- Associated Press - Friday, February 17, 2012

FAIRHOPE, Ala. (AP) — Mardi Gras. It brings to mind beads, parties and fancy floats in New Orleans as people cram in all the fun they can before Lent begins.

In reality, Mardi Gras has long been celebrated in coastal towns from Texas to Florida. And it means big business.

“It is more of a regional thing, Mardi Gras is, from Texas down to (the) Gasparilla (pirate festival) down in the Tampa area,” said Stephen Toomey, whose family started a chain of Mobile, Ala.-based Mardi Gras party supply stores.

“It means a way of life for people who live in these communities, but the bottom line is that it creates a lot of jobs.”

Tourism leaders estimate more than 1 million visitors pour into the Mobile area each Mardi Gras season to watch the festivities. The city claims to be the place where the Fat Tuesday celebration originated in the U.S. back in the early 1700s.

New Orleans and Mobile have long disputed where the tradition that dates to their French founders really began.

Visitors to Mobile spend money at hotels, restaurants and stores during the celebration that can stretch on for weeks and includes dozens of parades, balls and other events.

A 2004 study commissioned by the city of Mobile estimated Mardi Gras had a $225 million economic impact for the area and tourism leaders say that has grown as the festivities become more popular.

“I would say tens of thousands of dollars are spent on the different beads and throws and things that are thrown off the floats. It really benefits every kind of retailer and the tourism industry,” said David Randel, president of the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“From a convention and visitors bureau standpoint, you hope people come for Mardi Gras, fall in love with the area and come back to visit again when the weather is better.”

In smaller towns like Fairhope, with population 17,000 in south Alabama near the Florida line, Mardi Gras is a big help.

Heavenly Creations Bakery sold 1,500 traditional Mardi Gras king cakes in 2011. Owner Robyn Yoder hopes to beat that this year. The colorful cakes go for $9.99 for a small and $19.99 for a large.

“Mardi Gras is good for everyone. I think it brings more people downtown and it brings more people in. It’s a boost in sales and it does a lot for all of us, more tips for the girls who work, it’s good,” she said.

Rosie Miller has sold Mardi Gras ball gowns to the women of the Gulf Coast for 30 years. She has thousands of gowns, most for under $300.

“Poufy gowns this year are really in,” Miller said as she pulled a gown from one the dozens of racks in a back room of her Mobile store on a recent morning.

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