The hot ticket in Orlando? Festivals at Universal, SeaWorld and Disney World
Universal Orlando's Mardi Gras parade

It's festival time at Orlando's theme parks.

Orlando feels transformed into New Orleans for a moment as the parade sweeps through. People desperately snatch at the air for beads whipping over their heads. The floats roll through — each more over-the-top and extravagant than the next — until the grand finale: an alligator. High above the crowd, dancers shimmy and laugh on stilts. It’s pure celebration.

Welcome to Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras.

At Orlando’s theme parks, general admission includes plenty of music, food and special festivities this Winter and Spring during festival season. A packed calendar could help draw more tourists out to Orlando. That’s good news for Visit Orlando as Central Florida’s tourism industry is still rebounding.

“Orlando and Florida’s overall travel performance shifted and rebalanced in 2023 as the domestic leisure travel surge from 2022 faded as travelers returned to other U.S. and international destinations. Looking at the full year 2023, metro Orlando occupancy trailed slightly behind 2022 with an average of 72.7% versus 73.4% in 2022,” said Visit Orlando’s President and CEO Casandra Matej

But so far in 2024, signs are positive that tourism is growing, she said.

“Orlando hotels show a 3% increase in on-the-books room nights for the first quarter. Orlando’s airline services are expanding, resulting in an 8% increase in direct seat capacity into area airports,” Matej said. “Advance airline ticket sales into Orlando for the first quarter of 2024 from global origins are pacing 8% ahead, indicating sustained interest and demand in the destination.”

As always, some of Orlando’s biggest tourist draws are its theme parks.

Epcot, the park that’s practically always in festival mode, kicks off its annual International Food and Garden Festival from Feb. 28 to May 27. The festival features food booths with special tasting menus and topiaries of beloved Disney characters. Rocker Rick Springfield, famous for “Jessie’s Girl,” and millennium era band Lit, who penned the hit “My Own Worst Enemy,” are among the acts performing on select evenings during the festival’s concert series.

At SeaWorld Orlando, the park has jumped into the food festival scene as well. The Seven Seas Food Festival gives visitors diverse dishes and 75 different alcoholic beverages to try. A recent media preview showcased its mojitos and fried sushi. At night, rapper Ludacris and MMMBoppers Hanson perform for SeaWorld’s own concert series. The festival lasts through May 19 on select nights.

Universal Mardi Gras: International Flavors of Carnaval runs on select nights thru April 7 with its parade, concert series and international food booths. DJ Khaled and Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” fame will hit the stage.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .


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