This week’s SATURDAY SIX heads into Universal Studios Florida to check out the latest TRIBUTE STORE. As theme park fans, we all love to see the new rides, restaurants, and hotels open at Universal and Disney, but one of the best surprises over the past few years in Orlando is the lengths that Universal has gone to in creating a series of highly themed limited-time gift shops in the form of Tribute Stores. We have an entirely new shopping experience for this year’s Mardi Gras celebration and we’ll start off with a big surprise, as for the first time ever this Tribute Store is located at…
# 6 – A New Location
Every Tribute Store to date has been filed with fun references, but on several occasions the store has referenced itself. This usually comes in the form of teasing what the next theme of the store will be, but in the 2022 Holiday Tribute Store there were clever Easter Eggs hidden among all the details which hinted at the store moving from its traditional home in the New York section of Universal Studios Florida.
In fact, this faux ad for the Tribute Moving Company advertised being able to help people move “from New York to Hollywood.”
Lo and behold, the Tribute Store indeed moved from the New York section of USF to the Hollywood section. It replaces the Universal Orlando Annual Passholder Lounge, The Darkroom photo studio, and the Williams of Hollywood Prop Store.
# 5 – Ambassador Ballroom
Like the Tribute Stores before it, a guest’s journey throughout the various rooms that comprise the Tribute Store are telling a story. For this year’s Mardi Gras Tribute Store, we begin our story at an international jazz celebration being held at the Ambassador Ballroom. This room was formerly the UOAP Lounge.
On the second floor you can see posters advertising Carnival celebrations from across the globe. The countries represented in these posters also have outdoor kitchens for Universal’s Mardi Gras event.
# 4 – New Orleans Alley
The 2nd room has us entering an area themed to a back alley in New Orleans. I absolutely love the alley section of the store, as it gives me a similar feeling that the E.T. Adventure Ride does with its queue. When you can use the atmosphere to make people “feel” like it’s nighttime – even though it’s during the middle of another scorching hot Florida day – you’ve made a big impression on me. The stark contrast of the bright lights and immaculate Ambassador Ballroom going into a dark and moody alley is a solid transition, especially when combined with the ambient music and noises playing in the background.
Throughout the alley there are some really deep cuts for Universal fans. Below is a map which features the layout of the entire Tribute Store, but it’s the ornate post that is holding the map which is an Easter egg…
…as it is the exact same type of post you’ll see in the San Francisco section of USF holding the menu for Lombard’s Seafood Grille.
There are posters plastered all over the alley way.
These posters have deep dive references as well and are filled with references to members on the creative team or people they know. For example, the poster at the top left of the photo below features the names “Sterling” and “Declan.” These names are referring to two artists we have done spotlights on in this Fine Blog Series: Sterling Denham and Dead Skull.
Story wise, the “outdoor” alley way is leading us to the “hidden” entrance to a secret club, The Brass and Brimstone.
The Brass and Brimstone is a speakeasy that is operating out of the Bold Moving & Storage warehouse. Opening a speakeasy itself would be considered a “bold move” because of their clandestine nature. The loading dock for this warehouse is cover for the speakeasy inside which was converted from a former hotel.
# 3 – Brass and Brimstone/ Hotel Anna Marie
Throughout the Tribute Store you’ll see touches such as “Brendan McWilliams” being the composer for the sheet music that sits on the piano. This is referencing the actual Brendan McWilliams who is part of the team which makes props for the Universal Orlando Resort.
Photos from prohibition era align the walls. Some have been retouched with added devil horns and pitchforks. This is recurring iconography in The Brass & Brimstone speakeasy. In a wonderful detail, the phone to the left will ring, and when it does, a ghostly light will appear in the haunted speakeasy
The spirit gliding along the wall…
The registers are themed to the check-in desk at The Hotel Anna Maria.
For a while now, Universal has given the guests the opportunity to be featured inside the Tribute Stores. For this particular store, guests could pay to have themselves put on a bottle which you will see when walking through the speakeasy.
I know how much my family loved buying things like the Magic Kingdom “bricks” and a plaque at EPCOT’s Leave a Legacy, and I have no idea why they aren’t taking advantage of something like this over at Walt Disney World.
# 2 – Merchandise and Snacks
As great as the theming is, all of Universal’s Tribute Stores exist for one reason: to sell us stuff. Throughout your journey through the Ambassador Ballroom, the alley way, and the speakeasy, you’ll be surrounded by Mardi Gras merchandise. In fact, the Tribute Store is pretty much your One Stop Shop for anything you might want to buy, as it has all the items you’ll find throughout the park and CityWalk all in one convenient place. We’ll take a look at some of the merchandise available for this year’s Mardi Gras celebration, all of which will be found at the Tribute Store.
Universal’s other big surprise over the last few years is going All In on Mold-A-Matic machines. There are two Mold-A-Matic machines in this season’s Tribute Store. One machine features The Parrot of Mardi Gras.
The other machine features The Grinning Devil.
The machine featuring Mardi Gras collectible medallions is at the Tribute store.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Tribute Store without the incredible SNACK CASE featuring colorful treats.
# 1 – Easter Eggs
Here’s my personal favorite part of every Tribute Store, all the fun details the creative team hides in plain such. This particular store has several references to everyone’s favorite squirrel…
We mentioned the Tribute Store map in the alley way section of the Tribute Store…
…a closer look reveals that the area is a historic landmark…
…and an even closer look reveals some more fun details. The Float Factory was the theme to last year’s Mardi Gras Tribute Store and “Rigg Apartments” is referencing Sara Rigg, a member of the Universal Orlando Visual Merchandise Team. What is “Visual Merchandise?” That is the term for the highly themed gift shops we are getting at Universal. In the not-so-distant-past, gift shops at the theme parks were seen as a necessary evil, something we had to pass through on our way through the parks or when exiting rides. Gift shops today – at least at Universal – are becoming more of an experience, and something you actually WANT to go through.
So there you have it: The SATURDAY SIX Looks at the 2023 Mardi Gras Tribute Store! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out the THEME PARK ENJOYMENT INDEX, giving a monthly recap of all the theme park news you need to know (and a lot more you don’t need to know, but we’re gonna tell you anyway). You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
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Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, Digital Maestro Scott Walker, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Captain Cruiseline Scott Sanders of the world famous Disney Cruise Line Blog, my personal protege Hunter “Elvey” Underwood, artist @SonderQuest, the mighty maven of merchandise Hedgehog’s Corner, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and “the Dadalorian” Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, charter member of the Universal Four @Nitro230, the permit princess Alicia Stella, master cartographer Tommy Hawkins, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. Absolutely no help was added by SeaWorld Influencer @SuperWeenieHtJr. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.