pent-up demand for travelers to come back to New Orleans. For many this will be their first time, since before COVID, experiencing Mardi Gras."

Mardi Gras is the culmination of Carnival season -- which officially begins each year on Jan. 6, the 12th day after Christmas, known as King's Day, in New Orleans and closes with the arrival of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

New Orleans' raucous celebration is the nation's most well-known, but the holiday is also celebrated throughout much of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Mobile, Alabama, lays claim to the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the country.