FAIRHOPE, Ala. — Mardi Gras. It brings to mind beads, parties and fancy floats in New Orleans as people cram in all the fun they can before the austere religious period known as Lent begins.
In reality, Mardi Gras has long been celebrated in U.S. coastal towns from Texas to Florida. And it means big business.
"It is more of a regional thing, Mardi Gras is," said Stephen Toomey, whose family started a chain of Alabama-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, 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. in the early 1700s.
New Orleans and Mobile have long disputed where the tradition that dates to their French founders really began.
The celebration 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.
"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, population 17,000, Mardi Gras is a big help.
Heavenly Creations Bakery sold 1,500 traditional Mardi Gras king cakes in 2011. The colorful cakes go for up to $19.99 each.
Rosie Miller has sold Mardi Gras ball gowns to the women of the Gulf Coast for 30 years. She has thousands of them, most for under $300.
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," Miller said.
Small towns all over the Gulf Coast have parades, balls and other festivities during Carnival Season.
In Pascagoula, Miss., crawfish are the local Mardi Gras delicacy and seafood retailers do big business, said city spokeswoman Robin Wood.
Other Mississippi towns including Gulf Port, Ocean Springs and Biloxi have their own events.
Florida Gulf Coast cities add a more laid-back twist with beach-inspired events often aimed at boosting tourism in the offseason.
Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Panama City Beach have Mardi Gras festivities.
Pensacola Beach's 2012 Mardi Gras' Schedule includes 16 events from Jan. 7 to Feb. 21.
"Oh yeah, Mardi is a ball, absolutely, it's fun," said Jill Jones, who dressed her dog up in a headband, jester collar and cape and wore a matching costume during the beach's pet parade this month.