Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval runs from February 6 to March 28, 2021 at Universal Studios Florida. This guide covers info about this family-friendly New Orleans-inspired event, everything new to the party, parade viewing & crowd tips, what to expect, and how to maximize your time & money.
Before we get started, it’s important to note that Universal Orlando has changed a lot about the way Mardi Gras is celebrated at USF. Following the reopening of the parks, there’s a lot of temporary health safety protocol and rules in place, and those impact Mardi Gras. Even though the event is far more “normal” than Halloween Horror Nights (Lite) or Christmas, the experience is still very different from last year.
This guide will cover both a normal and modified Mardi Gras at Universal Orlando, offering commentary about how this year differs. That should make this a useful resource for those planning or debating trips for 2021 or 2022, and will also give the former group an idea of what they’re missing and how it’ll impact their Mardi Gras visit to Universal for better or worse…
With those caveats out of the way, let’s turn to a review of Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval. We won’t bury the lede–Universal Studios Florida absolutely crushed it. Mardi Gras is the best event to date at either Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando since the theme parks reopened last summer.
We’ve frequently praised Universal Orlando for its post-reopening entertainment presence, which permeates both parks with a palpable sense of life and energy. You normally wouldn’t describe theme parks as listless since they’re normally associated with excitement, but in the months since reopening things have sometimes been muted. That’s not the case at Universal Studios Florida, and this is especially true during Mardi Gras 2021.
What makes Universal’s Mardi Gras celebration so great is that it truly feels like a party. In the days we’ve visited Universal Studios Florida during the event thus far, there hasn’t been a single time when we couldn’t hear live music. Most of the time, you can also see street performers no matter where you are (with obvious exceptions like within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Springfield from the Simpsons, which maintain their thematic integrity during the festivities).
We’d stop well short of saying that the modified version of Mardi Gras is better than the normal event, but there is absolutely something to be said for plopping the parade floats down around the park. The result is that each one is its own mini-party, imbuing that pocket of USF with liveliness.
Essentially, instead of one blockbuster piece of entertainment with the full parade, you have diluted and dispersed but continuously present pieces of entertainment. The former might be more desirable when heavy crowds are part of the atmosphere and fun, but at a time when close congregation is to be avoided, the latter is an exceptional compromise.
We might go as far as to say the latter is just flat out better (it’s certainly easier and stress-free), but we do love the grandeur and pageantry of a full parade.
Regardless of which is better, Universal Orlando has undeniably done an exceptional job of balancing safety and spectacle. Even in its modified form, Mardi Gras 2021 feels like a party. It does not feel like Universal has “made lemonade out of lemons” as has been the case with other events at Walt Disney World and Universal, which up until now, has been praise.
Universal Studios Florida’s Mardi Gras 2021 is the real deal, and the closest we’ve felt to having a “normal” theme park experience since last year around this time…before the world went sideways.
In a normal year, Mardi Gras brings a formidable lineup of musicians from a range of genres to Universal Studios Florida for its Mardi Gras concert series. During weekends throughout the event, the Music Plaza Stage hosts big-name bands and artists. These concerts would typically take place on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8 pm throughout Universal’s Mardi Gras.
Unfortunately, these have been cancelled for 2021. This is due to social distancing measures currently in place at Universal Orlando. This is the biggest loss of the modified event, but even this has upside–if you don’t care about [insert band name] you now benefit from lower attendance.
Those concerts always packed the park. This is obviously an unpopular opinion judging by crowds, but we’ll take talented “no-name” performers all around the park that can be enjoyed at our leisure over “big name (10 or more years ago)” performers that require effort to see.
For those getting nervous about our description of an authentic party atmosphere, we’ve felt safe the entirety of our time in Universal Studios Florida during Mardi Gras.
First, the event is entirely outdoors–meaning it’s objectively safer than indoor dining or something like the Bourne Stuntacular.
Second, Universal has done an excellent job with social distancing. There are blue markers on the ground in front of all the parade floats and stages where entertainers perform.
We’ve noticed that there’s an ebb and flow to crowds, with certain locations getting congested and some guests disregarding the markers, but that is fleeting. A few minutes after an area being packed, the crowd clears out and there’s a lull. Pick your spots.
Walt Disney World fans and others reading this may be apprehensive about the vibe of a Mardi Gras-themed event, especially given the reputation of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida. While we definitely would not take kids to HHN, in our view, Mardi Gras is entirely family-friendly. It’s not comparable to HHN or even the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Nevertheless, there are probably two areas of concern: outfits and alcohol. The costuming is lavish, ornate, and gorgeous. Sure, there’s a bit of cleavage, but it’s literally no worse than the Halloween episode of WandaVision. If this is something that bothers you, good luck ever watching any television, movie, or even visiting Florida during hotter months. It’s a total nonissue.
As for alcohol, we’d liken Mardi Gras to Food & Wine Festival at EPCOT. Universal does a pretty good job of limiting booze sales, and long lines at the food booths and restaurants are another roadblock to drunkenness. Nevertheless, you will likely see some guests who have had too much, especially later in the day.
If this is a concern, consider visiting earlier in the day and hopping over to Islands of Adventure later in the day. We’ve never had any major issues with this, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The same can also happen with “drinking around the world” groups at EPCOT.
Speaking of drink and food, the culinary component of Universal’s Mardi Gras is huge. This year’s event is subtitled “International Flavors of Carnaval” and there are food booths serving up cuisine from over a dozen countries and cities, including Puerto Rico, France, Trinidad and Tobago, Germany, Spain, Canada, and of course, New Orleans (which has multiple booths). All Carnaval food booths open at 11 am and operate until 30 minutes before the park closes.
