Fly to Mardi Gras Planet at Universal Studios Florida
Mardi Gras is synonymous with New Orleans, but the event didn’t start there. The Catholic feast of Carnival dates back centuries, with some of its most famous traditions first appearing in medieval Italy. New Orleans wasn’t even the first American city to hold an annual Mardi Gras celebration; that would be Mobile, which first celebrated Mardi Gras in 1703 when it was the capital of French Louisiana. In 1723 the capital was moved to New Orleans, and over time it became more closely associated with Mardi Gras than any other city. Today it is impossible to think of one without immediately thinking of the other. New Orleans is Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras is New Orleans.
More than 600 miles away, across the Gulf of Mexico, a new Mardi Gras tradition got its start in 1996. Universal Studios Florida, hoping to launch a springtime event that could be just as successful that Halloween Horror Nights in the fall, landed on Mardi Gras as a concept for a theme park parade. It made sense: Theme parks are already known for their parades, costumed characters, and fun food and drink, but they’re also usually a bit more family-friendly than a real Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. A Universal Mardi Gras parade could become a destination event for families and anyone who can’t or won’t make it to New Orleans, hopefully drawing crowds during what was usually one of the slowest seasons of the year for theme parks.
Universal’s intuition paid off. Mardi Gras remains a popular annual event 26 years later, capturing much of the charm of New Orleans festivities while forging its own unique traditions over the past quarter century. Like Halloween Horror Nights, each Mardi Gras at Universal is the result of more than a year of planning and design, with Universal’s creative talent working with legendary New Orleans float builders at Kern Studios to create a festival that looks as much like the real deal as possible. With daily parades, teams of dancers and performers, limited-edition food and drink, a theme that changes every year, and a concert series featuring big-name artists, Universal’s Mardi Gras is an elaborate event. and complex that every theme park fan must experience. .
Nothing on this scale comes together easily, however. As Universal Show Senior Manager Blake Braswell tells Pastry, it’s a 14 month process from start to finish. Yes, that means they start developing the next Mardi Gras even before the current one debuts. With a theme that changes every year, a lot of planning goes into it, and Braswell and his designers at Universal work closely with experienced Mardi Gras vets to make sure everything runs smoothly. “It’s still Mardi Gras,” Braswell notes, “but then we have these six floats, usually in the middle [of the parade], that we change the theme every year. So we develop what it’s going to be, story-wise and aesthetically, and then we work with set designers and Kern Studios to bring that to life.
The theme for 2022 is Planet Mardi Gras, a gloriously campy combo of Mardi Gras revelry and 50s and 60s sci-fi movies. Expect floats that combine typical Mardi Gras iconography with spacecraft old-fashioned and dancers wearing silver skirts and bubble-shaped helmets. And while Braswell and his team usually have a solid concept in mind before heading to New Orleans for research, inspiration can always strike out of the blue.
“We have already generated ideas [for 2023] and soon will be heading to New Orleans,” says Braswell. “[We’ll] go visit Kern Studio and shop and all their warehouses. But really, we come with a bunch of ideas in mind, but we don’t get very concrete because you never know what you’re going to see out there that’s going to pinch you or whatever. Like this year. We went out before Planet Mardi Gras was the theme, something space was in the back of our head along with several other things. But when we got to Kern…there are so many warehouses they have. You know, we walk and we saw this moon and this sun which were carved faces. It looks so cool. And then we started finding, like, these giant flowers and stuff, and we realized you could modify that to make it some weird alien plant life or whatever. And then it just started to build on that as we went to the different warehouses. We have a few ideas in mind, but you want to be free enough when you start to see what’s in front of you in case something inspires you.
When you actually watch this year’s Mardi Gras parade, you realize it’s not just about creating atmosphere or mood. Planet Mardi Gras isn’t just a generic term for a few vaguely spatial floats. The parade tells a real story, the same way theme park attractions often tell a story. It’s by no means subtle, but you have to actually pay attention and think about what you see and how it relates to what comes before and after, with no exposition or dialogue to connect the dots for you.
Here’s how Braswell describes this story, which grew out of his lifelong love of science fiction. “We had this idea of taking a trip by picking up friends from different planets,” he says, “and kind of bringing them together and ending it on planet Mardi Gras. And once we started seeing what accessories were available and what parts were available [at Kern] we knew we could change that a bit. We went back to the hotel that night in New Orleans and started chatting about what the floats might look like. And then I started writing a story that would tie them all together where we take off in our first float, the take-off float that looks a bit like an astronaut from space. And it’s a very earthy Earth. It is our solar system. And then, you know, we have a big spaceship on it. We traveled to the next one, which is a volcanic planet. And there’s a spaceship there, but they’re aliens. We meet them and this planet is a little purplish. The next planet is the flower planet, and it’s green and it’s got all these weird creatures. And they also have their own spaceship. And then you come to the machine planet and now it has this golden color, so we kind of collected purple, green, and gold for Mardi Gras. And then we travel to Planet Mardi Gras, the penultimate tank, where you actually see all the ships from all the previous tanks with the idea that we try together. It’s something we haven’t done before. We created this King and Queen of the planet Mardi Gras, but all the other characters on the ground would be looks from the previous floats you’ve seen. It’s like we’re the old Mardi Gras aliens, basically.
The float and character designs don’t just marry that sci-fi aesthetic with the Mardi Gras color palette or familiar imagery. The connection runs deep throughout the design. You might notice that one of the characters in the flower planet section is an alien that also looks like a flower. On the surface, the costume’s bonnet is a flower, but as Braswell notes, it also bears a strong resemblance to the bonnet of a jester, a character long associated with Mardi Gras. The costume mixes sci-fi and Mardi Gras themes, combining the two in a slightly more subtle way than the floats.
Of course, Mardi Gras isn’t just about the parade, New Orleans and Universal. Like many other theme park events, Mardi Gras is an opportunity to try a variety of foods that you wouldn’t normally be able to order at Universal Studios. From jambalaya and gumbo to po’boys and crawfish, you’ll find New Orleans-style food throughout the park, and can follow it with King Cake and donuts. And you can wash it all down with a variety of rum and Abita beer cocktails. It’s all part of that festive Mardi Gras spirit, which Universal does a terrific job of capturing.
Braswell brags about how Universal is setting the “party vibe,” and it’s clear to see why he’d be thrilled with how Mardi Gras is taking over the park. He extends his team’s creative vision beyond the parade and walking characters, making it a central part of a day’s visit to the theme park. As Braswell notes near the end of our call, Mardi Gras “now spans the entire park”; Once largely housed in the New York area of the park, you’ll now find Mardi Gras food kiosks and music in Universal Studios, turning the entire theme park into its own Mardi Gras planet. And instead of jumping into a tech billionaire’s private spaceship, all you have to do to visit this planet is get to Orlando before April 24th.
Editor Garrett Martin writes about video games, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything that gets in his way. He is also on Twitter @grmartin.