by Tarah Chieffi
Revelers have been celebrating Mardi Gras in North America since the 17th century, but its arrival at Universal Orlando Resort 25 years ago means that visitors to the theme park don’t have to travel to New Orleans for a taste of the Big Easy. Universal is pulling out all the stops for this 25th anniversary celebration, with Cajun favorites like po’ boys and crawfish, and the addition of the Carnival Around the Universe Tasting Tent – a culinary tour of carnival celebrations worldwide with a bi-weekly rotating menu.
Dates and Details
Universal’s Mardi Gras Celebration runs from February 1 through April 2, 2020. While enjoying delicious dishes and luscious libations, guests can enjoy a nightly Mardi Gras parade and authentic Louisiana jazz, blues and zydeco bands throughout the festival. Big-name acts like The Roots, TLC, Diana Ross, and Marshmello will perform on the Music Plaza stage on select nights.
Mardi Gras Fare
“Food is a huge part of Mardi Gras and we’ve got some great treats in store for our guests this year,” says Universal Studios Florida Executive Chef, Ron Cope. “For the 25th anniversary, we’re doing some new things, but also bringing back things like our Bayou Boil that was very successful last year. We know that people want to see those traditional Mardi Gras foods, but the new Carnival Around the Universe Tasting Tent gives us the opportunity to do some fun new items like German Sauerbraten (slow-braised beef) and Brazilian pao de quiejo (cheese bread, pictured at right).
We asked Chef Cope what makes Mardi Gras food so distinctive. If you think the answer was spice, spice and more spice, think again. “I think what really makes Cajun food stand out are the balanced flavors. A lot of people think it’s all about the heat and the spice, but it’s so much more about building those layers of flavor,” Chef Cope says.
We had the chance to sample some of the menu items, and you really can’t go wrong no matter what you choose from this year’s offerings, but we’ve picked out a few favorites to help guide your hunger.
Chicken & Andouille Po’ Boy: This Cajun classic contains juicy chicken, sliced Andouille sausage, and a tangy slaw housed in a bite-size bun. The smaller size means you won’t fill up too quickly, giving you the chance to stroll through the French Quarter Courtyard (inside Universal Studios’ New York area) and sample items from multiple booths. If you want to taste everything the bayou has to offer, Universal is bringing back the Mardi Gras Tasting Lanyard, an add-on purchase that allows guests to sample various food and drink options for one price.
Bayou Boil: On concert nights, guests can come on down to Battery Park for an authentic Louisiana-style boil featuring crawfish, shrimp, potatoes and corn on the cob (pictured). If you’re not into seafood, chicken and Andouille sausage jambalaya is available upon request. After you dine, you’ll be treated to an exclusive parade viewing area, dessert, sparkling wine and assorted non-alcoholic beverages. Prices are $59.99 plus tax for adults and $39.99 plus tax for kids ages 3–9.
King Cake: It’s not Mardi Gras without a lucky king cake. Universal knows that most theme park guests are on the go, so they made a handheld version that still has the familiar purple, green and gold sprinkled frosting you’d expect from this celebratory treat. You can find the king cake in the French Quarter Courtyard booths, but if you’ve got a real sweet tooth, your best bet is the Feast and Floats Dessert Party. Held on select nights from March 9 through April 2, a ticket to this sweet party includes specialty desserts, savory bites, hot chocolate, assorted non-alcoholic beverages and sparkling wine and cider, plus a special viewing area for the parade and Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration. Tickets for adults are $49.99 plus tax, and tickets for children ages 3–9 are $29.99 plus tax.
Beignets & Hoodoo Cold Brew: If you’ve ever visited Cafe du Monde in the heart of New Orleans, you know that coffee and beignets are a perfect pairing. “I knew we had to incorporate coffee somehow with our beignets, so we decided to do an adult-friendly cold brew,” Chef Cope says. “We added a flavored vodka so it has a bitter sweetness that pairs beautifully with the beignets.” We tasted both of these and agree with Chef Cope that these are best enjoyed together.
Cauliflower Dirty Rice: We were pleasantly surprised to see a few vegan options on this year’s menu, especially the Cauliflower Dirty Rice. Available in the Carnival Around the Universe Tasting Tent, this blend of garlic, bell peppers, onions, shallots and plant-based sausage could fool any carnivore and has just a slight kick. The menu in this all-new tasting tent will be changing every two weeks throughout the event so guests can try something new every time they come back. The Cauliflower Dirty Rice (pictured below) will be available February 16–29 along with an equally tasty Softshell Crab Slider.
More Favorites: You’ll also want to be on the lookout for the tangy Trinidad & Tobago Grilled Pineapple Trini-Chow (available February 1–15) and the Brazilian Girl From Ipanema cocktail (available March 1–14), a gin cocktail with the flavors of coconut and pineapple, which were among our other favorites.