The Magic, in their first game since trading six-time All-Star Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a blockbuster 12-player trade in August, failed to get more than 13 points from any of their five starters.
"We don't have any superstars on our team now," Magic forward Glen Davis, who finished the game with 13 points, said as he left the locker room. "We need to win together."
Treating 18,133 fans to the sights and sounds of the NBA, the Hornets' Brian Roberts led the way with a game-high 17 points.
The Magic were led by E'Twaun Moore, who came off the bench to score 16 points, while local boy and starting center Gustavo Ayon added 12 points in the loss.
The Magic led the game, often by double digits, until New Orleans tied it at 76 with about two minutes to go in the final quarter. Two free throws by forward Lance Thomas then put the Hornets ahead for good.
The game signalled the start of a new era for the Magic since they parted ways with former first-overall draft pick Howard, the team's top scorer and rebounder for the last six seasons.
But the Hornets' Ayon, only the third Mexican-born player in NBA history, was the clear crowd-favourite as fans cheered his every move.
The exhibition match marked the start of the NBA pre-season for both teams, as well as the 20th such game on Mexican soil, more than any other country outside the United States or Canada.
On Saturday, former NBA All-Star turned league ambassador Cedric Ceballos told Reuters that Mexico City will host regular season games in 2012 and 2013, but a league executive said Sunday the announcement was premature.
"We have no plans (for regular season games in Mexico) at the moment," said Philippe Moggio, the NBA's vice president for Latin America.
Moggio acknowledged "internal conversations" regarding such a development, but said the league would not announce potential regular season games in Mexico until early next year.
Hornets coach Monte Williams declared the international pre-season game a success even beyond his team's win.
"The NBA is a global game and anytime you can extend the boundaries of basketball in a positive way, it's only going to help," said Williams.
"Locals get a chance to see the kind of basketball up close and personal that they don't normally get a chance to see and that's good for everybody."