The official Mardi Gras may be long over for this year, but Universal Orlando keeps the party going through the middle of April. In some ways highly reminiscent of a New Orleans blowout, and in other ways totally theme park fantasy, Universal’s Mardi Gras is a must-see for many people. The park does a lot right, but some things mar the experience a bit for traditionalists. From a completely subjective point of view, based on 4 years of living in the French Quarter, here are the 5 best and worst things about Universal’s Mardi Gras.
1. The Concerts
Universal’s Mardi Gras celebration actually combines some of the best of two New Orleans festivals: Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. With the exception of the superkrewes, who typically engage a top name to serve as grand marshal, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras focuses on local talent. Jazz Fest, held in late spring, features concerts by big-name bands. Universal combines the two in a unique way, creating an almost after-party feel for its concerts.
Each year’s lineup is great, with performers from different eras and genres ensuring there is truly something for everyone. And the concerts are included with the price of admission. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
2. The Food
Universal does an impressive job of recreating some of New Orleans’ best-known dishes. Red beans and rice, gumbo, po’ boy sandwiches, beignets, and Mardi Gras king cake are just a few of the options. The food isn’t quite as spicy or quite as daring as the real New Orleans creations, but within the constraints of catering to a theme park crowd, it is definitely spot on.
3. The Parade
Of course, the highlight of any Mardi Gras celebration is at least one parade. New Orleans’ parades go on for hours, which would be extremely unrealistic in a theme park setting. But if you ignore the shorter length, Universal’s parade is fantastic! The floats were actually custom-built for the park by the Blain Kern family, who have been supplying New Orleans with its floats for generations. Enthusiastic and high-energy float riders rain beads and doubloons (small metal coins) down on the eager crowd. Kicking back with a beer and a slice of king cake, it is easy to fall into the relaxed mentality of the Big Easy.
4. The Street Performers
New Orleans’ French Quarter is noted for its vast array of street performers, from silver-painted mimes standing motionless on milk crates to lone musicians playing a soulful dirge on the banks of the Mississippi River. While it would be impossible to duplicate the sheer diversity of the French Quarter’s performers, Universal does a great job of creating a similar atmosphere. Inside the French Quarter Courtyard, brightly costumed stilt walkers engage the crowd, while New Orleans zydeco bands play a small, intimate stage.
5. Float Riding
This is one of the top perks for many visitors. Although you must be an annual passholder, and sign up online a week in advance, if you have the opportunity to ride a float, it is highly recommended! In New Orleans, becoming a float rider means putting out thousands of dollars to join a krewe, and then thousands more dollars to purchase your own throws (beads, doubloons, and other treats). What a treat to do it at Universal Orlando for nothing more than the price of an annual pass!