Ed – You already know Best Week Ever, but we have some new Best Week Ever authors. Why limit who can describe having the best week ever when you have two wonderful ladies who can do it? Welcome, Dani!
Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of Best Week Ever. I am excited to share the BWE spotlight and take you along on my adventures through all of Orlando’s theme parks. I’ve spent my entire life in Orlando and have always had a passion for travel and tourism. By day I work in the hotel industry, by nights and weekends I roam throughout Central Florida enjoying all there is to offer.
Enough with the introductions, laissez le bon temps rouler (let the good times roll!) it’s time for my first visit to Universal Mardi Gras for 2016, the first of many I can assure you. I visited on Sunday, Valentine’s Day, ready to meet up with some great folks and check out some Barenaked Ladies (the band of course!) However, the night before Miss Diana Ross graced the Universal Mardi Gras stage and drew quite the crowd. I read horror stories on Twitter about the parking garage during the mass exodus after the concert being backed up and disorganized, leaving guests stuck in traffic for an hour. A game plan was in order.
I decided I would rather spend a little bit of money to valet park at one of the on-site hotels and enjoy a nice drink and an appetizer at one of the hotel restaurants in order to reduce the cost of valet parking. To be certain of my options I called up the hotel (407-503-2000) and the friendly operator explained that valet parking is validated at The Palm Restaurant, Velvet Lounge, and The Kitchen. Valet parking is not free when you dine here, but reduced from $23 to $5. Since The Palm and Velvet Lounge don’t open until 5pm, I decided upon The Kitchen (open from 7:00 AM – 10:00 PM).
If you are a local or are driving in from an area hotel, prepare for traffic, especially from 2:00 PM onward. Mardi Gras takes places on the weekends, so that in itself makes it busier. Couple that with much of the festivities taking place in the afternoon and evening, plus some decent headlining concerts, and you’ve got a recipe for traffic congestion. That’s exactly what we found on our way, coming from the Northeast side of the Orlando area. We took a back way, Conroy Road to Vineland Road, which leads to Universal Blvd.
Pulling up to the hotel was a breeze. I told the bellman we were coming in for some food and drink at The Kitchen and confirmed that by doing so we could get the valet parking validated. The outside entrance of the Hard Rock Hotel is beautiful, the inside lobby however has never really impressed me. Still the resort has an irresistible energy.
The Kitchen is located on the first floor and accessed by descending a spiral staircase, outside via a covered walkway, and back inside the restaurant itself. It has an open floor plan with a “show kitchen” so you can see your food prepared just for you.
We arrived around 3:30 PM, the place was practically empty. Since I planned on sharing an appetizer and having one drink, I felt it best to grab a seat at the bar. Seeing Samuel Adams’ Cold Snap on tap, I couldn’t resist. I love this seasonal brew, a great blend of Winter flavors with a hint of Spring.
Between the hours of 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM The Kitchen only offers a “light fare” menu. This allows them to transition from lunch to dinner and also have a reduced kitchen staff during this traditionally slow dining period. The BBQ Chicken Flatbread seemed a good choice for something substantial, but not too heavy, and good for sharing.
I enjoyed seeing the finishing touches being put on our flatbread, peering into the show kitchen. Overall, the flatbread satisfied with gooey cheese, tangy BBQ sauce, and sweet caramelized onions. The chicken seemed prepackaged, however.
The hostess gave us a parking validation ticket to be given later when we retrieved my car. Basically I spent $30 for a beer, a soft drink, and a flatbread (and tip) in order to reduce valet parking by $18. However, the experience of enjoying a relaxing stroll from a beautiful hotel to the park, and back again, versus an often long and arduous walk from the parking garage through CityWalk, as well as a much easier departure experience, seemed worth it to me.
We headed outside toward the water taxi transportation. Although the beautiful boat happened to be at the dock ready for us to board, it drops off back at CityWalk. If heading to Universal Studios, it makes more sense to take the lovely waterside garden walk. It takes no more than ten minutes.
Along the way you can take a quick detour through the butterfly garden, or simply enjoy the lovely landscaping. The winding waterway also hugs the edge of the walkway making this stroll all the more scenic.
The walkway deposits guests near the iconic archway of the entrance to Universal Studios. There is a small security checkpoint, complete with metal detectors. I’ve never seen this checkpoint congested or backed up, so this adds another “worth it” element to valet parking at the Hard Rock Hotel on busy days.
Speaking of busy days, all turnstiles were open, yet there was still a decent line at each. Oh well, thankfully I was in a nice relaxed mood thanks to our snack, drink, and lovely stroll at Hard Rock Hotel. Once inside I noticed a decent sized line at Guest Services, typical for an event night such as this. I also took note of the flower beds and how the Mardi Gras colors of purple (for justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power) had been incorporated throughout.
Heading further into the park, I wanted a quick glance of the soon-to-open Hello Kitty shop. Rumor on the street is this shop will open by the last week of this month. Speaking of “on the street,” the streets were pretty packed though nothing out of the ordinary for a Mardi Gras night. We received word from our friends Meg and Brandon (members of the Saturday Six illustrious staff) that Barenaked Ladies were in the midst of their sound check so we headed straight for the music plaza stage.
