ORLANDO, Fla – Universal Orlando is celebrating big this year with Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval.
The beads were flying last weekend as the festival kicked off with some huge fanfare. This year is unlike any other time before, with the theme park offering more than 100 new food and beverage items inspired by Carnaval festivals that happen around the world. Not only that, for the first time the celebration and its food offerings are spanning across the resort at Universal CityWalk restaurants and select resort hotels.
The fun does not just stop at just the food and drinks. The resort is also bringing the jazz-inspired music and flare of The Big Easy and a number of authentic Mardi Gras designed floats to areas across the theme park. Keep those hands up and make some noise -- thousands of beads are also being tossed to revelers.
Something else that sticks out this year is the Mardi Gras Tribute Store.
I recently talked with one of the Tribute Store’s creators, as well as the head chef, about what guests can see as they step inside.
The Tribute Store is located in Universal Studios’ New York-themed area of the park, which is in between The Race through New York starring Jimmy Fallon and Revenge of the Mummy attractions. When guests enter this area, they will see the façade of the Tribute Store. A sign out front reads “Preservation Hall,” which was inspired by the 1920s building located in the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Rob Cametti, the director of visual merchandising at Universal Orlando, spoke outside the store Wednesday.
“There is a whole storyline for this whole space, and with other tribute stores in the past, it’s been this room is this, this room is that - but this one, from start to finish, there’s a continuous storyline,” Cametti described. “As we wrote the story and began presenting it, some people were asking who was going to know and understand the story? So we started adding little synopsis plaques, which tells a small bit of the story.”
As we made our way inside, he began to detail the atmosphere his team was trying to portray as guests step inside Preservation Hall. A coat check desk is among the first things guests see, along with a collage of jazz artist photographs and instrument carrying cases scattered throughout the floor.
“The musicians are coming out to play their gig for the night, and there really is no space for them to store their stuff, so they’ve taken their instrument out and put their cases down,” he said.
If guests listen closely, they can even hear the band warming up in the back before they head to the big party in the next room.
The second room we stepped into was called Bolden Hall. The room is packed with Mardi Gras masks and merchandise, two pianos and a center stage with instruments for the band, The Tributes.
Universal Orlando Tribute Store
“This room is modeled after, and really inspired by Buddy Bolden, who was credited for being one of the early inventors of Jazz in the 1800s,” Cametti explained.
He said that a photo of Bolden can be seen as guests enter this room. Another Tribute Store creator even placed their Easter egg of sorts in one area of the room near the back. “As we were setting up, he (the creator) sat on the stage over here with an instrument... and he made it up on the winning team (the wall),” Cametti laughed.
Inside this room, and new for this year, for just $30 guests can create their own vinyl record with their name on it. The disc is printed out at one of Universal’s stores and makes the ultimate keepsake. It can be picked up at the exit.
The jazz party spills into the next room, which is designed as an old New Orleans cemetery. The cemetery is darkly lit and has long vines and branches draped in Mardi Gras beads from revelers who just left the area.
Universal Orlando Tribute Store cemetery room
It’s also the first time we begin to see one of the two major themes creators wanted to bring to life: pirates.
“So this plaque is the first thing you see, and we’ve got this ship here. This says to those lost at sea, which is a little hint that this is a memorial garden to those who have came before us,” Cametti described.
On the backside of this monument of sorts is a tribute to Universal Orlando President Bill Davis. Looking around even further -- if fans look closely, they will even notice a squirrel in the cemetery that pays tribute to a Universal legend, Earl the squirrel.
One side of the room is a large memorial that Cametti called a wall of credits. It pays tribute to the entire team who made the Tribute Store. Each person’s name has a French twist and an image of something that represents them like a paintbrush or four-leaf clover.
As we moved out of the cemetery, a long hallway led us into a pirate story. Maps, photos and charts were seen on the walls. Cametti explained that the hallway tells the story about the famous, or infamous, Laffite brothers who were looked upon as pirates, privateers or even heroes. Store creators found an image of the bill of sale for the Lafitte brothers’ sailing vessel, which can be found in the hallway.
The hallway escorts guests into the pirate’s waterfront warehouse.
“So this is where all the goods would come after they (pirates) collected them,” he described. “Imagine the ships would pull up, they would unload here. It’s like a stockroom for pirates.”
The room is the final room for guests to find merchandise. It’s also home to one of two original wax machines. For $6, guests can either get a wax skull or sailing pirate ship. The ship mold is original from the 1960s and Cametti said someone told him recently that it was designed after the USS Constellation, which is currently docked in Baltimore.
Universal Orlando Tribute Store pirate room
That same person told him that until just a few years ago, one half of the mold was lost, meaning this is the first time the mold has been used again since its inception. This room is also packed with the most Easter eggs.
“One of the coolest things in here are these nautical lanterns that you see flickering. Those were actually pulled from Amity when JAWS went down,” Cametti explained.
Other small things to look for include a photograph of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley, a bronze bust of Doctor Septimus Pretorius from “The Bride of Frankenstein,” large older-looking photos of some of the executive team and even candelabras from Cametti’s own wedding.
“My wife was like, ‘Those better come back,” he joked.
The Tribute Store ends with a tour of the Bayou. Guests will hear crickets, see fireflies and encounter the remains of the Laffite brothers’ ship, which has been lost for many years. Remains of a crow’s nest sit in one side of the room and old gun ports of the ship are now being used by the locals to store old pots and pans.
This is also part of the tour where I met Universal Orlando head chef Jason Glus, who described some of the sweet treats available to purchase.
“Obviously our No. 1 is going to be the king cake, you know to celebrate Mardi Gras, and that’s followed by our vegan brownie ,which is ranking in our top three,” Glus explained.
The Sweet Treasures confectionary offers a number of other desserts like banana foster cheesecake pops, moon pies, chocolate-covered bourbon pops and beautifully decorated masquerade cookies.
Another popular favorite for children and adults alike are the shipwrecked sour gummy pirate skulls, which move when they’re displayed. The Tribute Store also has crab meat pies and spinach pies.
Of course, the store’s foods are just the tip of the iceberg for the festival, which features dozens of food dishes.
“Unlike other Mardi Gras where we’re sort of focused on the entertainment, music and dancing, we wanted to be more of a food-focused event and put a show out there,” Glus explained.
He said his biggest goal of this year’s event is to make foods authentic to the countries where they originated.
Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval at Universal Orlando runs through March 28.
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