I am not going to bury the lede in this blog. Universal Studios Florida did almost everything flawlessly in their execution of Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnival. The event will be taking place until March 28th, and I whole-heartedly suggest taking the time to experience it in the next few weeks if you have the chance. This is Universal at its best. Comparisons will inevitably made to the festivals held by Universal’s competitors down I-4 at Walt Disney World. While there are many aspects of the Mardi Gras celebration that have similarities to festivals at Epcot, the vibe is uniquely Universal.
My first taste of the International Flavors of Carnival took place on Mardi Gras, itself, February 16th. This timing created a particular issue for Universal. It was a rare cosmic alignment of Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day, and Fat Tuesday falling in three consecutive days. This resulted in a particularly crowded Tuesday afternoon for my visit. It also was my first glimpse into how committed Universal was to making sure everybody had a great time. The big board at the front of the park that lists wait times greeted me with some sobering truths. “E.T.” was at 75 minutes. More popular attractions were showing wait times over two hours. Even “The Simpsons Ride” was at 125 minutes at one point.
Universal worked to spread out these crowds by scattering characters almost everywhere it would help. Bart Simpson, Sideshow Bob, Krusty the Clown, Marylin Monroe, Spongebob Squarepants, Puss in Boots, Dora the Explorer, and many, many more provided socially-distanced meet-and-greets and photo opportunities. The Mystery Machine, the preferred vehicle of the Scooby Gang, was also on display inside the park. These extra touches really made a difference with guest flow. When people are taking a selfie with Dora the Explorer for Instagram, they aren’t in line at a food booth or in line for a ride. This was great planning by Universal.
The first Mardi Gras feature you notice is that floats are scattered throughout the park. In past years, these floats would have been part of the parade, but this adaptation actually creates a more festive vibe. Dancers and stilt-walkers may be positioned in front of floats, and there are often team members in costume on the floats to toss beads to guests. It is all distraction. After a few minutes, you are transported, and don’t notice the masks on the people throwing you beads.
Mardi Gras has also brought us another version of the Tribute Store. These special holiday overlays have been a treat since Halloween. This season, the theming is top-notch. The first room is essentially a tribute to Jazz, with a band set-up for “The Tributes.” There are pictures of Jazz legends on the walls, along with Mardi Gras masks. As you continue through the store, you pass a bayou graveyard; a pirate ship motif; and you finish in the room with the treats. You can get King Cake, Vegan Skull Brownies, Praline Cookies, Moon Pie, Mixed Berry Sour Gummy Skulls, and much more. Of course, the Tribute Store is also stocked with all of the Universal Mardi Gras merch that you can stuff into a carry-on to fly back home.
No good festival at Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resort would be complete without a scavenger hunt, and Mardi Gras at Universal Studios Florida has you covered with the Krewe Crawl. The Krewe Crawl map is $7.99, and leads you to find special skeleton displays that have been set-up in stores around the park. These displays are always pretty creative. They also give you reasons to check up some stores in the park that you may have otherwise skipped. Of course, I want you to have the fun of discovering them on your own, so I will only share a few pictures of these displays. My college major was history, so I was particularly thrilled by the reference to former-Louisiana Governor Huey Long. It was a fun nod to an American historical figure who is unique to Louisiana. After completing the crawl, participants are gifted (I mean, I guess you really bought them) a special set of Mardi Gras beads. These are quality beads that will last as decorations for years.
Alright, did I talk about the other stuff enough? Are we ready to get to the food? Like, we all want to hear about the food, right?
While I didn’t have nearly enough time to check out all of the great food options, I will be doing my best to try as much of it as possibly in subsequent trips before March 28th. A sampling lanyard will get you ten items from the food booths for $55 plus tax. Annual Passholders have access to a lanyard good for fifteen items for $65 plus tax. Here are some of the highlights from my Fat Tuesday visit.
The Arancini at the Italian booth is a vegetarian option for $5.99. Containing fried risotto, wild mushrooms, truffle, parmesan cheese, this was probably my favorite item of the event. All of the flavors pop, and mesh together perfectly. It is also a decent portion size for the price.
I tried two very affordable options at the Belgian booth. The Belgian Liege Waffles are topped with strawberries, whipped cream, and chocolate. For $4.49, you get a really tasty dessert. The Brussels Frites with Roasted Garlic Veganaise is $3.99 and completely vegan and gluten-free. You get crispy seasoned fries with three dipping sauces (garlic veganaise, andalouse, and joppiesaus). These sauces are phenomenal. Even if you don’t gravitate towards vegan options, I would recommend this…especially for the price.
The Bahamas booth has another practically perfect option. The Jerk Chicken and Jerk Jackfruit both contain the exact same ingredients of rice and peas, and scotch bonnet salsa. They are both gluten-free, but the jackfruit version is also vegan. The chicken is $7.99 and the jackfruit is $7.49. I got the vegan version, but the star of this dish is the seasoning. There is no way that the chicken version wouldn’t be just as outstanding. In the interest of full disclosure, these dishes are quite spicy.
I was born and raised in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area. In Amish Country, we always celebrated Fasnacht Day on the eve of Ash Wednesday. With that in mind, I knew my wife would want me to pick us up some Voodoo Doughnuts. There is a Mardi Gras Mask doughnut that is a yeast bar filled with banana foster Bavarian dipped in vanilla icing decorated with a Mardi Gras Mask. It was $3.75. At different times throughout the festival, there will be some other special Mardi Gras-themed items available for limited days.
While I was excited to see how Universal would handle Mardi Gras during these unprecedented times, I was almost surprised with how great they handled everything. Sure, it was crowded for a Tuesday. I don’t feel uncomfortable if people are properly spaced in a crowded park. Mask compliance was great, and the crowd flow was well orchestrated. Most importantly, the actual Mardi Gras offerings were awesome. If you have a chance to make it to Universal Studios Florida in the next few weeks, I can’t recommend this event enough. Universal has a ton of great deals for the early-part of this year.