NEW ORLEANS — The stakeout started Monday for prime spots along the Mardi Gras parade route in New Orleans, with legions of Carnival die-hards jockeying for the best places to vie for beads when floats roll on Fat Tuesday.
Along streets littered with beads and trash from Sunday night's parades, they set up folding chairs, ladders and tents and hunkered down for an overnight vigil to preserve their favorite spots.
Monday, better known as Lundi Gras in this city, features its own nighttime parades to entertain the crowds. Lundi Gras also offers a preview of Tuesday's festivities: a ceremonial meeting between the king and queen of the Zulu krewe and Rex, the King of Carnival, and his queen.
Mardi Gras officially kicked off Monday evening when Rex was given the keys to the city by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in a blowout on the riverfront that included fireworks, music, a fly-over by Dolphin military helicopters and Rex's pronouncement that "all commercial endeavors be suspended and that pleasure may rule day and night."
Earlier Monday, the King and Queen of Zulu's carnival krewe also were greeted by the crowds gathered for the riverfront party.
Audubon Zoo employee Kim Boyer said she volunteers to work most other major holidays so she can take off several days during Carnival — and stake out her favorite piece of real estate near the start of the parade route.
"This is like my Christmas," said Boyer, 36, of New Orleans.
Since Thursday, Boyer and several friends have worked in shifts to ensure they will be celebrating Mardi Gras in the same spot for 15 straight years. Boyer said she doesn't mind the overnight shift, especially with a later start to this Carnival season bringing warmer weather.
"It's really good people watching at night, especially when the bar lets out," she said.
Gary Crochet, 53, and a couple of friends used yellow tape and plastic fencing to protect their spot — the same area they've occupied for the past dozen Carnival seasons. Crochet, who is married to a sister of famed political consultant James Carville, said their group doesn't need to stay out all night to guard their turf.
"This section is good people," he said.
New Orleans may have the nation's largest and bawdiest Mardi Gras celebration, but the big day is a cherished tradition along other parts of the Gulf Coast. Louisiana's Cajun country; Biloxi, Miss.; and Mobile, Ala. also were preparing Monday to stage their distinct Mardi Gras celebrations and parades.
In New Orleans, Carnival weekend kicked off in earnest Sunday with parades by the Krewe of Bacchus and the Krewe of Endymion. The latter was supposed to roll on Saturday but was postponed a day because of stormy weather.
Sunday's parades generated so much garbage that the city on Monday briefly closed down a section of St. Charles Avenue — a main parade thoroughfare — so sanitation workers could finish the job unimpeded.
"They've been out there for almost 24 hours straight," said Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Before the street sweepers arrived outside his aunt's house, Chris Gros, 44, raked mounds of beads and empty beer cans from the sidewalk into the street.
"It looks like a purple, green and gold bomb went off out here," he joked.
By noon, the French Quarter was in the throes of Carnival fever with Bourbon Street excelling at what it does best: beads, bare flesh and beer.
On a balcony across the street from the Old Absinthe House, one of the raunchiest and most raucous corners of Bourbon, Pam Floyd was casting beads to the eager passers-by below. The 35-year-old "stay-at-home mom" from Baltimore was with a group of friends, including her husband. As the incessant pleading from below carried on, a middle-aged woman lifted her shirt and drew a shower of beads.
"It's so wrong!" Floyd laughed.
But it wasn't all Bourbon Street mayhem. The Quarter was putting on a show in every corner, with live music raging on the Mississippi River for the Zulu party, street musicians and artists entertaining crowds on Royal Street and Jackson Square, and every bar and restaurant getting into the vibe.
At the French Market, where specialty mask makers were selling their wares, Crystal Chapman was admiring their offerings. The Des Moines, Iowa, resident drove down with her husband, Shaun, and a good friend to escape the snow.
"I made a mask, a Crystal invention with Mardi Gras themes ... beads and stuff," she said.
Her husband wasn't quite ready for losing himself under a mask.
"I'm not doing a mask," the FedEx driver said. "I'm ugly enough!"
Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau contributed to this report.