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click to enlarge Beignets at Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras

photo via Universal Orlando

Beignets at Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras

Three seasonal events happening now at Orlando attractions that you can enjoy in the great outdoors 

If our recent wave of unseasonably warm weather has you itching to leave your house, but you're still antsy about attending activities inside, here are three seasonal events happening now at local attractions that you can enjoy in the great outdoors.

Mardi Gras at Universal Orlando
New Orleans nixed this year's Fat Tuesday celebrations, but we Floridians won't allow a little pandemic to interfere with our party plans. Universal Orlando is still letting the good times roll with their 26th annual Mardi Gras event, even if their signature parades and concerts have been canceled. In place of the usual entertainment, visitors to Universal Studios Florida will find this year's pirate-themed floats parked all around the park, accompanied by costumed performers tossing beads to passersby from a safe distance.

Instead, Universal has rebranded Mardi Gras into an International Flavors of Carnaval food festival celebrating 13 different culinary cultures, from Bahamian jerked jackfruit (one of many vegan-friendly dishes) to Trinidad's Queen's Park Swizzle, a deceptively potent rum drink. My other top picks from the tasting menus include German bratwurst (so savory you'd never guess it's plant-based), Cuban empanadas and Spanish seafood paella; each dish is even served with a cute miniature flag identifying its country of origin.

Considering that this is Universal's first attempt at an Epcot-style food festival, I was impressed by the variety and value. Beer is served in 9-ounce cups (versus 6 ounces for a similarly priced pour at Disney) and annual passholders can buy a 15-sample lanyard for $65, bringing the per-item cost to $4.33. Best of all: There are plenty of cocktail tables, so you don't have to eat off a trash can. (daily through March 28)

Seven Seas Food Festival at SeaWorld
When SeaWorld Orlando launched their Seven Seas Food Festival in 2017, I praised it for offering a better bang (or buzz) for your buck than similar events. This year's fifth edition has expanded to over 200 items across 26 locations, creating what SeaWorld is calling "the largest theme park food festival in Central Florida." Unfortunately, there are signs that the Seven Seas Food Festival has grown too fast for its own good.

Attending last week's private media preview, I enjoyed all the samples from the "Chef's Top 7 Selections," especially the rich lobster mac & cheese, Korean BBQ lamb ribs and crispy pork belly bites. But everything I tasted from the publicly accessible booths ranged from mediocre to inedible: conch fritters filled with tooth-cracking shell fragments; rubbery, foul-tasting fried oysters; and a miserly lobster roll of mealy leg meat drowned in celery dressing. Even the best option – a tuna poke bowl – was missing advertised ingredients, a symptom of undertrained staff attempting overambitious recipes.

SeaWorld, unlike all other major parks during this pandemic, is also hosting live stadium concerts, with acts like Air Supply and Blue Öyster Cult of "Don't Fear the Reaper" fame demonstrating that someone in their booking department has a darkly ironic sense of humor. Limited seating capacity and social distancing will supposedly be observed, with show audio piped into various places around the park. But based on the laissez-faire enforcement of rules that I observed during my latest visit, you may want to double-mask yourself if you attend. (Fridays-Sundays through May 9)

Down the Rabbit Hole at Mead Garden
The Dazzling Nights walk-though light display at Leu Gardens was a highlight of this past holiday season, so I was eagerly anticipating this new production from Creative City Project at Mead Botanical Garden on the erroneous assumption that it was a similar exhibit with some Lewis Carroll characters added. Instead, Modern Theatricals writer-director Donald Spencer created an enchanting immersive experience that far exceeded my already elevated expectations.

Alice (Cora Foss at my performance, rotating with four other actresses) leads small groups of patrons along forested pathways illuminated in psychedelic colors, encountering iconic Wonderland inhabitants like the anxious White Rabbit (Euther Garcia), chillaxing Caterpillar (Chase Shellee) and homicidal Queen of Hearts (Jen Whitmire). My favorite moments during the hour-long adventure included a comical poem from Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Kellie Schreiber and Joel Swanson) and a pun-filled song by a Singing Flower (Kristen Sheola).

I've attended several walk-through theater pieces during the past year, including Creative City Project's Bright Young Things, but Down the Rabbit Hole was by far the best organized and produced, despite some minor technical glitches during my preview performance. The only criticisms I can offer are that the off-road journey isn't ADA-friendly (be sure to wear sturdy walking shoes), and the climactic lip-synced pop-music dance number feels aggressively out of step with the rest of the evening's whimsical tone. If Creative City can continue supporting this type of unique, intimate experiences, I'm A-OK with their Immerse street festival remaining on extended hiatus. (select Tuesdays-Sundays through March 25)

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