World Famous Rio Carnival Kicks Off Wild Samba Fest


Under a shower of confetti and pulsating samba beats, legendary King Momo on Friday officially launched Rio's famed Carnival, a dazzling extravaganza broadcast to a worldwide television audience.

Flanked by his queen and two princesses, the blue-crowned king, 160-kilogram (352 pounds) Milton Junior, symbolically received a giant key to the city from Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes.

"Salute to King Momo's royal family. I transferred my mayoral duties and all the city powers to him," said Paes.

"It's an enormous responsibility to lead the world's biggest cultural festival. I declare the Rio Carnival open," said King Momo, the Carnival's symbol of overweight excess.

With these words, the white-clad king kicked off five days of wild samba dancing that will culminate in dazzling parades of lavishly decorated floats and scores of scantily dressed women in the Sambadrome, the hallowed "temple of Samba", Sunday night and Monday night.

And he deftly showed off his samba skills that launched "the greatest show on earth."

Carnival is Brazil's most popular holiday and over the next five days it will bring this racially diverse country of 191 million people virtually to a stop.

As in previous years, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil's third largest city and the heart of the rich Afro-Brazilian culture, led the way, with hundreds of thousands of revelers pouring into the streets late Thursday to dance and celebrate.

Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic capital and Latin America's most populous city, also launched its own Carnival celebrations Friday, as did countless other cities and towns.

But all eyes were on Rio, the "marvelous City" that sets the standard for over-the-top partying and sexy exhibitionism.

Fears that unrest in Brazil's state police force might disrupt the festivities in Salvador and Rio did not materialize as police strikes in those cities were settled just in time.

Rio officials said they expect more than five million people, including 850,000 tourists, to enjoy the annual pre-Lent festival, which generates 250,000 jobs and revenues of $640 million for hotels, bars and restaurants, according to state estimates.

Sunday, Rio's top 13 competing samba schools will vie for the title of Carnival champion, a dazzling contest watched with the same fervor as football matches in this soccer-mad nation.

More than 650 military police on Friday ringed the Sambadrome, which was originally designed 30 years ago by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

The arena, which reopened Sunday after a nine-month makeover, has now been expanded to offer a 72,500-seat capacity, with access ramps for the handicapped and elevators.

Leading Brazilian companies seeking to lure customers to their brands have invited foreign stars, including U.S. celebrities Jennifer Lopez, Fergie and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, to their lavish skyboxes in the Sambadrome.

Security forces were out in force, with thousands fanning out across Rio, officials said.

Saturday, more than two million people were expected to enjoy some beer-fueled merrymaking with Bola Preta, one of the city's most popular blocos -- street parties.

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