Carnival cruising

Orlando isn't a great town for institutionalized debauchery. Our civic leaders can fill any opening for a raucous public gathering with an innocuous yawn-fest. It's "Mardi Gras on a Barney level," as a wise, fun-loving lady friend of mine unerringly evaluates.

Barney Gras be damned, Universal Studios Florida is once again doing its best to squeeze as many of the deadly sins as possible into an all-ages bash. The theme park's current "Mardi Gras 2000" is the most pagan-friendly multigenerational mixer I've attended since Universal's own "Halloween Horror Nights," which annually boast enough sexual and Satanist overtones to send Gary Bauer running for the phone.

Though the faux New Orleans fling opened to the public last Friday, the following night's V.I.P. party allowed me and my aforementioned, thrill-seeking pal to witness the panorama of iniquity in full bloom. Standing in a roped-off side street, we listened as the blare of sirens announced the coming of the all-important parade. Though surprisingly short, this year's procession flaunted an exemplary variety of heathen imagery: Floats were manned by bead-throwing Roman gods and centurions, caged dancing girls and an oxen idol that stared out in proud defiance, as if daring Moses to come up and knock it over.

This being a tourist Mecca, however, and not the banks of the Mississippi, commercial interests couldn't help but creep in. One street-surfing barge paid homage to Universal's cinematic slant by teaming the Back to the Future DeLorean with effigies of E.T. and Marilyn Monroe. I'm not sure what you get when you cross Marilyn with E.T., but I bet JFK doesn't accept the charges when it phones home.

The naughtiness level was upheld by a krewe that had decorated its Hawaiian-themed rigging with a female figurehead whose wooden nipples stuck out by inches. The sight sent heads a-turning and tongues a-clucking, but at least the island impersonators had somewhere to hang their beads later.

Fat Saturday

Recognizing gluttony as a highly underrated transgression, the invited guests (including TV-news personnel, print journalists and other seasoned freeloaders) helped themselves to broiled shrimp and moist jambalaya, washing them down with sweet-tasting but highly potent Hurricanes. The interior of the "Xena: Warrior Princess" attraction housed a smorgasbord of pastries, pralines, cakes, pies and ladyfingers; there was more white powder in that room than on Tony Montana's desk in "Scarface."

The task of following those indulgences fell to Kansas, the rockin' Wayward Sons who are still inexplicably Carrying On. (Wouldn't an actual zydeco band have been just as affordable?) Blowing the Louisiana motif with a cry of "Good evening and welcome to Kansas," the violin-brandishing fogies triggered a precipitous drop in the partiers' enthusiasm, though a cadre of diehards remained up front to compare the group's performance to those of state fairs past.

The more daring attendees visited a nearby makeup booth to be beautified with such facial designs as "Horny Beast" and "Queen of the Vampires." (Thanks, Anne Rice.) Plumed harem girls ambled through the crowd, their rock-hard abs a likely sign of moonlighting Xenas in our midst. A woman on stilts was chatted up by a male passerby who cheekily referred to her as a "chick on a stick," but she laughed it off. The real trauma, she said, had occurred during last year's event, when "some lesbian" got a little too friendly with her as she bent down to engage in conversation. And you thought working at Disney's Animal Kingdom was dangerous.

Outsider trading

French Quarter giving way to Latin Quarter, the soiree eventually moved to the neighboring CityWalk promenade. Clubgoers ascended to the balcony of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe, throwing purple, gold and green necklaces to willing recipients in emulation of the infamous "show me what you got" routine. Orlandoans being relative newcomers to the game, the stakes weren't that high: A brunette was rewarded with a strand of beads just for having worn a skintight black pantsuit. She lackadaisically plucked them out of the air in midstride and kept on walking.

Someone had to raise the bar (and right the gender balance), so we climbed the stairs to peer out over the boulevard in search of the loneliest-looking, most easily manipulable guy we could find. After five minutes, however, we had only received a very funny look from an Asian street sweeper who was steadfast in his refusal to unzip his jacket.

Salvation came in the form of a couple of fraternity refugees who were completely ready to humiliate themselves for jewelry. A stocky fellow in a Hawaiian shirt had barely unbuttoned himself before his bud surprised us all by lowering his own pants and, shall we say, taking a strong crack at earning our affections. That's what Orlando needs: new faces.

"Mardi Gras 2000" continues through April 1. Your kids will love it.


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