Florida Travel

Behind the scenes at Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras celebration

Mardi Gras at Universal Studios combines nationally renowned musical acts, a bead-tossing parade, Cajun cooking and New Orleans bands.
Mardi Gras at Universal Studios combines nationally renowned musical acts, a bead-tossing parade, Cajun cooking and New Orleans bands. UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

It takes hours of prep work for Grady Champion and his band to get ready for one 45-minute performance.

Wearing a bandanna over his dreadlocks, the 45-year-old blues singer from Mississippi says the preparation is the only part of his job he considers work.

“Me on stage? I don’t consider that work,” Champion said while setting up with his band Grand Champion Review for their performance at Universal Orlando’s annual Mardi Gras celebration one day last month. “It’s joy.”

Universal’s Mardi Gras happens on select nights through April 16. Along with traditional blues performers, like Champion, the Music Plaza stage plays host to national recording artists, including next Saturday’s headliner Trace Adkins. The weeks-long celebration includes concerts blending together a mix of genres.

Planning started last summer for this year’s event, said Lora Wallace one of the event’s directors. While the parade is in its 20th year, she said planners changed it up for longtime guests who’ve returned to celebrate: the riverboat float has been upgraded, the King Gator float has new lights making it brighter, the order of parade floats has also changed. Instead of a stream of floats, guests will see a wave of floats then waves of stilt walkers in a rotating manner.

“It’s just a very different way of seeing our Mardi Gras parade if you’ve seen it before,” she said.

Two parade stops have been added, something that’s never happened before. The stops give more guests in the right place at the right time more of an opportunity to grab the coveted 1.8 million beads that were purchased for this year’s event.

“If you stop the parade for any length of time and keep throwing beads, they’re just going to get more and that’s what we wanted,” said Wallace. “More for our guests.”

As for getting the parade performers ready, that is a whole different story. They arrive between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to start getting ready for the parade, which kicks off at 7:15 p.m.

Upon arrival, they immediately go into wardrobe and get their makeup done and get their costumes on. Then they’re off to the French Quarter Courtyard to do meet-and-greets with fans and event attendees.

Most of the organized chaos is contained to the back lot, but it acounts for some of Wallace’s favorite moments each night. She even enjoys the rush to get performers to the “mixing bowl,” the term used for the place performers start the parade from.

“That’s one of the coolest things to me,” she said.