Carnival fever grips Rio

Carnival fever is in full swing in Rio as Brazil's Marvelous City gears up for its annual five-day extravaganza of sizzling samba dancing, glittering parades and wild merry-making.

The over-the-top pre-Lent bacchanalian festival in the Brazilian beach city officially begins Friday when King Momo, Carnival's overweight symbol of excess, receives the city's keys from Mayor Eduardo Paes.

The 150-kilogram (330 pounds) Milton Rodrigues da Silva, the event's undisputed king for the past five years in a row, will kick off five days of nonstop partying in Rio.

The highlight will come Sunday and Monday nights with parades of elaborate floats and scantily-dressed beauty queens at the 72,500-capacity Sambodrome, originally designed by the late Brazilian star architect Oscar Niemeyer.

But thousands of fun-loving Cariocas did not wait for King Momo's signal to get the party started. Two weeks ago, Rio residents started staging weekend street parties known as blocos and widely viewed as the "authentic" carnival.

Unlike the Sambodrome parades, blocos are open to all: people dance, wear garish costumes and there is plenty of beer.

More than 900,000 people are expected to attend the celebrations, up 5.8 percent over last year, and spend $665 million in hotels, restaurants and bars, according to Rio state officials, who say Carnival generates 250,000 jobs.

Some 12 elite samba schools are competing for the title of Carnival champion in a dazzling contest watched with the same fervor as football matches in this soccer-mad nation.

One school will pay tribute to Bossa Nova composer Vinicius de Moraes, co-author of the classic hit "The Girl from Ipanema."

Some of their fantasy floats will focus on the Amazon, but also on foreign countries such as Germany or even South Korea.

In this racially diverse country of 194 million people, Carnival is the most important festival of the year and major cities such as Sao Paulo, Salvador and Recife are also staging their own elaborate celebrations.

For many Brazilians, it will provide an opportunity to forget the disco fire tragedy late last month in the southern college town of Santa Maria that left 239 young people dead.

Authorities have stepped up safety inspections at entertainment spots across the country ahead of the celebrations.

In Rio, which will host next year's World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, police have also tightened security around administrative buildings in the city center.

Each samba school spends between $2 million and $5 million to organize its parade. Brazilian or foreign firms are increasingly involved in funding the event, though some schools are believed to be funded by gambling syndicates.

At Samba City, Rio's port area where the school workshops are located, hundreds of people have been working for months on floats and costumes.

Mara de Oliveira is eight months pregnant but the 39-year-old samba queen will lead percussionists of the Mocidade Independente school.

"The doctor told me I could," she said during a rehearsal at the Sambodrome.

Samba schools often invite local celebrities to lend their star power to the parades. Mocidade Independente said it had invited soccer star Neymar, who has yet to confirm if he will show up.

Last year, US singer-actress Jennifer Lopez attended Carnival festivities.