New Orleans, the most famous city in Louisiana (just two States west of Florida) has never been known for restraint—or subtlety—when it comes to living life to its fullest, and when it saw the self-discipline of Lent looming in the headlights, it said, “Let’s feast today, for tomorrow we die,” and created Carnival, a month-plus of over-indulgence and fantastic parades. And, like any dedicated reveller would do, it threw away all reason and sense, made the day before Ash Wednesday a no-holds-barred blow-out and called it Mardi Gras.
Actually, that’s only partly true. Mardi Gras really began in 17th century medieval Europe, spreading through Rome, Venice and France, until finally, the French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Beinville, whose name nobody could pronounce, brought it to Louisiana in 1699, and the locals took the ball and ran with it.
Mardi Gras officially takes place on Tuesday, 13 February this year, though the serious indulging starts on Friday (because why miss the whole weekend?), and it’s either the perfect time to be in New Orleans or the worst possible time to be in New Orleans, depending on your tolerance for a gigantic, over-the-top party.
Some of the “Big Easy’s” parties are distinctly over-21 (bearing in mind that’s the legal drinking age in the U.S.) but many of them fall firmly on the side of family friendly. And it’s from these family-friendly merriments that Orlando’s Universal Studios park takes its cue.
Like all Central Florida parks, Universal Studios likes to make the absolute most of any celebration, so their Mardi Gras festivities begin on 3 February, and, unlike their cousin in the nearby state of Louisiana, Universal’s party doesn’t end until 7 April.
Universal’s Mardi Gras parade is a massive extravaganza, with stilt walkers, dancers, performers and giant floats, and this year there are six new floats themed to the Zodiac, including Orion the Hunter, Virgo the Maiden, Taurus, Scorpius, and Andromeda. And while the floats are truly magnificent, one of the highlights of the parade are the bead necklaces thrown to guests by the handful.
The parade runs every night, though it starts at different times, depending on the day (5:15 on Feb 6; 6:45 on Feb 4, 5, 7-9, 11-15; 7:15 on Feb 16, 19-23, 25-28, and March 1, 2, 5-9; 7:45 on Feb 3, 10, 17, 18, 24, March 3, 4, 10-31, and April 1-7).
There are no bad spots along its route, but if you have small children, they might appreciate standing in the Little Jester’s Parade Viewing Area, just outside the Brown Derby Hat Shop.
Be sure to try some of the delicious Cajun food in the French Quarter Courtyard (sweet little beignets are a traditional favourite, but King Cake* is an absolute Mardi Gras must!), listen to some jazz compliments of street performers, and if you’re there on a Saturday, end your evening with a big-name concert by the likes of Foreigner, The Beach Boys, and Macklemore.
So where do Pirates come in? Well, in 1904 Florida took a look at all that fun and decided it wanted a piece of it, because frankly, who wouldn’t? Also frankly, Mardi Gras brings over $1billion into New Orleans’s economy each year, and Tampa Bay was bright enough to realise that’s a fair bit of loot.
The whole “French masquerade” style was taken, so Tampa Bay looked to its heritage and created a celebration around pirates, plunder, and pyrotechnics. As the story goes, Joe Gaspar (nicknamed Gasparilla) was a Spanish pirate who wreaked havoc upon south-west Florida back in the long-ago, and what better way to honour ransacking, pillaging, and piratical nuisance-making than a parade?
It all starts when the fully-rigged pirate ship Jose Gasparilla sails into Tampa’s Hillsborough Bay, with cannons booming, and hundreds of pirates ready to storm the shore and start the swashbuckling. Their first order of business is to “steal” the key to the city from the Mayor, then they’re off to the event’s highlight, the Parade of Pirates, with more than 100 floats, marching bands, live music, and (of course!) marauding buccaneers.
Just like Mardi Gras, the parades feature floats whose krewes go through an enormous number of “throws” (such as doubloons and bead necklaces), to outstretched hands along the parade route along Bayshore Boulevard into downtown Tampa. And, as you would expect, the kiddies are likely to come home with a gigantic haul. We’ve been bead-throwers during Universal’s Mardi Gras parade, and the faces of those young hopefuls are simply irresistible. (Tip: find a spot at the start of the parade rather than the end, so that supplies—and enthusiasm—are plentiful.)
Food and drink are abundant, but you don’t want to end up in the brig on a DUI (Driving Under the Influence of alcohol), so designate a driver for your trip back to Orlando. This is a family-friendly event (especially at the start of the parade route), and even better, it’s free.
Gasparilla is nowhere near as famous as Mardi Gras—in fact, it isn’t even all that well-known in other parts of Florida, so you now know more about the State than the majority of its residents—but it’s fantastic family fun, and an opportunity to snag some swag. You can even dress up in your best Pirate-wear, if you’re so inclined, and you won’t be the slightest bit out of place.
Gasparilla takes place in two parts, both of them in late January, with an alcohol-free Children’s Gasparilla Extravaganza aimed at young swashbucklers (January 20 this year), then the main Gasparilla Pirate Fest event (January 27 this year), with the sail-in and Parade of Pirates. Mark your calendar for next year, and if you’ve got plenty of time off (and a treasure chest full of gold), make it a triple-centred holiday starting at Gasparilla, moving on to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, saving Orlando’s world-famous theme parks for the grand finale!
*Want to make King Cake at home? Here’s one of the recipes Susan uses. Be sure to decorate in purple, green and yellow, the traditional colours of Mardi Gras, and if you’re incorrigible, add fillings such as chopped nuts or cream cheese. Just don’t forget to insert the tiny plastic baby. The person who finds it in their slice of cake gets a year of luck—and has to throw next year’s at-home Mardi Gras party!
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