Super Bowl plus Mardi Gras? It’s called Super Gras

New Orleans is bracing for record crowds as the biggest sporting
event of the year, the NFL Super Bowl, collides with Mardi Gras
season in what many locals are calling ”Super Gras.”

Mardi Gras floats are getting finishing touches, including one
float being touted as the biggest the city’s Carnival has ever
seen. Bakeries are hiring extra hands to decorate the thousands of
king cakes, a traditional Mardi Gras treat, being pre-ordered for
the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. Mardi Gras falls nine days later on Feb.
12.

The city’s hotels are more than 90 percent occupied for the
weeks before and after the big game, according to Stephen Perry,
president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors
Bureau.

”We are ready to give the world a show,” said Perry.

Carnival season, with parades, parties and masked revelry in the
weeks before Mardi Gras, is always one of the most expensive times
of year to visit New Orleans. But Super Bowl weekend has driven
prices higher than usual. Smaller boutique-style hotels that
usually go for $300 to $500 a night during Carnival are as high as
$800 during Super Bowl. Rooms at some major hotels are up to $2,000
a night, according to online listings.

Carnival parades will not be held downtown during Super Bowl
weekend, but dozens will roll in the city on the weekends before
and after the game. Some sports fans are extending their stays to
take in the masked riders tossing beads, costumed marching groups
and make-believe royalty. Parades normally held in the suburbs will
take place as scheduled on game weekend.

”There will be so much energy in the street,” Perry said.
”It’s a very unique situation to have Super Bowl, which is truly
an experience of a lifetime, coinciding with a unique cultural
event like Mardi Gras.”

Tourism officials estimate 125,000 to 150,000 people will be in
town for Super Bowl weekend, with 75,000 at the game and the rest
taking in the fanfare. Another million typically visit New Orleans
in the weeks leading up to and including Mardi Gras.

This will be New Orleans’ 10th Super Bowl, tying Miami for the
city that’s hosted the most Super Bowls. It’s also the seventh
Super Bowl taking place in the Superdome, now named for its sponsor
Mercedes-Benz. But more importantly, it will be the Superdome’s
first Super Bowl since Hurricane Katrina ripped off its roof and
flooded surrounding streets when levees gave way in 2005. Thousands
of evacuees were housed in filthy conditions in the damaged arena
for days after the storm with no air conditioning or working
bathrooms.

The dome has since undergone more than $336 million in
renovations, including new suites, concession stands, and
bathrooms, and new electrical, video and audio systems. All seats
were cleaned or replaced, and club lounges got new windows with
views of downtown.

The dome’s outer shell – faded a dull gray by more than three
decades of Louisiana sun and dented by flying storm debris – has
also been replaced. The new siding restores the stadium to the
champagne color it had in 1978 when it hosted its first Super
Bowl.

Though there are no public tours of the dome, anyone can attend
the Jan. 29 Super Bowl media day. For $25, fans can sit in the
stands, listen to NFL Network coverage and player interviews with
portable head-sets, and get a look at the newly-renovated
space.

Also open to the public is the NFL Experience, a theme park for
football lovers set up at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
Jan. 30-Feb. 3. It’s $25 to enter and includes interactive games
and a regulation-size goal post where fans can kick field goals.
Fans can also visit the NFL Experience’s media area, where player
and celebrity interviews are held.

”We opened the area to fans for the first time last year, and
the feedback was incredible,” said Mary Pat Augenthaler, the NFL’s
director of special events. She said the media area includes
”Radio Row” and the NFL Network. ”Last year some fans spent
hours just in that one section. Not everybody can go to the game,
but in here you feel like you’re a part of the central nervous
system of the Super Bowl.”

As Super Bowl fans leave town, a new wave of revelers will
arrive for Mardi Gras weekend. That’s when some of the city’s
largest parade organizations, known as superkrewes, hold their
glitzy balls and parades.

Parade groups have been working for months to make this year
bigger and better than ever. The Krewe of Endymion is boasting it
will have the largest float in city history for its Feb. 9 parade,
led by pop singer Kelly Clarkson.

The Bacchus parade and its yet-to-be-named celebrity rider rolls
on Feb. 10, and the Orpheus parade rolls on Feb. 11 – the eve of
Fat Tuesday known as Lundi Gras – with actor Gary Sinise, Emmy- and
Golden Globe-winning actress Mariska Hargitay and New Orleans
musicians Troy ”Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Harry Connick
Jr.

Visitors who can’t catch the parades in person may opt for a
visit to Mardi Gras World, the enormous studio and warehouse where
floats are made and stored. Tours include a stop in the prop shop,
where artists create and paint float decorations and
sculptures.

This year, Mardi Gras World is also the site of a Guinness World
Record attempt by New Orleans artist Stephan Wanger to create the
world’s largest Mardi Gras bead mosaic. Visitors can help cut and
place beads one by one onto a 42-foot-long, 8-foot-tall board
etched with the New Orleans skyline.

”It’s something we want hands from all over the world to be a
part of,” Wanger said. The first bead was placed in November, and
the last will be placed on Feb. 13, the day after Mardi Gras known
as Ash Wednesday.

One thing the city won’t be short on is music. Super Bowl
weekend kicks off with a gospel concert on Feb. 1 at the UNO
Lakefront Arena with performances by Fantasia, Donnie McClurkin,
Marvin Winans and Bishop Paul S. Morton of New Orleans. Dozens of
local acts will be performing throughout the weekend on stages
along the Mississippi River and in the French Quarter. On game day,
Beyonce will be the half-time performer.

Other local attractions include steamboat cruises – many with
live jazz – on the Mississippi, the recently-expanded World War II
Museum, Audubon Zoo, Aquarium of the Americas and New Orleans
Museum of Art by City Park. Just outside the city, options include
airboat tours of Louisiana swamps and bayous and plantation home
tours.

Foodies can indulge in charbroiled oysters, seafood gumbo, fried
softshell crab po-boys and shrimp and grits. The city has 52 more
restaurants than it did in 2002 – the last time New Orleans hosted
a Super Bowl. Newer restaurants include Susan Spicer’s Mondo and
Donald Link’s Cochon. Chef John Besh, who owned two restaurants
before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, now owns eight – including Luke,
Domenica and Borgne.

But with the two major events bringing thousands of people in,
reservations are going fast at old favorites like Commander’s
Palace, Galatoire’s and Brennan’s.

”We had one party book the entire restaurant for the Friday
before Super Bowl, so we have no tables that night,” said Regina
Keever, co-owner of Bayona, a Spicer restaurant in the French
Quarter.