We’re going to show you how to get the absolute best out of the celebration. But first, let us give you a little primer on terms, so you know what you’re doing when you get there.
-French Quarter: New Orleans’ oldest neighbourhood, now a National Historic Landmark, but really the heart of all the city’s food, fun, and music, year round. At Universal, it’s the part of the park where the food kiosks and live music happen.
-Creole: A language, but more important, an authentic Louisiana style of cooking based on French, Spanish, German, Italian, and West African cuisines. A tiny bit snootier than Cajun cuisine, but lovable just the same.
-Cajun: Traditional rustic Louisiana cooking, usually involving rice, seafood, and sausage. Similar to Creole, but ‘homier’. Either can be murderously spicy, but at Universal you can eat with impunity; they’re completely benign, with none of the pain but all of the flavour.
-Zydeco: Louisiana’s unique music style, based on blues, rhythm and blues, and a local sound created by the state’s French Creole speakers. It’s your chance to see a wash-board turned into a musical instrument.
-N’awlins: Say the name of the city like a native and you’ll be one of the cool kids! Not sure how to pronounce it? Say, “naw-lins”
-Pizza: Yes, French Quarter sells it, but don’t go there. It would be shameful when there’s so much great Cajun and Creole food around.
And now, our Top 3 tips for full immersion in the party atmosphere:
1) French Quarter Food and Music: Louisiana loves its food, and nowhere is that more evident than in the French Quarter in New Orleans, where it’s easy to find fantastic live blues and zydeco music while you eat. You’ll find the same at Universal’s French Quarter.
If you’re new to Cajun cuisine, let us make ordering easy for you: go straight for the Cajun Sampler of Creole Gumbo (a wonderful tomatoey stew-like mix of shrimp, bacon, and sausage with okra), Jambalaya (a gorgeous rice dish with ham, chicken, sausage, shrimp, and black eyed peas) and Andouille Sausage. And, whether you pronounce it crayfish, crawfish, crawdad or mudbug, don’t throw that whole shrimp on top of your Jambalaya away. Instead, crack the tail off, peel off a bit of the shell, pinch the tail, and gnaw out the meat, like a true Louisianan (Brave? Suck the meat out of the head, too). Add an order of Beignets (delicate fried doughnuts with icing sugar) and a rummy VooDoo Juice, and you’ve got yourself a meal. It doesn’t get any more N’awlins than that!
Other kiosks offer Andouille Sausage on a French Roll, Red Beans and Rice with Shrimp (another highly authentic Louisiana specialty), Po’Boys (torpedo roll style sandwiches), and Chicken Sandwiches. Mixed drinks, beer, wine, and soft drinks are also available, but it’s really got to be the VooDoo Juice, doesn’t it?
Ideally, find a bench in the courtyard behind the French Quarter food kiosks while you’re eating, especially if the live bands direct from Louisiana are playing on the Courtyard stage.
2) Mardi Gras Concerts: Now listen, because we’re not kidding: if you want a great spot to view the concert, you must get there early. With such a fantastic musical line-up (Diana Ross, Barenaked Ladies, Fall Out Boy, Kool & the Gang, 3 Doors Down and more), these concerts are massively popular, and with good reason. Where else are you going to get an hour’s worth of headliner acts for free (with park admission)? Even Orlando locals make a special effort to get out and see the shows, so you know they’re something special. If you don’t arrive early, expect to enjoy the concert but don’t expect to see the band (that’s where the huge monitors on either side of the stage come in; you can see them from anywhere in the Universal Music Plaza).
We saw Diana Ross on 13 February, and, with her warm-up act (her daughter Rhonda), the concert lasted 90 minutes. And what a 90 minutes it was, with all the fabulous diva outfits you could want, plus an hour of Diana singing her biggest hits. At 70 years old, the girl can still belt it out!
Concerts take place at 8:30pm on select Saturdays and Sundays during Universal’s Mardi Gras festival.
3) Mardi Gras Parade: Dramatic floats, costumed stilt-walkers, street performers, energetic dancers, music and confetti are part and parcel of any good Mardi Gras parade, and Universal’s is, hands-down, the best you’ll see outside New Orleans. The parade route is long, so there’s plenty of room to get a good spot, but arrive early or you might be three-deep, where it’s a bit more challenging to catch the bead necklaces being thrown from the floats.
The ultimate way to make Mardi Gras a serious Party Gras is to snag a spot on one of the parade floats and throw bead necklaces to the guests. As would be expected, there are restrictions, one of them being that you must be an Annual Passholder, or otherwise have VIP access. For more about the process, sign-up can be found on Universal Orlando’s website under Mardi Gras Parade.
We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to ride on the King and Queen float on 14 February, and there is simply nothing like throwing beads to excited guests. The sense of being a part of something that makes people happy (and, at times, just a tiny bit greedy; I’m talking to you, big brothers and sisters who swipe their younger siblings beads!) is immense, and seeing all those waving hands and hearing the attention-grabbing screams is truly unforgettable. It’s enough to make you want a job as a Bead Captain so you can ride on the floats every night.
But what if you’ve done your best to get chosen for a float and it just didn’t work out? Or you aren’t an Annual Passholder, though you might consider it for next year just to get this perk? Fear not, because the only thing better than throwing beads is catching beads, and you can do that along the entire parade route. If you have children with you, put them up front (which means, arrive early and stake out a spot!). Bead-throwers watch for kids, and yours are likely to come away from it with a massive haul, especially if you stand in the Little Jesters Parade Viewing area, designated for families with young’uns. Adults have the advantage of height, but kids have the advantage of cute, and everyone has the advantage when shouting the phrase that’s practically compulsory during Mardi Gras: “Throw me something, mister!”
The party atmosphere kicks into high gear when the Mardi Gras Parade starts, with the closest thing to the sights and sounds of one of the world’s most famous street parties as you can get outside N’awlins. And just like most party spots in the Big Easy (Bourbon Street most definitely NOT included!), Universal’s Mardi Gras is a family event, so don’t hesitate to bring the kids. It may just be one of the most memorable experiences of your entire trip!
Join us on Attraction Tickets Direct’s discussion forums to talk more about Mardi Gras at Universal.
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