Authenticity is key ingredient to Universal's Mardi Gras

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Time-lapse video made from more than 1,200 individual images captures in 90 seconds the sights and sounds of Central Florida's own Mardi Gras 2013 parade, at Universal Orlando. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

"It's kind of a stroll-by thing, but then right across from the stage are all these building facades that have great big stoops, and so that makes it even feel more like New Orleans and Mardi Gras," McKee says. "As people come in and start to settle in they all go sit on those stoops and it makes for a perfect kind of audience setting. Before long they're dancing and doing conga lines and twirling and having just a big time."

McKee, who plays piano and accordion, sees plenty of similarities between Florida and Louisiana — climate, weather, hanging moss and interest in her kind of music, which she has labeled "swamp root."

"The food might be a little bit spicier in one place or a little bit fresher in one place, but it's all good," McKee says.

The food

In the park's French Quarter Courtyard, Universal has developed a menu that spotlights classic Mardi Gras cuisine.

"Over the years, as we've grown here, we've gotten some requests along the way. We try to include them all and have them all during Mardi Gras," says Steven Jayson, executive chef. "The type of dishes you would expect to find, and the type of dishes that are so traditional and so classic to go along with Mardi Gras — being gumbos, jambalaya, beignets, dirty rice, the king cake, these type of dishes."

His team also has made visits to New Orleans to sample the local fare.

"We've tried to duplicate that here," he says.

When it comes to spicing it up, compromise is called for.

"Here we're trying to feed many, many, many, many people, so we're trying to keep it in the middle of the road so that it has that little zip — that little heat you would expect but not to the point where it knocks you out," Jayson says.

Heat is no issue for the sweet stuff like beignets and king cake, which traditionally has a surprise baked in – a tiny plastic baby.

"The person that gets the slice with the baby in it is the person that has to host the party the next year for the next Mardi Gras," Jayson says.

But Universal's king cake is baby-free. It might be a health hazard, but it could be all about the logistics.

"I don't think they want to have 25,000 people showing up at their house. ….'Hey! I'm having a party,'" Jayson says. or 407-420-5477

Universal's Mardi Gras

Where: Universal Studios, intersection of Kirkman Road and Interstate 4, Orlando

When: Select nights — and every Saturday — through April 20. Parade starts at 7:45 p.m., concert at 8:30 p.m.

Cost: Included in regular Universal admission. A one-day, one-park ticket is $89 ($83 for ages 3-9).

Phone: 407-363-8000


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