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Universal's Mardi Gras festival is real Rock 'n' Roll-ercoasters

TravelBy Robbie Farrell
The king gator float at Universal's Studio Orlando Mardi Gras festival
The king gator float at Universal's Studio Orlando Mardi Gras festival

FORGET Louisiana – if you’re looking for some real Mardi Gras fun then head to Universal Orlando, where the real Rock ‘n’ Roll-ercoaster party is going on.

New Orleans’ French Quarter may be famous for a festival laden with enormous floats, music, food, naked ladies and thousands of beaded necklaces, but on a recent trip to Florida I discovered that the Gras can be cleaner on the other side.

Kicking off in early February, Universal Orlando has built its very own French Quarter right in the centre square of its Studios, and created a family-friendly version of the famous New Orleans street party.

The Mardi Gras festival is just the icing on the cake after a superb day at either Universal’s Islands of Adventure or Studios.

Having been there with the family exactly this time two years ago, I was amazed on my return last week to see how much the place has changed.

You have got to hand it to the magicians at Universal – they just keep re-inventing themselves time after time.

And, later this summer, the park will introduce its latest and greatest attraction – Skull Island: Reign of Kong.

The new ride promises to take you on an enthralling journey, where you’ll come face to face with prehistoric predators, man-eating beasts and the most colossal ape ever to walk the earth – King Kong.

From behind the closely-guarded gates I could already see that this new attraction is going to be yet another wonder of the theme-park world.

It will be just another addition to an amazing resort that’s home to some of the most innovative rides and attractions ever made.

The park features seven spectacularly-themed islands – Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, Seuss Landing, Port of Entry and, my favourite and by far the most popular, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

There is no doubt that the latter is still the main attraction in the park, and the recreation of JK Rowling’s world-famous Hogwarts Castle and Hogsmeade Village still amazes me.

Here you can browse the sweet shops for some chocolate frogs or sip on a cold Butterbeer before your tour of the castle, where Harry himself takes you on a fun  ‘Forbidden Journey’ simulator ride.

However, although it celebrates its second anniversary this summer, the star attraction for me has to be the Hogwarts Express train that runs between the two parks.

This steam-train ride takes you on a half-mile journey from Hogsmeade station in Islands of Adventure to King’s Cross – which is an unbelievable replica of the famous London station – in Universal Studios.

On board the train – where every tiny detail from the movie set has been recreated, even down to the cloth used on the seats and overhead baggage areas – you can watch as Harry and his pals get up to all kinds mischief outside your cabin door, or watch the flying Ford Anglia zip through the air on the way back to London.

Step off the platform in King’s Cross and you will find yourself in the sister Universal Studios Park, where I discovered yet another absolutely amazing treat I hadn’t seen before, Diagon Alley.

Complete with Gringotts Bank and Ollivander’s shop, where the shopkeeper will find out which wand is right for you, the village is simply breathtaking.

But it’s on certain nights during the park’s Mardi Gras festival where the real magic takes place.

The great news is that the Mardi Gras concerts, parade and French Quarter music are included with an annual pass or your daily Universal Studios admission.

This unique festival, which is billed as ‘Florida’s Biggest Party’, features some of the biggest and most iconic names in the music world.

Your evening kicks off with a trip to Universal Studios, where you can shake your stuff to the soul sounds of genuine New Orleans bands before the headline act hits the stage.

Chill out on one of the park benches while you tuck into some authentic creole cuisine from one of the many vendors that line the streets.

For the adventurous types, I’d recommend you try the cajun tasting menu, which includes jambalaya, spicy gumbo, shrimp and Andouille 
sausage. 

For dessert you can wash it all down with an ice-cold beer or cocktail, accompanied by a mouth-watering beignet – a deep-fried choux pastry.

Don’t worry if the kids don’t like the spicy stuff, there are plenty of pizza and hotdog vendors to suit palates of every nature.

With the bellies full it’s time to find a viewing point for the little ones to catch the amazing Mardi Gras floats.

Designed and built by the same people who create the New Orleans models, this year’s parade features four new floats that celebrate different cultures and 
festivals from around the world, Venetian Carnival, Oktoberfest, Fourth of July and Rio de Janeiro Carnival.

The children will be in awe as they watch the street performers work their magic and try to catch as many different coloured beads as they can from one of the floats. The good news is that there should be a set for everyone in the audience, as more than 1.7 million strings will be thrown in to the crowd during the entire festival.

After the 30-minute spectacular, it’s time for the main event. On the night we were there, we were lucky enough to see the legendary 71-year-old Diana Ross strut her stuff.

The magical Motown singer rolled back the years, and had the crowd bopping their butts off to hits like Baby Love, Stop! In the Name of Love and You Can’t Hurry Love, Touch Me in the Morning and Upside Down.

I have to admit, I’d have paid top dollar alone to see her 12-piece band rock the stage like they did.

Universal Studios’ Mardi Gras celebrations run until April 16, and includes further shows from some of the top names in the industry.

Universal’s Mardi Gras festival really beads them all for fun and sun for all the family.:

Music events:
Saturday, March 5: Kool & The Gang.  Saturday, March 12: The Fray.  Sunday, March 13: Adam Lambert.  Saturday, March 19: Shawn Mendes.  Sunday, March 20: 3 Doors Down.  Saturday, March 26: REO Speedwagon. Saturday, April 2: T-Pain.  Saturday, April 9: Jessie J. Saturday, April 16: Yandel.

HOW TO GET THERE: 
Aer Lingus has just announced extra seats for Summer 2016 on its Dublin to Orlando service. 
The three-times weekly service will be operated by a larger aircraft, an A330-300, providing an additional 3,000 seats during the months of May to August. 
Fares start from €305 each way including taxes. www.aerlingus.com

WHERE TO STAY: 
We stayed at the fabulous Cabana Bay Hotel Resort. This moderately priced, Fifties-themed hotel – which only opened its doors in the summer of 2014 – will transport you back to a bygone era of drive-in movies and diner chic.
Tour America currently has a seven-night break at the hotel available from just €639 per person. 
The price includes return flights to Orlando (all taxes and charges), seven nights’ accommodation (based on two adults and two kids under 12 years of age sharing). Departing April 6, 2016 (Ref: 509090). See www.touramerica.com

TICKET INFO: 
A two-park bonus ticket to Universal Orlando Resort is €196 per adult and €187 per child, for 14 days unlimited access. 
 A three-park bonus ticket also includes access to Wet ‘n’ Wild water park and costs €215 per adult and €206 per child.
 The Mardi Gras concerts, parade and French Quarter music are included with an annual pass or normal Universal Studios admission.
To book, visit www.attractionticketsdirect.ie