One really cool, albeit obvious thing about living in Central Florida is that you can sometimes take advantage of what Orlando-area theme parks have to offer. Case in point: Joe and I have been Universal Orlando annual passholders since around 2009 or so. Besides the fact that we can go to the parks pretty much whenever we want (which was particularly WONDERFUL when each of the two Harry Potter lands were in previews and then opened), we also occasionally have some access to some benefits and experiences that people who are “just visiting” might not get. Case in point: being able to throw beads from one of the floats at Universal Studios Florida’s (USF) Mardi Gras parade.
USF has been hosting an evening Mardi Gras since 1994. The number of nights they host it has changed over time, as has the amount of floats (they have added 6 more floats this year, all designed by Kern Studios in Louisiana, and all based on mythical creatures, which brings the total up to 12) and, of course, the exact dates of their Mardi Gras celebration varies from year to year (this year it’s running from February 4 through March 25. And yes, they know Mardi Gras officially ends on Fat Tuesday, which this year was February 28, but I guess it’s a good way to get people to come to the theme park, so they extend the celebration a few weeks). One of the current perks of being an Annual or Seasonal Passholder at USF is the ability to sign up to try to be on a float and throw beads. All of the rules and regulations are spelled out on this page of Universal’s website (the webpage was up-to-date as of the posting of this article. If the link no longer works, please let us know and we’ll update as possible). For the past 2 or 3 years, I have applied both Joe and I for every day that Joe is off but we had never been picked before. So, of course, when it rains it pours – the day after Annual Passholder friends of ours invited us to be their guests to throw beads, Joe got an email from Universal, inviting him and a guest to ride a float and throw them.
We arrived at our designated meeting place around 5:30pm, near the entry to the Barney show, but were told the person with the wristbands that would identify us as float riders wasn’t there yet. However the guy arrived a few minutes later and once he got there, we were able to check in. With hot pink wristbands in hand and then on wrists, our next step was to fill out waivers that said we wouldn’t hold USF responsible if we were hurt while throwing beads, they had the right to photograph us without compensation, etc. From there we had about 45-60 minutes until they would need us.
We spent a few minutes just taking it all in – we saw there were 12 different signs attached to poles, fences, etc., with words like Sold Green, Multicolor, Solid Yellow, etc. These corresponded with the color of wristband people were wearing and would eventually identify which float we were to board. There were people from all different demographics in terms of age, gender, race, etc. And although most people were dressed for a day at the parks, at least one appeared to be dressed specifically for Mardi Gras.
Joe and I came back at our designated time of 6:30pm and after we were all asked to stand by the sign that had the color of our wristband, one of the Team Members went over the Official Rules of Throwing Beads At Universal Studios:
- Only throw 1 necklace at a time
- Throw them high and far
- Only throw them underhand or like the beads were a frisbee – NOT overhand
- We would have about 30 minutes to throw as many beads as we could on the parade route, so it was suggested we pace ourselves
- Make eye contact with who you planned to throw to, so they would know to expect the beads coming and not get bonked in the head/eye/camera, etc.
- We could take as many photos and as much video as we wanted once we were on stage, but there was to be absolutely no camera (still or video) use backstage
It was then time to be led backstage to our respective floats. With our solid hot pink wristbands, we were scheduled to be on the “Riverboat” float, which is the very first float in the parade (I’m told from a friend that the front (Riverboat) and rear (Alligator) floats are the ones reserved for Annual Passholders. They’re also the two largest floats in the parade). Other wristband color designations included Purple = Garuba, Solid Red = Gator, Blue Pattern = Pegasus, etc.
As each group went towards backstage, they went in different directions, based on where in the parade their float was (read: if their designated float was towards the back of the parade, they entered backstage by the Curious George water play area). Since we were in the very front, we entered backstage just to the right of the KidZone Pizza Company. But before we went backstage, our leader, Scott, said he needed some volunteers – first 6 adults, then 9 people of any age, then 6 more adults. Joe and I managed to get into the group of 9 and as it turned out, that meant we got to be on the top tier of our float! COOL!!!
So we went backstage and we had only a short walk to the Riverboat float. Our group was introduced to the people who would be helping us, as well as some of the drivers. They once again reiterated NO PHOTOGRAPHY BACKSTAGE (as in, “Sir, we said there is to be no photography or video backstage. Please put your phone away.”) and then we were fitted for our costumes (each Krewe member wears what is essentially a tunic, which ties behind him/her at the neck and small of the back, over his/her clothes. Each tunic, which appears to be color chosen for its respective float, has a differently color sequined Fleur De Lis emblem which is Velcroed onto the tunic). The tunics were thick polyester and HOT after more than a few minutes on what was that warm evening.
Once everyone had their tunic on, we were instructed to climb aboard our float, based on where we were going to be placed. The bottom row had to just go up a few stairs on either side of the float but those of us in the top row had to go up the same stairs, then climb an 8-step ladder that was securely attached to the float (no worries about falling – we had already signed Universal’s “We won’t sue you if we get hurt” liability form).
Once up on top, we still had about 30 minutes until the parade started. Our allotment of beads was already hung on the float, ready for us. Our leader, Scott, went over all the Official Rules of Throwing Beads at Universal Studios again, this time with some anecdotes (i.e. Jimmy Fallon is the halfway point so you can use that to help judge if you need to start throwing beads slower or faster; throw far because it gives people more of a chance to realize some beads are coming at them – especially the darker-colored green and purple ones; they used to throw plastic coins as well but they stopped that a few years ago because getting bonked in the head with a plastic coin hurts; you get 10 points if you ring beads onto a selfie stick [just kidding], etc.). The 9 of us were a quick study and still had plenty of time so we started asking Scott about what else he did at Universal (it sounded like he only works special events. Oh, and his wife was the leader directly below us on the Riverboat float!), who cleans up after us when everything is done (he did, so make sure to throw as many beads as possible!), etc.
It was finally 7:45pm and the parade started! And oh, what fun it was! I mean, I’ve been a spectator at Universal’s Mardi Gras parade lots of times (and have LOTS of beads to prove it) but that is NOTHING compared to being a Krewe member and throwing them! I didn’t ring any selfie sticks but I wound up with more than a few beads in trees, and I think a few landed on some awnings, too (my aim really sucks). Most got into peoples’ hands, thankfully. And every once in a while I established eye contact with whoever had caught my beads – I could see how happy they were, which made me feel happier. It was very, VERY cool.
Here’s a quick, 30-second video of what it’s like to throw beads on the float. I took it just as we were approaching The Mummy ride:
And here are the floats, as seen from the ground:
All too soon, we were backstage again. We were encouraged to take some of the beads that had fallen onto the floor as a souvenir (yay, Scott would have less to clean up!) and once we were back to our spot, we were instructed to remove the Velcroed “bib” from our costumes and hand the costume and bib to Scott (I’m guessing the tunics get washed but the bibs, which have the sequin decoration but never touches skin, do not – or at least get washed separately or a different way). We climbed down the ladder and once we got the all clear, we were allowed to exit the float and go back into the park – we wound up next to Monster Sound Show.
As an Annual or Seasonal Passholder, getting picked to throw beads at Mardi Gras is really just the luck of the draw. I hope either my or Joe’s name is picked again one of these days – it was LOADS of fun and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
By the way, if you’re at Universal Orlando Resort through the end of March and have an extra set of beads, make sure to add to the “Mardi Gras tree” – it’s on the right, right after the first set of moving walkways when you’re on the way back to the parking garages.