Universal Orlando Resort has been celebrating Mardi Gras for 26 years, and with a few health and safety modifications, this year is no exception. Like New Orleans, there are bedazzled floats, jazz music, and a lively atmosphere that you wouldn’t expect to see outside of Bourbon Street.
To ensure the safety of guests and employees, masks are a must, social distancing reminders are everywhere, and crowded events like parades and concerts have been put on hiatus. Even with all the changes, the festive feeling is strong all over the park.
This year’s celebration runs through March 28. Even after Fat Tuesday, there’s plenty of time to party down at Universal. Here’s everything you should, eat, see, and do for a fun-filled Mardi Gras weekend at Universal Orlando.
Need to break in your new shoes before putting in all those theme park miles? Take a leisurely stroll on Universal’s Garden Walk. Lined with lush greenery and colorful tropical plants, this paved walkway connects most onsite hotels with Universal’s CityWalk shopping and dining district. The gates to Universal’s two parks – Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure – lie on either side of CityWalk. If you have the time, one of the path’s most beautiful features is a butterfly garden near the Hard Rock Hotel.
CityWalk has a little something for everybody. You can get a VooDoo Doughnut for breakfast and buy sunglasses or a swimsuit if you forgot them at home. But the best part of CityWalk is the food and drinks. For Mardi Gras, a few restaurants have specialty menu items like the Pescado a la Yucatan from Antojitos and the Picanha Sushi Roll from The Cowfish (reservations recommended for each). After dinner, grab a beer or cocktail from one of many outdoor drink carts or a Moon Pie Milkshake from Toothsome Chocolate Emporium.
Onsite hotel guests can get into one of Universal’s theme parks an hour earlier than everyone else. Most days, that park is Islands of Adventure: home of the Hogsmeade area of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Before the crowds stream in, go for a ride on Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and take a tour of Hogwarts Castle on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Early Theme Park Admission hours vary based on regular park hours so check the website or app ahead of time.
Once both parks are officially open for the day, you can hop on the Hogwarts Express: a Harry Potter-themed train that transports guests between the two parks (you’ll need a two-park ticket to board). The steam pouring from the train’s engine, elaborate theming of the station, and a few special surprises we don’t want to ruin, will truly make you feel like you’ve left Florida and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When you disembark, you’ll be in Universal Studios Florida (USF), the hub of the Mardi Gras action.
This year, the theme of Universal’s Mardi Gras festival is International Flavors of Carnaval, and it is a full on international food festival. Food booths are stationed all over USF with dishes and drinks from 13 global locations. The menus are mouthwatering, but standouts at this year’s celebration include the Picadillo Arepas from Colombia, the Pernil & Mofongo from Puerto Rico, and the Goombay Smash cocktail from the Bahamas. For $55, you can pick up a Tasting Lanyard that lets you try 10 items for one price.
When your belly is ready for a break, it’s time for a few rides. If you’re into thrills, head for Revenge of the Mummy or Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. If slow is more your speed (and you don’t suffer from motion sickness), try Transformers: The Ride 3-D, Men in Black Alien Attack, and, ironically, Fast and Furious – Supercharged. And don’t forget about E.T. Adventure, the only opening-day ride still in operation.
CityWalk is so close to the parks, it’s easy to hop back and forth. Inside and out, Pat O’Brien’s is a dang close replica of the famed New Orleans bar and they celebrate Mardi Gras day in and day out. With a dueling piano bar and a menu of Cajun creations, it’s the only place on the property you can get beignets any time of year. Most evenings, you can also jam along with the dueling piano players.
After dinner, head back inside USF for a taste of Universal’s Mardi Gras at night. The parade floats glitter with colorful lights (and, you know, actual glitter), entertainers parade through the streets, and live jazz music fills the air. In fact, Universal has been hiring jazz musicians straight out of New Orleans since the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when many musicians were struggling to find steady work. 15 years later, they’re still bringing the authentic sounds of New Orleans to the streets of Universal.
Sundays are for sleeping in. Forget about the alarm and take your time making it back over to USF for one last hurrah. Get your caffeine fix at your hotel, CityWalk, or inside the park. You’ll find coffee shops at all of these locations. Then, head straight for the New Orleans booth for a bag of hot, fresh, generously sugar-dusted, beignets. Or you can go savory with the Universal-exclusive Andouille Twisted Tater – a totally acceptable theme park breakfast.
It’s hard to describe exactly what Universal’s Mardi Gras Tribute Store is, but it’s essentially a themed walkthrough attraction where you can buy specialty merchandise, pick up a few snacks, and take a few photos. This year’s shop features a New Orleans theme, taking guests through a jazz parlor, a nautical cemetery, a riverfront warehouse, and a mossy bayou. It’s also the only place you’ll find King Cake, the essential Mardi Gras treat, at this year’s festival.
Monday is sneaking up quickly (how rude!), so now is the time to hop on any rides you missed earlier in the weekend. USF is also home to the park’s two remaining opening day shows: Animal Actors On Location! and the Horror Make-Up Show. Both are hilarious and full of surprises.
Universal Orlando Hotels
Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn & Suites is Universal’s newest hotel, having only opened in December 2020. The laid back, beachy vibe will carry away your stress the moment you step through the doors. This is one of Universal’s value resorts, so there’s no sticker shock, even for the roomy two-bedroom suites. Both of the resort’s pools boast sandy beach areas, as well as a pool bar, lobby bar, and onsite restaurant.
The Hard Rock Hotel looks exactly like what you’d expect a rock star’s mansion to look like and it has the swanky amenities to boot. The hotel’s interior is packed with musical memorabilia, and the rooms are done up with colorful decor and plush bedding. Being one of Universal’s Preferred hotels, you’ll enjoy Express Pass access, a feature that lets you skip waiting in line, at most attractions inside the park.
Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort will make you feel like you jumped in a time machine and went back to the 1950s. It’s not just the lobby music, room decor, and onsite bowling alley. It’s the little things like the Zest and V05 in the bathroom, the 50s commercials playing on giant TVs in the hotel restaurant, and the Jack Lalane-themed fitness center. Choose a standard room if you’re traveling as a couple, or a family suite for larger groups.