Step aside New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, Orlando is celebrating Mardi Gras in a major way. Universal Studios hosts a 50-day party that extends well beyond Fat Tuesday. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
French settlers along the Gulf Coast established Mardi Gras in the 1700s, starting in Mobile in 1703 and spreading its way to cities like New Orleans, Biloxi, Pensacola and even down to Key West. Mardi Gras translates to Fat Tuesday, when Catholics enjoyed a feast of overindulgences the last day before Lent. That tradition expanded to elaborate parades and masked balls, always with plenty of beads, food and drink. This year, Universal Orlando is honoring the holiday with its biggest party yet. It all goes down from Feb. 4 to March 25 when Universal Studios transforms into a giant street party complete with nightly parades led by amazing performers with outrageous floats custom-built for Universal’s guests.
The main event of the colorful annual carnival you don’t want to miss is the parade. Elaborate floats companied by hundreds of bead-throwers, towering stilt-walkers and sequined-costumed dancers flood the streets each night.Throughout the day, visitors can also witness and even participate in a second-line parade, a New Orleans tradition where a main line of brass instruments is followed by the crowd.
“We have the beautiful floats, but the parade’s performers are the heart beat,” says Jason Horne, show director for Universal’s Mardi Gras. “Until we get them throwing the beads and dancing and interacting with guests, that’s when Mardi Gras really begins.”
It wouldn’t be Mardi Gras without music. That’s why for 12 select nights during the festival, one of today’s top recording artists will headline the main stage. Plus, there’s plenty of toe-tapping going on with nightly jazz, zydeco and blues bands straight from Bourbon Street keeping time in the French Quarter Courtyard. Concerts and events are included with park admission.
Feb. 4: Trace Adkins "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk"
Feb. 11: Ne-Yo "Let Me Love You"
Feb. 18: Collective Soul "Better Now"
Feb. 19: X Ambassadors "Renegades"
Feb. 25: Fifth Harmony "Work From Home"
March 4: Kool & The Gang "Get Down on It"
March 5: Olivia Newton-John "Physical"
March 11: UB40 "Red Red Wine"
March 12: Toby Keith "Red Solo Cup"
March 18: Jason Derulo "Wiggle"
March 20: Earth, Wind & Fire "Let's Groove"
March 25: The All-American Rejects "Dirty Little Secret"
Good times and great food are also on the menu where New Orleans-style cuisine treats your tastebuds to a party. The park’s French Quarter district serves succulent Cajun-spiced seafood, red beans and rice, gumbo, crawfish, jambalaya, crispy hushpuppies, heavenly beignets and king cake. At CityWalk, New Orleans Celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse has two outposts, Emeril's Orlando and Emeril's Tchoup Chop.
Emeril's Orlando Chef de Cuisine Doug Braselman, a New Orleans native, turns out signature dishes like barbecue shrimp, andouille-crusted drum and crawfish bread. "I worked closely with Emeril at his original restaurant on Tchoupitoulas [in New Orleans]," says Braselman. "While we serve some of his signatures here like the barbecue shrimp and the wild mushroom pasta with tasso cream, he gives me free rein." A few of Braselman's creative menu choices include honey-lacquered duck that has been marinated in sweet tea for five days and seared tuna with tomato jam and sweet onion cream. For Mardi Gras, he's added a king cake sticky bun to the dessert menu. Guests can also find a menu of New Orleans Libations, like the Sazerac, French 75 and Gin Fizz.
The Street Party
After dinner, the party continues at Universal CityWalk. Of the unique party zones that make up Orlando's version of Times Square, Pat O'Brien's is the place to be for Mardi Gras. Straight out of Bourbon Street, this funhouse packed with numerous bars features dueling pianos and live music in its bricked-courtyard with flaming fountain that's a replica of the New Orleans establishment. Be sure to order the famous hurricane, made with generous amounts of rum, fruit juice and grenadine.