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)

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.)

Here is Universal's recipe for authenticity.

The parade

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."

The bands

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.

"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.

dbevil@tribune.com 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

Online: UniversalOrlando.com/MardiGras

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