For reference it was about 4:30 PM. You can often catch the soundcheck for that night’s concert around this time. Though don’t expect a full performance. A few chords and measures may be played here and there, with many pauses in between. After hanging around for a little bit, I was ready to get my jazzy on (wow – did I really just type that?) and head into the French Quarter. The smell of Cajun food wafted over the breeze. And the sweet siren song of the jello shots girl flowed through the air.
Parade performers filled the streets and plazas. I LOVE that Universal does this during Mardi Gras and the holiday season. Getting pictures with the parade performers always results in the some of the best pictures of yourself, friends, and family you will get on a visit to Universal. The performers are always jovial with infectious smiles. And their skimpy costumes sure do add to the Mardi Gras fun!
The jazzy, playful sounds of The Mississippi Rail Company band, straight out of New Orleans called us over to them. This stage used to face The Revenge of the Mummy and I much prefer that location. For two years now the stage has faced Monsters Cafe and the extended Transformers queue. My grief with this location is it is backlit until the sun goes down making it difficult to enjoy these authentic bands, with the sun glaring in your eyes. Still, a few members of the audience danced and got into the Mardi Gras spirit. Each weekend a different band performs in the French Quarter, these bands are from New Orleans and the neighboring area. I love that Universal adds a much appreciated layer of authenticity by bringing in these bands.
Dancing around to the zydeco sounds worked up a thirst. So my pals and I headed to one of the bar stands at the French Quarter. With authentic music in our ears, we opted for an authentic New Orleans beer: Abita’s Purple Haze – a mellow, but rich beer with the sweet taste of raspberries lingering on the tongue.
One of the many pleasures of being a very frequent theme park visitor is that over time you get to know other theme park nerds. Mardi Gras becomes very social, running into many people you know. We met up with a few friends throughout the evening, but before it was time to take our place for the parade and concert, my friend was aching for a quick visit to Diagon Alley. Along the way I noticed that the Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue stage is now nonexistent.
As the sun began to set, a golden sheen was cast over the roof tops and windows. Oh how I love the twilight sky. Once inside the walls of Diagon Alley, I couldn’t help but take a photo that I’ve taken many times before, and many other guests have done so often. With the setting sun, the Gringott’s Bank dragon shined like a beacon.
After our quick visit to the wizarding world, we returned to the street of New York. Even more parade performers filled the streets. The energy of fun and happiness permeated this area. This is one of my favorite parts of being an annual passholder, being able to enjoy the jubilation of Mardi Gras over and over again.
A friend of ours waited inside the popular Finnegan’s restaurant. I love this place, but it is always packed on the weekends and absolutely slammed on event nights. Still it was nice to pop in if only for a moment.
The time had come to take our place in the music plaza. It was about 6:45pm and my friend, Carmen, was really eager to get a good spot for the concert (tonight’s concert was scheduled to start at 8:30pm). With jeans on and a blanket of some sort, the fake turf of the music plaza can be halfway comfortable. On bare skin, not so much. So either dress accordingly or bring a blanket with you.
Waiting for the concert for nearly two hours can seem a bit daunting. Thankfully there are beverage carts in the plaza, nearby restrooms now offered in one of the soundstages since the closest restrooms are demolished with the coming of Jimmy Fallon’s ride, and the best part is at 7:45 PM the parade kicks off and is visible from the plaza. We were not close enough to catch any beads, but that also meant we avoided what can sometimes be a rough experience with random hands and arms thrusting through the air to snatch up the cheap plastic beads. I enjoyed seeing the new floats and the theme of celebrations around the world made for some creative costumes.
There was about a fifteen minute lull between the parade ending and the concert beginning. There is always a major push of people entering the plaza as soon as the parade is over, so if you’re like us and have been waiting there for nearly two hours, be prepared to guard your territory (just like facing a bear, make yourself look as big as possible). Our final friend to join the group squeezed in just before showtime and soon we were all dancing and rocking out to the Barenaked Ladies.
This band combines a strong musicality, with upbeat vocals, and clever lyrics. We enjoyed a variety solos including from the drums, lead guitar, bass guitar, and even a stand-up bass. Barenaked Ladies is known perhaps most of all for their hilarious interstitials between songs. They took full advantage of being in a theme park, making many cracks and jokes about the rides, the food, and even having an American Sign Language interpreter signing for guests enjoying the concert. They closed out the concert with a rendition of Frozen’s “Let It Go” before a one song encore. It was a blast!
Exiting the park proved a little difficult because, well…. I needed the restroom desperately and now that the park was officially closed, the nearby soundstage restrooms were blocked off by a barricade of team members. We rebelliously bee-lined for the restrooms near Mel’s Drive-In and Transformers the Ride. Thankfully we beat the crowds (take heed ladies and be ready to bolt as soon as the concert is over). Once we exited the park, it was a breeze to go left and head back to Hard Rock Hotel rather than staying in the mass of people having to walk all the way back to the congested parking garage. We simply handed our original claim ticket plus our validation ticket, paid $5.35 and within 2 minutes my car was ready (note I make it a habit to tip the initial valet driver when I turn my car over to them, and then another tip when I receive my car back). It was a easy and convenient way to cap off a fun and festive visit to Unviersal’s Mardi Gras – tres bon!