Universal Orlando Hosts Its Most Ambitious Culinary Event Ever — and It’s Vegan-Friendly

Mardi Gras looked a lot different this year, including at Universal Orlando — where the festival is still rolling.

The theme park's annual event usually features a concert lineup —Kelly Clarkson and Darius Rucker have performed there in the past — but pandemic restrictions led to a different approach to this year's festivities.

Gone are the live stage performances, replaced with a focus on food inspired by Carnaval celebrations around the world. The signature bead-throwing parade has been scattered throughout Universal Studios Florida, with colorful floats now stationed in socially-distanced, fixed locations. (Yes, costumed performers still throw beads, and live music now takes the form of roaming five-piece jazz bands.)

But the real star is the lineup of the more than 100 food and beverage offerings — up from just 20 last year — marking Universal Orlando's most ambitious culinary event to date.

"This year we focused on, what can we do and what can we do different?"  says Jason Glus, executive chef for Universal Parks and CityWalk at Universal Orlando Resort. That includes "bringing the sights and sounds and flavors" from more than 13 countries, says Glus, and "letting guests feel like they're in our kitchens. Some of these recipes come from our own mothers and grandmothers!"

At the Puerto Rico food booth, pernil (pork shoulder) is slow-roasted for eight hours and carved to order, served with a traditional mofongo prepared in a giant pilon in front of guests. (The pilon, a wooden mortar and pestle, is used to mash the fried plantains for the mofongo.)

The park also continues to expand its vegan offerings, including a vegan bratwurst at the Germany-inspired booth, pineapple trini-chow (skewers) at the Trinidad and Tobago booth, a jackfruit option in The Bahamas and a decadent vegan brownie at the park's Tribute Store. (The store has undergone a Big Easy makeover.)

"We have a ton of vegan offerings, and if you look back four or five years, there probably wasn't even one," says Glus.

Those craving traditional American Mardi Gras fare will find Cajun-inspired stalls of beignets, crawfish boil and jambalaya, and tasting lanyards allow guests to sample 10 items for $55. (Annual passholders can try 15 items for $65.)

COVID-19 protocols include mandatory masks (eagle-eyed Universal staffers keep a close watch), social distancing and temperature checks to enter. The Mardi Gras event kicked off on February 6 and runs through March 28.

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