MOBILE, Alabama (Reuters) - When it comes to Mardi Gras, New Orleans gets all the attention — and most of the tourists.
But people in Mobile, Alabama, where the U.S. tradition of pre-Lenten parades got its start, said they are too busy enjoying their own raucous Carnival season to worry that they celebrate in the shadow of their fellow Gulf Coast city.
“We love New Orleans,” said Craig Roberts, a tour guide at the Mobile Carnival Museum. “They’re like our younger sister that married very well and got everything she wanted, and now we have had to deal with that all our lives.”
The cities, about 140 miles apart, each host multiple parades in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, when the partying reaches a fever pitch on the eve of the penitential Lenten season.
New Orleans’ festivities are bigger, with about three times the number of Carnival organizations and parades that feature longer routes, more floats and larger crowds.
About 1 million people will pour into New Orleans for Fat Tuesday next week, compared to a crowd of 250,000 in Mobile. Dual Mardi Gras and Super Bowl hosting duties this year are expected to result in a nearly $1 billion economic boost for the Louisiana city, according to the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.
But locals and tourists say Mobile holds its own with a unique mix of family-friendly events, lavish dinners hosted by so-called Mardi Gras “kings” and “queens,” and colorful parade throws such as Moon Pies.
More than 3 million Moon Pies - the marshmallow-cake treat that has become Mobile’s signature throw - were tossed from floats last year, Roberts said.
“People in New Orleans find out we work in Mobile and say, ‘They have, like, two parades, right?’” said Richard Valadie, president of Royal Artists, a New Orleans-based float building company. “We’re like, ‘No, it’s actually really huge.’”
History holds that a Mobile resident named Michael Krafft helped lead the city’s first Mardi Gras parade on New Year’s Eve in 1830.
Krafft’s group came to be known as the Cowbellion de Rakin Society for the cowbells and rakes they used for their spontaneous celebration. In 1840, the group added floats and themes, according to Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy.
Several members of the Cowbellions moved over to New Orleans and helped launch that city’s first Mardi Gras organization in 1852, said Hardy, who has published a New Orleans Mardi Gras guide since 1977.
That group, Mistick Krewe of Comus, held its first parade several years later in New Orleans, but stopped parading in the early 1990s when the city tried to force racial integration on them, he said.
Mobile has about 60 Carnival organizations now, and a little more than half of them participate in parades, said Judi Gulledge, executive director of the Mobile Carnival Association.
Spending for the weeks-long Carnival season totals about $408 million, according to a 2005 University of Alabama study.
Mobile’s modern-day festivities run the gamut from extravagant dinners and luncheon receptions hosted by those dubbed as “royalty” of Mardi Gras mystic societies, to the wild Joe Cain procession, which always takes place the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, which this year falls on February 12.
Cain was a city clerk who is credited with re-launching Mardi Gras in Mobile after the Civil War. Intent on continuing the tradition of costume-wearing, he dressed as a fictional Chickasaw Indian chief who refused to yield to Union forces.
Each year, a local man portraying Cain leads the procession, known as the “people’s parade,” and a group of women dress as the many widows who showed up at his grave claiming to be his wife. About 150,000 people are expected to turn out for the popular parade and other celebrations on Sunday, Roberts said.
“My mama was riding on the back of a Harley on Joe Cain Day in 1979 and went into labor with me. I was born on Joe Cain Day,” said local resident Ashley Murphy, describing her special tie to the season as she took in another recent parade.
A highlight of Mobile’s season takes place on Tuesday when the traditionally black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association’s Mammoth parade marks its 75th anniversary.
If history is a guide, Tuesday’s Fat Tuesday event will turn into a tailgate-style party, with hundreds of barbecue grills and ice chests set up along the route. Float riders will come armed with an eclectic mix of throws, including hair grooming products, ramen noodles, stuffed animals, snack cakes and even cartons of cigarettes.
Roberts said the debauchery of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is great fun for adults, “but, especially if you have kids, downtown Mobile during Mardi Gras is better,” he said.
“It’s just a big family party honestly,” he added.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alden Bentley