Mardi Gras is synonymous with New Orleans, but the event didn’t start there. The Catholic festival of Carnival dates back several centuries, with some of its most famous traditions first arising in medieval Italy. New Orleans wasn’t even the first U.S. city to hold an annual Mardi Gras celebration; that would be Mobile, which first celebrated Mardi Gras in 1703 when it was the capital of French Louisiana. In 1723 the capital was moved to New Orleans, and in time it became more closely associated with Mardi Gras than any other city. Today it’s impossible to think of one without immediately thinking of the other. New Orleans is Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras is New Orleans.
Over 600 miles away, on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico, a new Mardi Gras tradition debuted in 1996. Universal Studios Florida, hoping to launch a springtime event that could be as successful as Halloween Horror Nights in the fall, landed on Mardi Gras as a concept for a theme park parade. It made sense: theme parks are already known for parades, costumed characters, and fun food and drink, but they’re also usually a good bit more family friendly than a real Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. A Universal Mardi Gras parade could become a destination event for families and anybody who couldn’t or didn’t want to make it to New Orleans, hopefully drawing crowds out during what was usually one of the slowest seasons of the year for theme parks.
Universal’s hunch paid off. Mardi Gras remains a popular annual event 26 years later, capturing much of the charm of New Orleans’ festivities while forging its own unique traditions over the last quarter century. Like Halloween Horror Nights, each Mardi Gras at Universal is the result of over a year of preparation and design, with Universal’s creative talent working with the legendary New Orleans float builders at Kern Studios to make a festival that feels as much like the real deal as possible. With daily parades, squads of dancers and entertainers, limited edition food and drink, a theme that changes every year, and a concert series featuring big name artists, Universal’s Mardi Gras is an elaborate and intricately designed event that any theme park fan needs to experience.
Nothing of this scale comes together easily, though. As Universal Senior Show Director Blake Braswell tells Paste, it’s a 14-month process from start to finish. Yes, that means they start developing the next Mardi Gras before the current one even debuts. With a theme that changes every year, a lot of planning is required, and Braswell and his designers at Universal work closely with some experienced Mardi Gras vets to make sure things pan out properly. “It’s always Mardi Gras,” Braswell notes, “but then we have those six floats, typically in the middle [of the parade], that we change the theme out for every year. So we develop what that’s going to be, storyline wise and aesthetically, and then work with scenic designers and Kern Studios to bring that to life.”
2022’s theme is Planet Mardi Gras, a gloriously campy combo of Mardi Gras revelry and sci-fi movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Expect floats that combine typical Mardi Gras iconography with old-fashioned spacecraft and dancers wearing silver skirts and bubble-shaped helmets. And although Braswell and his team usually have a solid concept in mind before heading down to New Orleans for research, inspiration can always strike unannounced.
“We’ve already generated ideas [for 2023] and soon will travel out to New Orleans,” Braswell says. “[We’ll] go visit Kern Studio and go shopping and all their warehouses. But really, we come with a bunch of ideas in the back of our head, but we don’t get very concrete because you kind of never know what you’re going to see out there that’s going to pinch you or whatever. Like this year. We came out before Planet Mardi Gras was the theme, something space was in the back of our head along with several other things. But when we got to Kern… there’s so many warehouses they have. You know, we’re walking along and we saw this moon and this sun that were carved faces. It looks so cool. And then we started finding, like, these giant flowers and stuff, and realized you could tweak that to make it a weird alien plant life or whatever. And then it just started kind of building on that as we went to the different warehouses. We have some ideas noodling around, but then you want to be free enough when you actually start seeing what’s in front of you in case you get inspired by anything.”
When you actually watch this year’s Mardi Gras parade, you realize it’s not just about creating an atmosphere or a vibe. Planet Mardi Gras isn’t just an umbrella term for a few vaguely space-themed floats. The parade tells an actual story, in the less-than-overt way theme park attractions often tell a story. It’s by no means subtle, but you have to actually pay attention and think about what you’re seeing and how it relates to what comes before and after, without exposition or dialogue to connect the dots for you.
Here’s how Braswell describes that story, which grew out of his lifelong love of science fiction. “We had this idea to make a journey of going and collecting friends on various planets,” he says, “and sort of bringing them together and finishing it out on Planet Mardi Gras. And once we started seeing what props were available and what pieces were available [at Kern] we knew we could kind of tweak that a bit. We went back to the hotel that night in New Orleans and we started discussing what floats could look like. And then I started writing a story that would tie them all together where we kind of take off in our first float, the liftoff float that has sort of the space astronaut look. And it’s very terrestrial Earth. It’s our solar system. And then, you know, we got a big spaceship on it. We traveled to the next one, which is a volcano planet. And there’s a spaceship there, but it’s aliens. We meet them and this planet, it’s kind of purplish. The next planet is the floral planet, and that’s green and it’s got all these weird creatures. And they also have their own spaceship. And then you get to the machine planet and now it’s got that gold color, so we’ve kind of collected purple, green and gold for Mardi Gras. And then we travel to Planet Mardi Gras, the penultimate float, where you actually see all the ships from all the previous floats together with the idea that we’re trying together. That’s something we hadn’t done before. We created this King and Queen of Planet Mardi Gras, but all the other characters on the ground would be looks from the previous floats you’ve seen. It’s like we’re the ancient aliens of Mardi Gras, basically.”
The float and character designs don’t just marry that sci-fi aesthetic to Mardi Gras’s color scheme or familiar imagery. The connection runs deeply throughout the design. You might notice that one of the characters during the floral planet section is an alien that also looks like a flower. On the surface the costume’s cap is a flower, but as Braswell notes, it also strongly resembles the cap of a jester, a character long associated with Mardi Gras. The costume blends together the sci-fi and Mardi Gras themes, combining the two in a way that’s slightly more subtle than the floats.
Of course, there’s more to Mardi Gras than the parade, both in New Orleans and Universal. Like many other theme park events, Mardi Gras is an opportunity to try a variety of food you wouldn’t normally be able to order at Universal Studios. From jambalaya and gumbo to po’boys and crawfish, you’ll find New Orleans-style food throughout the park, and can follow them up with King Cake and beignets. And you can wash it all down with a variety of rum-based cocktails and Abita beer. It’s all part of that festive Mardi Gras spirit, which Universal does a wonderful job of capturing.
Braswell boasts about how well Universal does “the party atmosphere,” and it’s clear to see why he’d be thrilled about how thoroughly Mardi Gras takes over the park. It extends his team’s creative vision beyond just the parade and walk-around characters, making it a central part of a day’s visit to the theme park. As Braswell notes near the end of our call, Mardi Gras now “spans the whole park;” once largely housed in the park’s New York area, you’ll now find Mardi Gras dining kiosks and music throughout Universal Studios, turning the whole theme park into its own Planet Mardi Gras. And instead of hopping on some tech billionaire’s private spaceship, all you have to do to visit this planet is get down to Orlando before April 24.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.