NEW ORLEANS (AP) The economic downturn couldn't overshadow the Mardi Gras revelry Tuesday as partiers jostled for beads on parade routes and the French Quarter swelled with boozy fun and masked crowds.

Many revelers turned the tables on the recession, dressing in costumes riffing on bailouts, the stimulus package and busted budgets.

Suzanne Gravener, a 59-year-old New Orleans teacher, dressed as the Statue of Liberty without a crown. That, she joked, had to be sold for cash because of the hard times. Her husband lost his job as a dairy salesman.

"I still have my torch, though," she said, and Carnival was one luxury the family could afford. "This is the greatest free show on earth."

The day started with clarinetist Pete Fountain leading his Half-Fast Walking Club into the streets, marking the unofficial opening of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

By dawn, spectators crammed parade routes and costumed revelers mingled with all-night partiers in the French Quarter's narrow streets.

The first parade of the day was Zulu, the traditional African-American parade, followed by Rex, the king of Carnival, and hundreds of truck floats.

At 4 a.m., Zulu members got into costume, which for them means blackface, huge afro wigs and grass skirts.

"Oh, my God, if my family could see me now, the only good news is that they wouldn't recognize me," said Zulu member John Rice after his face was painted. "This is the only city in the world where you can get away with this."

Mayor Ray Nagin rode on horseback dressed as what he called a "recovery gladiator" in honor of the city's rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina was on the mind of Cherry Gilbert, a 42-year-old Seattle bus driver who helped organize a reunion for about 80 family members, many displaced to cities like Dallas and Atlanta by the 2005 storm.

"This is the first time since Katrina we've all gathered here and it's a beautiful thing," Gilbert said. "There's nothing like New Orleans and family."

Despite the economy, tourism officials hope to match last year's crowd of about 750,000. Before Katrina, Fat Tuesday typically brought in about 1 million people.

Many visitors gather in the French Quarter area, where Carnival's more ribald side takes place.

"I just keep calling my friends at work and telling them what they're missing," said Bud Weaver, 31, of Philadelphia. "It's 40 degrees colder there and none of them had beer for breakfast."

Mardi Gras ends at midnight Tuesday. In heavily Catholic New Orleans, many revelers will be in church Wednesday to have ashes daubed on their foreheads as they begin 40 days of prayer, penitence and self-denial leading up to Easter.

Associated Press writers Stacey Plaisance, Mike Kunzelman and Becky Bohrer contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.