The calendar may insist that spring won't have sprung until March 20, but the season has already been launched at full speed in Orlando's theme parks. On April 6, Universal Orlando officially opens its Jimmy Fallon simulator, which I'll have a "soft opening" preview of next week. That's merely the warning shot before the dueling late-May debuts of Universal's Volcano Bay water park and Disney's Avatar-inspired land at Animal Kingdom, setting up the biggest summer showdown since Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Diagon Alley both premiered in 2014.
But before that big battle arrives (with its attending battalions of spring break tourists), locals can enjoy seasonal festivals focused on drinking and eating at each of the major resorts right now. I've yet to visit SeaWorld's inaugural Seven Seas Food Festival, held on Saturdays through May 13, which pairs international drinks and dishes with a concert lineup that runs the gamut from Styx and ZZ Top to Oscar D'León and Grupo Manía. But I have explored both Disney's and Universal's current annual events – both as invited press and as an ordinary customer – and managed to emerge with my stomach and liver (mostly) intact.
Epcot Flower & Garden Festival
It was only seven weeks ago that I was extolling Epcot's new Festival of the Arts (which will return in 2018), and we're already in the midst of its 24th annual Flower & Garden Festival. This year, the popular event has been expanded to an epic 90 days, stretching all the way to May 29 and requiring Disney's horticulturists to cycle through two seasons of foliage during the Festival's run. Disney's media event on the opening Saturday featured a beer flight seminar with certified cicerone Nikie Cassoni (hot tip: Maui Brewing's Pineapple Mana is in short supply but Epcot's got plenty), along with samples of dishes from the park's kitchen kiosks, which have now proliferated to nearly the same number employed during the Food & Wine fest.
From this year's new food selections, the Florida Fresh carne asada – richly seasoned and served atop a tasty black bean cake – was the clear standout, alongside the warm wild berry buckle with pepper-berry gelato (which tastes faintly like Pepto-Bismol). In general, however, presentation and portion size seemed to take a step backward from the Arts festival offerings; the Northern Bloom sea scallops were small and overcooked compared to their Arts counterparts, and nothing at Flower & Garden compares to the elaborate plating of the Arts charcuterie board.
While eating your way around World Showcase, you'll find most of your favorite topiaries – more and more with detailed makeovers on their formerly blank green faces – along with several spectacular new displays, starting with the photogenic Maypole at Epcot's entrance. The headliner acts in the America Gardens theater (the Pointer Sisters this weekend, followed by Simple Plan and Plain White T's) get all the attention, but don't overlook the seminars inside the Festival Center, aka the old Wonders of Life attraction; the highlight of my day was meeting Captain Ron, an adorable sea turtle egg-sniffing pocket beagle who will appear as an environmental "ambassadog" during the weekend of March 31.
Universal Mardi Gras
A few miles up I-4, Universal opened its own annual rite of spring on February, and just like Epcot's event, Mardi Gras has expanded this year, with parades every night through March 25. There's not much new to report on the food front: The traditional jambalaya, gumbo and andouille are as good as ever, but I couldn't find the spicy mac & cheese served to the media for sale to the public, and this year's specialty cocktails are over-sweetened and under-powered for my taste. While noshing at the French Quarter food court, keep your ears open for authentic N'awlins brass bands, who are appearing organically on Universal's sidewalks instead of being stuck on a stage.
Mardi Gras saw other notable entertainment improvements this year, starting with the half-dozen brand-new parade floats. Themed around mythological creatures, the newest parade units feature monumental sculptures, dynamic LED lighting, even some explosive pyrotechnic effects. But it's the live performers who turn the procession into a party, and speaking as a former Mardi Gras talent supervisor, this year's cast is among the most motivated and energetic I've seen, from the moment they begin mid-afternoon meet-and-greets until the final "Feet don't fail me now" of the night.
As the icing on my festival-filled weekend, I rode a Mardi Gras float for the first time in nearly 20 years, and happily learned that throwing beads at screaming throngs never gets old. There's a lot of "hurry up and wait" involved in being a volunteer (check-in is over an hour before step-off) so I don't recommend it to tourists on a tight time schedule, but all annual passholders should enter the free Mardi Gras signup lottery at universalorlando.com for a perspective on the party they'll never forget.
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