What do parade floats, colorful plastic beads, beignets and crawfish boils all have in common?
If a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras comes to mind, think again: There's a whole different Mardi Gras blowout going on now through April 24 and it's not happening on Bourbon Street.
Universal Orlando Resort has been celebrating its own version of Mardi Gras since 1995. And, while the festivities were scaled way back last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mardi Gras 2022 is back at full tilt with a pretty stellar theme.
"This year's theme is Planet Mardi Gras," says Blake Braswell, senior show director at Universal Orlando Resort. "What we're doing this year is actually telling a story, and that story is space. We travel throughout the galaxy and into the distant stars to Planet Mardi Gras: a party that is out of this world."
But it's not just the astral theming of Mardi Gras, which takes place inside the Universal Studios Florida theme park, that makes the event a good time: There's also entertainment, shopping, parades and food ... lots and lots of food.
"It's Planet Mardi Gras so we're cruising along to the different planets we have out there," says Jason Glus, an executive chef at Universal Orlando. "As you walk into the park you'll see it's sectioned off into different planets that each have themed food. The Floral Planet will be vegan food and the Machine Planet — everything at those tents come from a machine, like pressed waffle cones and a coffee cocktail. There will be planet-themed options everywhere."
From a fan-created "bead tree" to delicious vegan samosas, if a visit to Planet Mardi Gras is in your future, here are five parts of the celebration you won't want to miss.
1. The parade
Each evening, the streets of Universal Studios come alive with a Mardi Gras parade that both pays tribute to traditional Mardi Gras theming and celebrates Planet Mardi Gras. There are 12 total floats in the parade — six traditional and six space-themed — and with the colorful nightly event comes bead-throwing, music and vibrant street performers.
To create the floats, Universal partners with Kern Studios, a New Orleans-based company that's been making Mardi Gras floats since the 1930s. This year, the partnership has produced upgraded traditional floats like a "king gator" giant alligator display and one that features a statue of jazz great Louis Armstrong.
"In some form or fashion, we have had a lot of these floats from the beginning," Braswell tells Yahoo Entertainment. "All of them have been redone a bit and they all got way more glitter this year than they've ever had before"
Braswell says the space-themed floats and performers tell the story of the event. Among them, there's a purple volcano planet that spews green lava, a floral planet filled with blooms and greenery and a golden machine planet filled with robots and cyborgs — all decked out in traditional Mardi Gras colors.
Universal's annual pass holders get in on the fun as well, signing up to ride atop the floats and toss beads at onlookers. And yes, there are plenty of beads to be had.
Times for the nightly Mardi Gras parade vary, and there will be no parades on April 1, 2 and 8 due to early park closures.
2. The food
Food trucks, stands and tents line the walkways of Universal Studios offering up themed dishes (and drinks) perfect for celebrating the spirit of Mardi Gras.
In the Floribbean section, which represents dishes from Florida's Space Coast, guests can grab dishes like conch fritters and shrimp and avocado ceviche. On the Volcano Planet, the shrimp laksa is a stand-out favorite — a blend of shrimp, chicken, hard-boiled eggs and tofu served over noodles in a spicy coconut curry broth.
The Machine Planet serves up out-of-this-world dishes like crab-filled beignets and bubble waffles stuffed with sweet potato and matcha ice cream, while the Floral Planet brings delicious vegan options like samosas and vegetable vindaloo, items Glus says are his favorite in the festival despite being a self-proclaimed "meat and potatoes guy."
"The chana masala is my personal favorite," says Glus. "We've been really playing with a lot of chickpeas."
That's because Glus wants to provide drool-worthy vegan options for guests, not just a veggie burger.
"Personally, I'm not a big fan of the Beyond meats for vegan food," he says. "Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I think there's so much, being in Florida, that you can do with vegetables, so I steer away from that and challenge my team to use colors and fresh ingredients."
Louisiana staples like jambalaya, crawfish, po'boys and, of course, beignets, are also served throughout the park, but Glus says he and his team used the Planet Mardi Gras theme as a way to continue a tradition that started with last year's festival: capturing more international flavors.
"With New Orleans-type food you can only go so far," he shares. "Last year, we added different flavors to see how they'd go over and it was a big hit. This year, we took the planets and did a twist on them — like somebody takes off in a spaceship and they're just cruising all over the world tying these exciting flavors like Korean and Indian foods, too."
Pro Tip: Don't miss the festival-favorite Bloody Mary Bar, where you can order a regular or spicy Bloody Mary with toppings like beef jerky, chicken wings and pickled long beans.
3. The Tribute Store
Universal Studios Florida's "Tribute Store" is forever-changing to match the event going on inside the park's gates, from spooky merchandise and decor during Halloween Horror Nights to a much merrier experience during the holidays.
During Mardi Gras, the Tribute Store, located in the park's New York section between the Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and Revenge of the Mummy attractions, is filled with all things gold, purple and green.
Whether you're stopping in to buy some beads or gaze at images of Mardi Gras celebrations of the past, there's something for everyone to see inside this highly-themed merchandise location.
Don't miss the journey that takes place as you walk from room to room, showing how a parade float is brought to life. And, be sure to pause for the spectacular photo ops within the store, from a giant chair for the king of Mardi Gras to a mural that pays tribute to the nightly parade's iconic song, "Feet Don't Fail Me Now."
There are also sweet treats like Mardi Gras-themed cupcakes and king cake on the way out, so bring your appetite.
4. The entertainment
The planet-themed celebration isn't the only star power at this year's Mardi Gras: Weekends bring special concert nights where guests can check out performances by everyone from Barenaked Ladies to LL Cool J. The best part? The experience is included with park admission.
And where else can you sing along with bands like Sugar Ray while the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster runs in the background?
The schedule each weekend varies, with 8:30 p.m. shows taking place on different weekend nights, so be sure to check the schedule in advance if you're hoping to plan your visit around Jason Derulo or Gavin DeGraw. On concert nights only, guests can also snag a special light-up souvenir cup that will score them discounted drink refills throughout their visit and looks great being waved in the air during an encore.
Won't be at Mardi Gras on a weekend? There's still plenty of entertainment to check out, with street performers like stilt-walkers, musicians and dancers filling the park each evening for some colorful fun.
6. The "bead tree"
While a representative of Universal Orlando Resort tells Yahoo Entertainment that "the bead tree" is an unofficial part of Mardi Gras started by fans of the festival, it's clear that they're aware of the colorful tree that has guests departing Universal Studios Florida stopping to toss a strand of beads or two into its branches.
The resort has posted about the quirky phenomenon on multiple social media channels and even gives the colorful creation a special nod at the exit of the Mardi Gras tribute store.
Where to find this bead-branched wonder? As you're exiting Universal CityWalk en route to the parking structure, you'll find it opposite Hollywood Drive-In Golf, to the right of the moving walkways.
While you'll probably want to toss a strand of beads or two onto the bead tree's branches, be sure to take a few home, too, as a souvenir of all the Mardi Gras fun.