By Susan and Simon Veness
Mardi Gras in New Orleans may not arrive until 4 March, but in Orlando it’s already in full swing. Universal Studios transforms into The Big Easy from 8 February through 31 May, with floats, live music, Cajun fare, and (of course) mountains of beads.
Think Mardi Gras and you probably think “one big party,” but there is far more to it than that. Mardi Gras—literally, Fat Tuesday—is the final bash before the reverent fasting and self-denial of Lent. It began in medieval Europe, swept across Italy and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally made its way to America in 1703. At that time it was a mere glimmer of the elaborate celebration we know today. It wasn’t until the 1800s that it began to pick up speed, and in 1875 Louisiana Governor Henry Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act” making Fat Tuesday an official holiday. And we’re so glad he did!
The French Quarter is party central in New Orleans, and while you won’t see children along Bourbon Street during the festivities, the French Quarter Courtyard in Universal Studios (between Twister and Revenge of the Mummy) is totally family-friendly. This is the place to find Louisiana specialities such as spicy Creole jambalaya, gumbo, po’boys (like a torpedo roll), red beans and rice, and (of course!) light, crispy beignets covered in icing sugar.
Live bands set the N’awlins mood with jazz, blues, and zydeco, and there are benches nearby to sit and enjoy a snack and a tune. Many of the bands come directly from New Orleans, so you’re getting the real deal, and it shows. It’s worth spending an extra afternoon in the Studios just to enjoy some terrific live music.
A major feature of Mardi Gras in New Orleans are the much-anticipated parades, in which elaborate floats manned by “krewe” members glide down streets lined with excited revellers. This is Mardi Gras at its finest, and it’s a real family event. The ‘naughty stuff’ doesn’t happen here, and the parades don’t go down Bourbon Street or into the French Quarter.
Each float has its own krewe, who choose their design based on each year’s overall theme, and they’re the famous “Mister” in the time-honoured Mardi Gras shout, “Throw me something, Mister!” Today, women are part of the krewe, and the traditional beads and doubloon ‘throws’ tossed from the floats have expanded to include small toys, cups, coconuts, and other trinkets. But at Universal Studios, it’s all about the beads. Worried you won’t get any? Stand along the parade route and it’s a given you’ll go home with at least a handful, and more likely a bag full.
This year’s theme at Universal Studios is “Around the World in Eighty Days”, with three new floats dedicated to Jules Verne’s adventure story. The Krewe of Dionysus float always leads the way, followed by long-time favourites The Jester, The Riverboat, King and Queen, and King Gator. Costumed stilt-walkers and strolling performers accompany the floats, and the atmosphere is distinctly high-energy. Try not to scream too loud on the roller coasters the day you visit; you’ll need that voice to shout for beads!
Kids have their own Little Jester’s Parade Viewing Area, near Terminator 3-D, which opens an hour before parade time. Bead-throwers on the floats pay special attention to youngsters, so yours won’t go home without a neck covered in purple, gold, and green beads, the traditional colours of Mardi Gras. Best part? You can scoot them out the exit before the concert starts if you prefer not to join the crushing crowds who will swarm to Universal’s Music Plaza for the free concert.
Universal’s Music Plaza is concert central, and it’s not for the faint of heart. There are no seats, which means you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of other guests eager to make the most of a free headliner concert—and the paid-for beers. If you want to see the concert, seek out a spot along the parade route that puts you within quick striking distance of the Music Plaza. Guests will make a mad rush there once the parade passes by, and you’ll find yourself at the back of the pack (and unable to see much) if you’re not among the first wave to arrive. If you want to make a quick get-away, find a spot near Shrek 4-D, as close to the exit as possible.
It’s hard to believe, since these concerts are free, but ‘headliner bands’ means exactly what it says. Among the superstar line-up this year are Daughtry, Foreigner, Weezer, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kool and the Gang, and Huey Lewis and the News.
All of the Mardi Gras festivities (excluding food and beverage) are included in your park admission. The parade and concerts occur on select dates (some Fridays, all Saturdays, and some Sundays) during the celebration, rain or shine, but be aware the attractions close once the parade starts. Want more? CityWalk hosts an after-party once the park closes, with no cover charge at the nightclubs.
Want to throw your own Mardi Gras party? Southern Living magazine’s selection of online recipes is a great start. Gumbo and King Cake are compulsory, omitting Ettouffee or Jambalaya would be embarrassing, but the rest is up to you (hint: make Muffulettas ahead of time to keep your strength up while you cook dinner). And don’t forget the beads!
ASK SUSAN AND SIMON
And here's introducing our new feature, 'Ask Susan and Simon'! We'll be answering your questions each week, submitted by yourselves to Attraction Tickets Direct via the ATD Facebook page. We'll feature the answers here, on our weekly Susan and Simon Veness column. So, if you've submitted a question, be sure to check in on us every Friday to see if your question is one of the lucky ones featured in our column.
This week's questions were submitted by Elaine Gilchrist and Phil Cfc Guard..
Elaine Gilchrist: We always buy the Universal 2 park ticket. Will this cover us for the Hogwarts Express?
Simon and Susan: Yes! All 2-Park tickets allow guests to experience the Hogwarts Express, which takes visitors on a journey from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade (and vice versa). Even a 1-Day 2-Park ticket will allow this, as will all multi-day passes. So you’re right on track! (*groan*)
Phil Cfc Guard: I know I-Drive, Disney, Universal, and Florida Mall, but I don’t know anything about downtown Orlando. Are there any good shops of places to go there?
Simon and Susan: Downtown Orlando is primarily a business district, with a few pockets that appeal to visitors, such as the dining district of Church Street. Unlike New York, Chicago, or London, Orlando’s downtown area does not offer shopping opportunities. However, nearby Winter Park has a lovely downtown area with boutique shopping, terrific dining, and a fun boat tour with a view of the area’s mansions. Further afield is pretty Mount Dora, with cute one-off boutiques and restaurants, as well as a fun Segway tour and an interesting boat excursion through the Dora Canal. Both are a great way to see more of the ‘real Florida’.
Head to Universal Orlando Resort for any one of their amazing calendar events, be it Mardi Gras, 4 th of July, Halloween or Christmas, with one of Attraction Tickets Direct's selection of combination Orlando attraction tickets.