Universal Studios Mardi Gras: The Big Easy Comes to Orlando

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Universal Studios Mardi Gras

Christopher Curley

The square is festooned with green, gold and purple bric-a-brac, a sprightly Basin City blues fills your ears, and the air is rich with the smell of spicy andouille sausage and seafood gumbo, but no, you're not in New Orleans – you're at Universal Studios' Mardi Gras in Orlando.

On Saturdays and select Friday evenings from now until April 23 (long past actual Mardi Gras day), Universal Studios transforms into a little version of the Big Easy, complete with mini-French Quarter and 12-float Mardi Gras parade featuring costumed dancers, stilt-animals, pyrotechnics, and beads galore.

With the Carnival festival now in its 16th year, Universal Studios' dedication to Mardi Gras authenticity is remarkable: parade floats are constructed with the aid of pros who work with actual Mardi Gras krewes and Universal flies in actual blues and Zydeco bands from New Orleans to add some genuine Cajun color to the festivities.

The biggest surprise, however, is the food. Far from the comfortable and bland burgers-fries-pizza trifecta you come to expect from a theme park, the Universal Mardi Gras experience offers up genuine French Louisiana fare like jambalaya, gumbo, hot sausages and peppers for dinner, and warm powdered beignets and chicory coffee for dessert. For more timid palates, there are other dining options on site, but the park deserves plaudits for going all the way with their Mardi Gras theme.

But just like New Orleans' Mardi Gras, Universal Studios' party really heats up once the sun goes down. A slew of well-known musical acts, from The Roots and KC and the Sunshine Band to Lynyrd Skynrd are giving free performances at the park's main bandstand (full lineup here), while the restaurants on CityWalk, like New Orleans' own Pat O'Brien's satellite location, keep the party – and Hurricanes – flowing until the wee hours.

Best of all, attending Universal Studios' Mardi Gras festivities won't cost you a dime extra if you are planning on spending the day in the park (or have a two-park pass for both Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure), which includes the showcase concert after the parade. The park also made the smart move of cordoning some prime front-row parade viewing areas for the kiddies (and guests who stay at hotels on-site), so that everyone gets a chance to take part in the spectacle.

Given that you could pay a fair amount of money to see bands like the Beach Boys and Neon Trees on their own, this is a terrific deal, with the parades, food, and brio of universal Studios' Mardi Gras a convincing reason to cut short your time with the Mouse and swing over to those other theme parks on your next trip to Orlando.

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