Easter has been over two weeks, but Universal Orlando‘s annual Mardi Gras celebration only came to an end on Saturday night. Universal Studios Florida’s final parade and concert played on April 18th to a packed park under overcast skies, unlike the previous week’s rain-soaked washout. But in addition to flying beads and Trey Songz’s bass beats, Universal tossed out another surprise to its fans, testing a new Mardi Gras Guide app for smartphones on the party’s last night.
I began by downloading The Official Universal Orlando Mardi Gras Guide App to my iPhone 6 Plus. The app became available on April 15, and can still be downloaded for free (though it doesn’t do much now that the event has ended).
When the iOS Mard Gras Guide app opens for the first time, you’ll be asked to approve access to various services. Interestingly, there is no request to access the camera, which will become an issue later…
You’ll also need to turn on your phone’s Bluetooth function, since that’s how the app communicates with “beacons” around the park to register your receipt of “virtual beads.”
As you can see below, the app is broken into different “tracks,” each featuring four suggested activities for people with various interests.
My digital preparations complete, I headed off to Universal, where a steady flow of guests were entering USF in anticipation of that evening’s event.
Hours before Trey Songz was to take the Music Plaza stage, and the area’s astroturf was already fully occupied by waiting fans.
It was here that a buzzing in my pocket alerted me to my first virtual victory, as I was in proximity of the designated Music Plaza bluetooth beacon and had earned myself a handful of “beads.”
Unfortunately, at this point a couple major flaws in the app were glaringly exposed. When you activate a beacon, you are encouraged by the app to take a photo and post it on social media.
Great idea, but there are two problems with the execuction. First, the app never gets approval to use your phone’s camera functions, so there is no way to take a photo inside the app or attach a previously-taken picture to the tweet it prepares for you.
Second, the suggested tweets that the app generates are riddled with unintentionally hilarious misspellings, typos, and dated slang.
There’s no track in the Mardi Gras Guide app for “Touring Plans Researcher,” so I would up achieving objectives from each of the tracks without completing any of them. If anything, I probably fall in the “Food Lover’s” category, as I proved by polishing off one last Cajun sampler platter from the park’s French Quarter Courtyard catering tents. At only $15 with a draft beer, it’s one of the best values inside the park.
After stuffing myself with shrimp and sausage, I stepped into the Annual Passholder-only viewing section in front of Mel’s Drive-In just as the parade stepped off. I was a little too far back from the curb to catch many beads, but had still had a fine view of the floats without having to arrive early.
While watching the parade, my phone buzzed a couple times with “bonus bead” notifications. However, since I wasn’t actively staring at the app screen when they activated (which would seem rude with a live parade passing by) I never saw my phone “light up with sparkly beads” as the app description advertised, only a static screen after the fact informing me of my haul.
While the parade was winding its way through the park, I detoured to Diagon Alley and enjoyed three rides on Escape from Gringotts in under an hour. If you aren’t interested in the featured Mardi Gras artist, concert time is the perfect time to hit Universal’s headliners without a wait.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a party without a beverage, so I slid into the Leaky Cauldron shortly before closing for another taste of Fire Whisky, which was introduced to the parks last week. A shot of the smooth cinnamon liquor served in a glass of iced Strongbow hard apple cider costs $10, and is now my new favorite alcoholic treat at Universal.
After soaking in the Wizarding World’s after-dark atmosphere, I took a slow stroll out of the park as the concert was coming to an end.
On my way out, I received one final notification, this time telling me that I’d found the coveted King Cake Baby. Supposedly this was one of the more challenging bluetooth beacons to activate, but I have absolutely no clue what I did to earn it (other than walk past the Universal Studios Store enroute to the exit).
In conclusion, while I found Universal’s Mardi Gras Guide app test amusing, the product is clearly not yet ready for primetime. As the recent NBCUniversal Hackathon made clear, smartphone interactivity and the gamification of the park-going experience are the wave of the future. And a bluetooth based system is the most sensible platform for such a system, unless Universal is going to start distributing MagicBand-style RFID tags to their guests. But this current app is sorely lacking in both purpose and polish, with no apparent point to the collection of points, and fundamentally flawed social sharing features.
Universal pulled a similar trick last Halloween, introducting a test app during the closing days of 2014’s Horror Nights. Hopefully, whatever they learned from that experiement and this latest one will inform their next-generation interactive app, presumably in time for the start of HHN 25 in September. Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with staring at our usual smartphone apps while we wait in Universal’s queues….unless we’re waiting for a roller coaster, of course…