The 2022 Mardi Gras Tribute Store is the third iteration of its kind at Universal Orlando Resort, but this themed, immersive shop has become a fixture in all of Universal Studios’ annual events. This year, the four rooms are designed to walk guests through the experience and process of building a Mardi Gras float.
The de-facto leader in float production is Kern Studios, based in New Orleans. This studio is responsible for the majority of the floats that parade the streets each year in the Gulf Coast, and is also the company responsible for producing the floats that appear in Universal’s Mardi Gras Parade. The production company has some impressive stats – including a warehouse over 300,000 square feet large and the fact that it’s a family-owned business that has been running for over 80 years.
As their business shows, building a float is a process that takes a lot of time and attention. Building a float can take between six months to a year (Kern Studios has a famous “50 weeks” structure for their floats), with the design and requirements of the float determining specific timelines. There are many things to consider when designing a float – what it looks like from the sidewalk, what it looks like coming down the street, what it will look like with people on it, where those riders can or should be stationed, and the number of riders present on the float are just a few things to consider. Unsurprisingly, Kern Studios holds the record for designing a float that is both the longest float in the world and the float with the most riders. The Pontchartrain Beach Float (2013) measured 365 feet long and held 250 riders, coming in with a price tag of a cool $1.5 million dollars to build. Thankfully, the average float costs closer to $50,000 (and up).
So, how do you actually build a float? The first room of the Tribute Store walks you through that process. The first step is to come up with exciting and entertaining ideas – say, an astronaut alligator? Lined with carefully labeled boxes, messy work stations, and unique throwbacks to previous years’ Mardi Gras, the entry room to the Tribute Store makes guests feel as though they stepped directly into a warehouse on the bayou.
The float-making process is relatively simple in some ways, with the real complications lying in executing the design and artistry of the unique float designs. Many artists feel that this is the exciting part of the job – each float design has the opportunity to present its own unique set of challenges, and thus the artist must work with the engineering of the float as well as the design of it. But, all floats start the same way – designed, cut, and sculpted from thick Styrofoam sheets. Once this base task has been completed, the float is smoothed out with sandpaper before being covered in a layer of paper mache.
Each room of the Tribute Store represents progress through the float process of production, with more details, brighter colors, and an excess of beads donning the ceiling the further along you venture. The theme of this year’s Mardi Gras event is “Planet Mardi Gras,” so much of the merchandise (sweatshirts, t-shirts, and bucket hats) has psychedelic space motifs in the design.
The most impressive room in this year’s Tribute Store is the fourth room, where guests can check out after browsing the merchandise and stocking up on specialty beads. This space has floats along nearly every wall, and it’s here that you can see the alligator astronaut come to life. Easter eggs like Earl the Squirrel (in space!) are hidden here, and the treats and sweets you can always find in the last room of the Tribute Store are featured in a display built into one of the floats.
While this probably isn’t our favorite Tribute Store, it accomplishes the goal of creating an immersive and exciting merchandise experience for guests excited for Mardi Gras at Universal Studios Florida. The Tribute Store certainly has the best collection of Mardi Gras merchandise, and the world-class floats are worth seeing up-close-and-personal. We recommend you walk through and take a look at everything for yourself!