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Larger Mardi Gras Crowds in U.S.

The aroma of spicy jambalaya lingers in the air of a theme park's newly erected French Quarter replica as Don Vappie gets ready to perform Al Hirt's "Bourbon Street Parade," a number he's played at Mardi Gras since he was a teen.

Since Hurricane Katrina flooded his childhood home and scattered his bandmates across the country, Vappie and The Creole Jazz Combo have had to scramble for gigs. Instead of playing in New Orleans, the group kicked off this past week's annual Mardi Gras celebration at Universal Orlando.

They were grateful for the work but nostalgic for home.

"So many times after the storm I've pulled over to the side of the road and started to weep, not knowing where I'm going to work, how I'm going to pay this bill or that," said Vappie, a 50-year-old bass and banjo player. "It's been tricky."

Because money is tight in New Orleans, this year's pre-Lenten Mardi Gras celebration was scaled back from its usual 12 or so days to eight, culminating on Fat Tuesday, which is Feb. 28.

But Vappie and other musicians whose lives were upended by Katrina have gotten new opportunities to perform as cities as far away as Orlando, St. Louis and Snowmass Village, Colo., have revved up their own Mardi Gras celebrations.

Planners of these events say they've struggled to find ways to attract tourists who might otherwise have headed to New Orleans without appearing to be trying to capitalize on that city's loss. Out of respect for storm victims, St. Louis even changed the name of a popular New Orleans' cocktail, the hurricane, to Southern Comfort punch.

Universal Orlando constructs a replica of the French Quarter every year, but this year it doubled the attraction's size to three city blocks.

The park also established a displaced musicians program for folks like Vappie.

The program "has everything to do with our desire to create a continuation of the spirit of New Orleans and Mardi Gras and little to do with attendance goals," said spokeswoman Cindy Gordon.

Vappie's Creole Jazz Combo is one of 10 displaced New Orleans bands that Universal hired to perform at its extended celebration alongside stars including Bonnie Raitt and Kid Rock.

Dwayne Dopsie of the Zydeco Hellraisers said Orlando's warm welcome has been like a healing balm during a difficult year.

"They're putting New Orleans musicians on pedestals. It motivates us to want to do more and get back to our roots and start over," said Dopsie, 26, an accordion player who's performed in the real French Quarter during Mardi Gras for the past five years.

St. Louis expected such a swell of visitors who ordinarily would have gone to New Orleans that it beefed up security and added musical acts for its celebration, in its 27th year, said spokesman Mack Bradley.

"You want to have a great event, but not because of someone else's misfortune," Bradley said.

Far from the bayous, Snowmass Village also expected bigger crowds for its Mardi Gras, started in 1980 by New Orleans transplants.

"It's hard to say how many people will feel like celebrating, considering what happened, but we really want to keep that spirit alive," said Allison Johnson, a city spokeswoman.

Along with the traditional New Orleans staples of a parade and crawfish boils, Snowmass added a fundraiser for Katrina victims and locally flavored events including a snowshoe race.

Kentucky doesn't usually celebrate Mardi Gras, but with an estimated 2,000 displaced Katrina victims living in Louisville, city officials said a year without Mardi Gras for its guests would be like a "year without the Kentucky Derby."

"We thought it was one thing we could give them back. It might lift their spirits some," said Patrick Deprey, co-coordinator of the Feb. 26 celebration.

Louisville's effort has been heartening, said Richard Slawsky, whose family relocated from Chalmette, La., because of Katrina.

"It's kind of faded a little bit from the news, but people are still dealing with this," Slawsky said of the hurricane's aftermath. "The celebration makes it seem like people are still thinking about us."