Universal Orlando has kicked off another year of Mardi Gras. Last year’s event was in the middle of a memorable run, celebrating 25 years of food, music, and fun until everything changed in March with the shutdown of the parks for the better part of 2 months. This year’s event returns in a much more different form, being held daily through Sunday, March 28. While most of what we love about Mardi Gras is present, it goes without saying that there are some noticeable changes due to the ongoing pandemic.

Gone are the nightly parade and weekend concerts; with Universal now shifting the focus on the food festival aspects of the event. Universal has continually made adjustments to their offerings over the past year in the midst of the pandemic, and this pivot is probably their smartest.

Before this year, most of the event was essentially restricted down Production Central and New York, which could cause some serious traffic jams during busier times, especially in the French Quarter Courtyard. With the need to space out crowds this year, Universal has now expanded the event to encompass the entirety of the park – now allowing for that party atmosphere to be felt throughout Universal Studios.

Guests can sample more than 70 dishes and beverages from 13 locations around the globe – highlighting the countries and regions that hold Mardi Gras/Carnival celebrations. With so much food to try, the best way is to purchase a tasting lanyard. It truly is a great value and a great way to experience the festival. For $55, guests can get 10 uses to use, for both food & booze. Annual Passholders have the option to get a 15-sample lanyard for $65, which just furthers the value even more. The good news is that if you purchased a lanyard last year and have unused redemptions, they are valid for use this year.

While we didn’t try EVERY dish, we tried to sample some of the classic and interesting dishes, enjoying most of what we ate. It should also be said that Universal’s samples are decently portioned, with some being close to full meals – so prepare your stomachs. Here’s the quick rundown:

  • Jerk Chicken from the Bahamas
    (Gluten-Free) Jerked marinated chicken, rice & peas, scotch bonnet salsa
    Really good flavor but the scotch bonnet salsa really adds some kick. It wasn’t hot enough where we needed to get water, but it would’ve been nice.
  • Pernil & Mofongo from Puerto Rico
    (Gluten-Free) Roasted pork, smashed plantains, onion mojo
    The favorite of the day; loved the onion and garlicky flavors. Puerto Rico consistently had the longest lines, so plan accordingly.
  • Quesitos from Puerto Rico
    (Vegetarian) Guava and cream cheese-filled fried pastry
    Our lunch dessert. Classic pastry from latin countries, that balances the sweet from guava and the salty with the cheese, with some good crunch from the fried dough.
  • Pork Schnitzel Sliders from Germany
    Fried pork cutlet, spicy mustard, braised red cabbage, gruyere cheese
    The pork cutlet was massive, where it was more schnitzel than a slider – in the best ways. Loved the combo of the cheese and the fried pork.
  • Shrimp Boil from New Orleans
    (Gluten-Free) Mix bag of shrimp, andouille, red bliss potatoes, corn on the cob
    Get ready to get your hands dirty as the shrimp is Peel’n’Eat (as is tradition). This classic was our last dish of the night and was extremely filling. We opted to get beignets for dessert, and we recommend you do the same.
  • Brussels Frites from Belgium
    (Gluten-Free & Vegan) Crispy seasoned fries with 3 dipping sauces
    Our least favorite. They were good fries, but nothing special. We did enjoy the joppiesaus dipping sauce, which is like a “curry-mayo-mustard” hybrid; but outside of that – skip.
  • Arancini from Italy
    (Vegetarian) Fried risotto, wild mushrooms, truffle, parmesan cheese
    A good, small bite. Had more earthy tastes, than the creaminess you expect from a risotto – obviously due to the mushrooms and truffle, but it didn’t overpower the marinara or cheeses. All the flavors melded very nicely.
  • Paella Mixta from Spain
    (Gluten-Free) Saffron yellow rice, chorizo, squid, mussels, shrimp
    Another decently portioned dish; a good taste of the sea (in a good way). The squid had a good chew, but not rubbery. The chorizo added a nice spice to the dish. We decided to go with the Don Olegurio Albarino white wine for something different than water and it made for a nice pairing.

We still have a lot of uses left on our sampler, so we’re looking to go back and try some of the countries we didn’t hit yet (Colombia, we’re looking right at you). Universal has also provided an ample amount of areas to eat and drink safely, so you shouldn’t have to resort to using a trash can as a table.

The other big attraction at Mardi Gras is the Tribute Store, which marks its 2nd year at the event; with this year’s version focusing a bit on the history of New Orleans – from its love of Jazz to famed pirate, Jean Lafitte. Keep a lookout in the nautical cemetery for some clever nods to Earl the Squirrel and President & COO, Bill Davis. The store features loads of Mardi Gras merch, with the last room full of treats and snacks; including King Cake, Mardi Gras Cakes & Cookies, and more. There’s even Mardi Gras-inspired candy, including a huge chocolate coin.

As far as the rest of the event – with the parade gone, the parade floats now are scattered through the park with performers aboard each float interacting with guests, trying to encourage the guests to party along (in a safe way). During our visit on Saturday, there weren’t a lot of characters to be found, especially later in the night – which put a damper on that experience; but we think that was a product of opening day kinks and the rainy weather forecast as our experience on a Tuesday morning was different as there were a lot more interactions.

With the Zydeco music now heard throughout the park, guests can interact with other performers on socially distant stages and props that set up around the lagoon so they can get some good photos of their experience this year. Occasionally, jazz bands will parade down the streets of Universal playing music, or you can catch them playing on floats from time to time.

Universal is also continuing the popular scavenger hunt from previous events, this time with Krewe Crawl. For $7.95 you get a “treasure map” that will help you find all the Krewe skeletons. Guests must collect stamps at each location in order to complete the challenge, where beads await you as your prize.

Even though the event was altered by the necessity for safety, it was a good step in the evolution of Mardi Gras. It’s only a matter of time before we return to normal, and we hope Universal plans on keeping the Food Festival aspect of this year with the eventual return of parades, concerts, and dancing in the streets of Universal Studios Florida. In the meantime, this year’s event is a definite must-do, especially for the foodies out there.

Stay tuned to Inside Universal for more on Mardi Gras and Universal Parks & Resorts.