Today we tackle one of my favorite theme park topics: the annual Universal Studios Mardi Gras Grand Celebration. Universal’s Mardi Gras holds a special place in my heart because, back in the late 1990s when I worked in Universal Studios Florida’s entertainment department, I was a talent supervisor for the parade, and got to walk with it nightly. (I’ll never get “Iko Iko” or “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” out of my skull.) So I’m thrilled to share Touring Plans’ complete guide to Universal’s bead laden baccanalia, bringing you all the info you need to laissez les bons temps rouler!
Mardi Gras originated in the religious observation of “Fat Tuesday” (the literal translation of the name), which is the day before “Ash Wednesday” on the Catholic calendar, and the start of Lent’s 40 days of dietary restrictions. People would bid “farewell to flesh” with a “carnivale” where they would indulge in the meat and drink they were about to forswear. Mardi Gras is the New Orleans, Louisiana, variation on this tradition — which is echoed in other cities from Venice, Italy to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Over the centuries, the religious significance has been stripped away, and most Mardi Gras revelers attend for strictly secular reasons — namely, epic quantities of booze, beads, and bare breasts. About 20 years ago, Universal took a look at the festivities and said, “This will make a fine family friendly event,” and amazingly it is — minus the bare breasts, of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s inauthentic; much as Universal partnered with Macy’s for its holiday parade, Universal engages Blaine Kern Studios, the same company that’s been building floats for the real deal since 1947, to create the park’s parade platforms. And musicians and recipes imported from the Big Easy add to the French Quarter feel. Of course, the real Bourbon Street doesn’t have concerts from big-name recording artists after each parade, much less a high-speed roller coaster cruising by in the background.
For 2014, the Universal Studios Mardi Gras celebration has expanded to epic proportions, running all the way from February 8 (a week before the New Orleans parades step off), and not ending until May 31, nearly three months after the actual Mardi Gras holiday. But don’t show up expecting the party on just any night in that range; there are only parades and concerts on the following select nights:
Friday Nights: March 14, 21, 28
Saturday Nights: February 8, 15, 22; March 1, 8, 15, 22, 29; April 5, 12, 19; May 3, 10, 17, 24, 31
Sunday Night: February 16
Unlike some other evening theme park events (like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights or Disney’s Very Merry Christmas Party), every night of Mardi Gras is free! Well, not exactly free (TANSTAAFL), but at least included in any valid form of of admission, including all levels of annual passes — even Power Passes that would otherwise be blocked out during spring break (April 12 & 19). There are also Florida Resident discounts available, including a $69 online-only Mardi Gras ticket for admission after 5 p.m.
The parade is naturally the centerpiece of the Mardi Gras party, and Universal’s version has all the color and crazy characters of the original (only much more compact). Floats are updated every year with new themes, and the inspiration for 2014′s additions is Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel Around the World in 80 Days. But you can always count on the massive “King Gator” float making, along with other favorites like the multi-story Riverboat, to roll down Universal’s boulevards. The floats are each accompanied by dozens of strolling performers and stilt walkers, while costumed revelers ride upon them tossing colorful plastic beads to the crowds below.
Here’s a complete video of the 2013 Mardi Gras parade:
This year’s parade steps off from the Esoteric gate near the Horror Makeup Show, circles counter-clockwise past Music Plaza Stage, and exits the park through the same gate it entered:
The parade lasts around 25 minutes; this year, it appears to be starting at either 7:15 p.m. or 7:45 p.m., depending on the night. Times may vary with operating hours, so check the park map for details. You can find good viewing anywhere along the parade route, and unless you insist on standing right up front, there’s no need to save your spot more than 10 or 15 minutes in advance.
Special reserved viewing areas are also available for Annual Passholders (near Mel’s Drive-In), American Express cardholders (near Finnegan’s), guests with disabilities (near Macy’s in New York), and young “Lil’ Jesters” and their families (near Terminator 2: 3-D).
If you really want to get in on the action, it’s possible to volunteer as a bead-tossing float rider. Annual Passholders can sign up for themselves and a guest online; you must RSVP at least one week in advance. American Express Cardholders who purchased their tickets with an AmEx can sign up to ride 90 minutes before each parade in KidZone. All riders must be at least 18 years old (or accompanied by an adult) and 48″ tall; space is limited and availability is not guaranteed.
Every event night, after the parade concludes (approximately 45 minutes after step off), a big-name concert kicks off on Music Plaza Stage underneath the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster.
Here’s the 2014 Universal Studios Mardi Gras concert lineup:
FEB 8 DAUGHTRY
FEB 15 BARENAKED LADIES
FEB 16 THOMAS RHETT
FEB 22 ROBIN THICKE
MAR 1 COLLECTIVE SOUL
MAR 8 PRINCE ROYCE
MAR 14 CODY SIMPSON
MAR 15 FOREIGNER
MAR 21 A GREAT BIG WORLD
MAR 22 GAVIN DEGRAW
MAR 28 KELLY ROWLAND
MAR 29 WEEZER
APR 5 SKILLET
APR 12 LYNYRD SKYNYRD
APR 19 KOOL & THE GANG
MAY 3 NELLY
MAY 10 THE WANTED
MAY 17 THE ROOTS
MAY 24 CHER LLOYD
MAY 31 HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS
The concerts are standing-room only and first-come/first-served; crowds can be enormous, and folks sometimes start lining up shortly after park opening for the hottest acts. There is no extra-cost VIP area available, but there is an ADA accessible viewing section near the TWISTER restrooms. Large video screens broadcast the stage to those standing in the far back, so consider watching from the New York Battery Park area if you aren’t an uber-fan of the artist. And after the concert concludes, the Universal Cinematic Spectacular show lights up the central lagoon (approximately 10:00 p.m., see park map for details).
French Quarter Food and Fun
Chef Steve Jayson and his culinary team pride themselves on the authentic N’awlins flavors they bring to the French Quarter Courtyard, an area of temporary food and beverage booths set up in New York that opens at 4:00 p.m. each Mardi Gras event night.
You can eat to the beat and enjoy live blues and zydeco musicians direct from Louisiana on the French Quarter stage. Universal started this tradition a decade ago to support New Orleans artists in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This year’s lineup is as follows:
FEB 8 REMEDY KREWE
FEB 15-16 SOUL PROJECT
FEB 22 ROCKIN’ JAKE
MAR 1 BIG AL & THE HEAVYWEIGHTS
MAR 8 DADDY MACK BLUES BAND
MAR 14-15 MISSISSIPPI RAIL COMPANY
MAR 21-22 THE BIG EASY PLAYBOYS
MAR 28-29 DIRTY BOURBON RIVER SHOW
APR 5 JOHN LISI AND DELT FUNK
APR 12 BETH MCKEE & THE SLIDERS
APR 19 GRAVY MAY 3CHRIS O’LEARY
MAY 10 T BIRD & THE BREAKS
MAY 17 GRADY CHAMPION
MAY 24 CHA WA
MAY 31 NAUGHTY PROFESSOR
CityWalk After Party
If you don’t want to stop the fun after the park shuts down, CityWalk’s seven clubs offer free admission to all park ticket-holders (including annual Passholders) after every Mardi Gras concert.