Squint and you might just think you're in New Orleans.
That's the objective of Universal Studios' Mardi Gras celebration, which tries to bring the best of the Big Easy to Orlando for several weekends each spring. The theme park aims for authentic experiences by transferring the brightest elements of New Orleans' party here, including a flashy parade, trademark cuisine and music direct from Louisiana.
Universal caps it off with more tunes from headlining musical acts that draw thousands of spectators to its Music Plaza for 14 nights. (This weekend features Steve Miller Band on Saturday and Boys Like Girls on Sunday. See list of performers on page 4.)
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Here is Universal's recipe for authenticity.
Sometime after the Mardi Gras madness ends in New Orleans, but before the last concert in Orlando, Universal's creative team travels to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World in New Orleans. There they sort through the company's warehouses for float decorations they will borrow for Universal's event the following year.
"We get to look at what was just run in New Orleans, what the Kerns may have in stock in their warehouses, what concept, thematic we might want to go for in the coming year and kind of throw all that into one pot and stir it around a little bit," says Jim Timon, senior vice president of entertainment.
A theme of "Colorful Cultures Around the World" is presented with new floats in this year's parade. One represents Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, with skeletons, half-melted candles and one giant, spooky margarita. A big red dragon touts Chinese New Year, and the "Elegance of India" float is fronted by a sparkling peacock and backed up by Ganesh, a Hindu deity that resembles an elephant.
Once in action, the floats are flanked by costumed dancers and stilt walkers, while other folks toss beads to enthusiastic bystanders lining the streets, another New Orleans tradition.
"All the costume design is done here in Orlando, so we key right off of the float — coloring, the thematic — and then those are all designed and built right here by our costuming staff for all the ground talent," Timon says.
It's a pattern with which Universal has become accustomed.
"We're already starting float drawings right now for next year," Timon says. "The cycle never stops."
A natural disaster led to even more New Orleans talent being peppered into Universal's Mardi Gras. Hurricane Katrina battered Louisiana in 2005, and tourism there took a beating.
"A lot of musical artists that rely on that for income were out of work. They couldn't find an avenue to make a living after Katrina," Timon says.
That's when Universal decided to invite musicians from New Orleans to perform on a side stage in the hours before the headliner performs and the parade begins.
"It was a huge hit with our guests. It just built the authenticity of the event experience 100 times more than we ever imagined that it would," Timon says. "It meant a lot to the musicians who participated, and it meant a lot to us. … I felt like we were doing something right."
Singer Beth McKee, who splits time between Orlando and New Orleans, has performed at Universal's Mardi Gras a handful of times.
"I don't have to tailor my sound to fit into a Mardi Gras gig because that's where I'm coming from," says McKee, who is scheduled for the Orlando event on March 2.
She says she loves outdoor venues, including Universal's French Quarter Courtyard, and interacting with guests.