Our days at Mardi Gras essentially consist of grabbing something to eat from a booth, finding a spot near a stage to sit (ideally in the shade), and enjoying the snack and entertainment. Universal’s in-park restaurants can be hit or miss, but these booths are mostly-exceptional. We’d put this ahead of EPCOT’s Food & Wine Festival.
We’d highly recommend purchasing the Universal Mardi Gras Tasting Lanyard. This costs $55 for regular guests and offers 10 redemptions, which comes out to $5.50 per item. The Annual Passholder version is $65 but it offers 15 redemptions for a final cost of $4.33 per item.
At an event with per item costs ranging from $5 to over $10, this makes the Mardi Gras Tasting Lanyard an exceptional value. We don’t fixate too much on trying to maximize our value for money with this, but it helps that two of our favorite items (above and below) just so happen to be among the most expensive at the event.
The Mardi Gras Tasting Lanyard can be used for all food and beverage items (including alcohol!) sold at the International Flavors of Carnaval booths. Credits can also be used at other snack stands on menu items displaying the Universal globe–and will remain valid at those locations after Mardi Gras ends.
Think of it like Disney Dining Plan snack credits. We’ve already polished off one Tasting Lanyard and will likely go through another one or two. It’s a seriously great deal. (If you’d like to see a more thorough food guide to Universal Mardi Gras, let us know in the comments.)
Over by Revenge of the Mummy, you’ll find the Mardi Gras Tribute Store, which is really cool and not to be missed. Think of this as a walk-through attraction rather than a gift shop. The jazz parlor, nautical cemetery, and pirate-themed rooms are all well-themed and moody–Universal could totally do a Mardi Gras Horror Nights in the spring.
These are exquisitely designed, but not the best photo ops due to the moody (and dark) lighting. Most if not all of the merchandise for sale here can also be found elsewhere in USF, but there are many snacks–particularly sweets–that are unique to this location.
Speaking of which, Universal’s Mardi Gras merchandise is also a lot of fun. There are a ton of designs that you can find up front in the Universal Studios Store or at pop-up stands throughout the park.
I love the mugs, cups, pins, and even the shirts–although as the owner of a light-furred cat and person who lives in Florida, I once again question why are so many of the shirts black?!
No special event would be complete without a (paid) scavenger hunt, and Universal’s Mardi Gras does not disappoint on that front with the “Krewe Crawl.” For $7.95, you get a treasure map to all of the Krewe Crawl spots, where you’ll receive a stamp from a Universal Team Member at each location.
Upon collecting all twelve stamps, you’ll head to Silver Screen Collectibles in Hollywood to redeem your prize. (Spoiler: it’s beads adorned with a masquerade mask.)
Circling back to the parade floats, no tips are really necessary for seeing those. They’re huge and located in very obvious areas of the park. Even if you walked around with your eyes closed (not recommended), you’d hear them. This year features a mix of classic parade floats and several “Fleet of Pirate Treasure” floats.
Our only other tip, which is something we’ve emphasized repeatedly, is avoiding Saturdays and Sundays. The audience for Central Florida theme parks right now is disproportionately local, and more Floridians have weekends off from work than weekdays. On top of that, Walt Disney World is not selling new Annual Passes, whereas Universal is offering special promos on new APs.
Consequently, non-holiday weekdays have pretty low crowd levels, whereas weekends are total chaos. Typically, crowds are slightly elevated on Fridays as compared to other weekdays, but still not even remotely on par with Saturday or Sunday.
The moral of the story for tourists is to avoid weekends. Seriously, do Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom on weekends, do Universal Orlando midweek. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress, and that’s by far the best way to avoid crowds at both Walt Disney World and Universal.
Ultimately, as is probably clear, we are huge fans of Universal’s Mardi Gras party. It’s not just the best thing either Walt Disney World or Universal have done since reopening–it’s a top 5 event of the year in normal times. Mardi Gras at Universal Studios Florida is a gigantic jubilee, infusing the park with an exceptional energy and creating a family-friendly incarnation of the iconic New Orleans event. That’s true in current or normal form.
For 2021, the modified Mardi Gras really shines. It’s also probably not coincidental that Walt Disney World’s most recent event, the EPCOT International Festival of the Arts, is also its best event to date. The theme parks are iterating and expanding upon past events, and finding their groove working within the parameters of health safety protocol.
There’s also the simple fact that Festival of the Arts at EPCOT and Mardi Gras at Universal Studios Florida are normally exceptional events. Both are normally annual highlights at their respective theme parks, so this isn’t exactly coming out of left field. To the contrary, for those reading at home, planning an early Spring 2022 trip to Central Florida that overlaps with both is highly recommended. This “season” is right up there with Halloween and Christmas.
Need trip planning tips and comprehensive advice for your visit to Central Florida? Make sure to read our Universal Orlando Planning Guide for everything about Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. Also check out our Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Guide for everything about those parks, resorts, restaurants, and so much more. For regular updates, news & rumors, a heads up when discounts are released, and much more, sign up for our FREE email newsletter!
Have you been to Universal Studios Florida for Mardi Gras 2021? How do you feel about the energy and atmosphere of the party? Do you like the dispersed parade approach, or prefer the full thing all at once? Thoughts on food, merchandise, entertainment, crowds, or anything else? Agree that Universal Orlando is doing an excellent job with atmosphere and entertainment during Mardi Gras? Any other highlights at Universal for you? Thoughts on anything else covered here? Will you be attempting to visit Central Florida this year, or are you waiting until 2022 or beyond? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!