Mardi Gras 2012 is a star-studded celebration that's raking in big bucks

Actress Patricia Clarkson holds on as she rides in the Muses Mardi Gras Parade through the streets of New Orleans, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Bill Haber
Patricia Clarkson holds on as she rides in the Muses Mardi Gras Parade through the streets of New Orleans, Feb. 16, 2012.
Bill Haber/AP

(CBS/AP) Celebrities are already on their way to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, a festive time that brings to mind beads, parades and practically everything in between. This year, it's expected to rake in a lot of money for not only "The Crescent City" but for other parts of the Gulf Coast.

New Orleans is hosting a batch of star-studded parades leading up to Fat Tuesday.

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Actress Patricia Clarkson reigned over the all-women Krewe of Muses parade on Thursday night, while Maroon 5 rides with the krewe Endymion on Saturday night. Actor Will Ferrell rides as king of Bacchus on Sunday night, and rocker Bret Michaels will join singer Cyndi Lauper in Orpheus on Monday.

It's all part of a big money-making tourism business for New Orleans, which was hard hit by Hurricane Katrina more than six years ago.

But it's not just about New Orleans.

In reality, Mardi Gras has long been celebrated in coastal towns from Texas to Florida. And it means big business: Small towns all over the Gulf Coast have parades, balls and other festivities during Carnival Season.

Tourism leaders estimate more than 1 million visitors pour into the Mobile, Ala. 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 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.

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.

The store has vanloads of women from small towns all over the region who come to shop. Some buy five or six gowns for the various balls they attend during the season.

"Mardi Gras has grown and grown and brings millions of dollars into our economy," she said.