Universal studios celebration

Universal's Mardi Gras gets 'bigger, badder'

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If you're still suffering from holidays hangover, brace yourself: Universal Studios' Mardi Gras is back, and it's bigger.

This year's celebration, starting Saturday, runs on 20 select nights spread over four months — from before Valentine's Day until after Memorial Day. At this rate, the theme park might need to rename it something like Mega Mardi Gras.

"We wanted to make Mardi Gras a bigger, badder party," says show director Patrick Braillard.

The event, in most respects, is much like it has been for the past decade or so: New Orleans musicians and cuisine, followed by a glittery, bead-hurling parade through the streets of the park, capped by a headliner at the park's Music Plaza. There now are just more nights to take it in.

Mardi Gras concerts and other festivities are included in regular Universal Studios admission.

Daughtry, a rock band fronted by popular "American Idol" contestant Chris Daughtry, is the first musical group. The lineup ranges from young artists such as The Wanted and Cher Lloyd to old-schoolers such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Huey Lewis and the News. Perhaps the hottest act will be Robin Thicke, who's making his Universal debut after great success with his song "Blurred Lines." It was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 12 consecutive weeks last year. (See page 4 for the Mardi Gras concert schedule.)

"As far as crowds are concerned, I can't wait to see what happens," Braillard says.

Universal visitors during Mardi Gras will see a few new floats this year. Three are based on the Jules Verne novel "Around the World in Eighty Days." The new units represent travel by land, sea and air.

"We get to go to turn-of-the-century, we get to go somewhat on a steampunk bend and we get to take guests from one end of the Earth and go all around the Earth in the course of the parade," Braillard says.

A float called "Set Sail" features a boat that's a cross between a pirate ship and a Spanish galleon, Braillard says. Water will shoot out of its sides.

The "Break New Ground" float has a train with a smokestack and a special effect bringing up the rear.

"We actually have confetti that's going to be coming out of the coal car behind the locomotive — and it's going to be black confetti," Braillard says. "So as it blows off you're actually going to have coal dust flying out of the coal car."

The "Fly Away" float is all about "flying contraptions," Braillard says.

"You have the Wright Brothers plane, and you've got a large zeppelin on top of it and hot-air balloons, smaller balloons and paper airplanes," he says.

This unit also features more than 60 sculpted pieces from New Orleans' famed float producer, Blaine Kerns' Mardi Gras World. Universal has teamed with Kerns for several years. The "Around the World" theme was settled on about a year ago, and Kerns started building in April 2013, Braillard says.

Much like Halloween Horror Nights, Mardi Gras has become a year-round design project at Universal, he says. "It's wonderful that we now have that long of a crafting period, so we get the event exactly the way we want it before it hits the guests," he says.

Universal also rehabbed its jester float from the ground up, including a new paint scheme.

"It's big and it's light and it's vibrant," Braillard says.

It will be shown off right from the start, he says. Universal plans to move it to the front of the parade, moving its large riverboat-themed float farther back in the lineup.

"We've stepped up our game," Braillard says. "I think guests will be excited by what they see this year."

dbevil@tribune.com or 407-420-5477

Mardi Gras

Where: Universal Studios, intersection of Kirkman Road and Interstate 4, southwest of Orlando

When: Feb. 8, 15, 16, 22; March 1, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 28, 29; April 5, 12, 19; and May 3, 10, 17, 24, 31. Saturday's parade is at 7:15 p.m.; concert is at 8 p.m.

Cost: A one-day, one-park ticket is $92 ($86 for ages 3-9). An after-5 p.m. ticket is available for event nights for $69.99. (It must be purchased online.)

Phone: 407-363-8000

Online: UniversalOrlando.com/mardigras

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