Behind-the-Beads | How Mardi Gras Parade Floats Are Brought to Life at Universal Orlando Resort

February 22, 2024
A Mardi Gras float backstage

Before the last piece of confetti hits the ground on the final night of Universal Mardi Gras: International Flavors of Carnaval, the creative minds behind Universal Orlando’s Art and Design Team are already set on a year (sometimes two!) in the future.

While there are six floats that return to the parade each season, this small but mighty team turns six additional blank-float skeletons into new works of mobile art that roll through the streets of Universal Studios Florida nightly during Mardi Gras — and they do it every single year!

Mardi Gras parade floats backstage

I met with Kerstin Mais, Art Manager and Deb Aull, Lead Set Dresser for the Mardi Gras Parade as they were in the beginning stages of their four-week sprint to get all six new floats show-ready for the first night of the 2024 event.

“Our designers will come up with a new parade theme every year,” explains Kerstin. “Once the current year’s parade is over, the rotating floats are taken offsite, stripped down to a blank canvas and repainted to match the next year’s designs. We have a great relationship with Kern Studios, a float building company located in New Orleans, and they supply us with the larger-than-life statues that will be placed on the floats. Once these are installed, the floats make their way back to Universal Orlando property where our work begins!”

This year, the Mardi Gras Parade brings the elements to life, with floats representing earth, wind, fire, water, the sun and the moon. “My favorite new float this year is the earth float,” Deb expresses. “There’s a lot of set dressing we’re doing to this one, and it will be covered with beautiful vines and flowers.”

Mardi Gras float

As I look around at the new floats in their current state, they are definitely different from the shiny, glittery, bead-adorned works of art I’ve come to expect as a Mardi Gras fan. This is the beauty of what the Art and Design Team does, though; with their trained eyes, they can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary and create something truly unexpected from year to year.

The first order of business following delivery of the floats is what the team refers to as the “glittering process.” Kerstin explains, “Our float designers provide us with their vision for how they would like the floats to be decorated, and our team applies the glitter based on that design. Glittering alone takes about one to two weeks to finish.”

Deb adds, “When we come in, all of the floats are essentially bare, they only have paint on them. As set dressers, we come in and add the glitter, foliage, beads and anything else the designer has asked for. Glitter really makes the floats beautiful; it makes them come alive.”

A team member paints a Mardi Gras float

I intently watched the team as they meticulously painted on their designs with glue, then took a big handful of glitter and lobbed it at the side of the float. Sometimes, the team has guidelines drawn on the floats to follow; sometimes, it’s up to them and their creative freedom to execute the vision.

“I constantly encourage my team to come to me with their ideas, because no idea is a bad idea,” says Kerstin. “Our work is a team effort, and I always say ‘we’re a team for a reason’ because everybody has their own unique skill they bring to the table. It makes me proud that my Team Members can pitch something to me that I wouldn’t have thought of. I embrace everyone’s ideas and always try to make them happen.”

A team member applies glitter to a Mardi Gras float

Teamwork is a theme brought up time and time again the longer I spend with the group, whether it’s between coworkers or between departments. “We have 11 Team Members in Art and Design that work on decor for the Mardi Gras Parade,” explains Kerstin. “But the total number of Team Members who work on this parade is immense.”

Deb adds, “We have a special effects team that installs the confetti cannons and fog, a lighting team who installs the light strips and other special lighting, and an audio team that installs all of the speakers and gets the music working. We all have to work well together since we’re working in the same small area. Luckily, we’re all friends and all happy to be here!”

Team members in front of a Mardi Gras float

Once the new floats are covered in glitter from top to bottom, the team moves on to the next step: layering. Foliage, bunting, bead strands and “plantons” (decorative items attached to the side of the floats to give them a 3-D look) are added to make the floats pop. For the returning floats, layering involves adding jumbo bead strands to the sides and giving them a thorough inspection to ensure they’re in tip-top shape. Deb describes layering as her favorite part of the process: “Glittering is fun,” she says, “but I love layering the floats with all of our fun finds and beads. I love seeing the end result with all of the decorations in place, knowing the floats started plain and bare.”

A team member decorates a Mardi Gras float

Deb’s experience with decorating floats for the Mardi Gras Parade spans back over two and a half decades. “I was hired as a Set Dresser 25 years ago, adding beads to the floats,” she says. “Now, I’m a Lead Set Dresser, and I love what I do. I remember in the beginning, all of the floats were lower to the ground and were structured differently. Through the years we’ve tried different ways of decorating the floats, and we decided glitter really made them come alive. The designs have evolved to be so much more intricate than they were when I first started.”

A Mardi Gras float themed to the sea

Once the last of the decorations have been applied, the team gets to step back and enjoy the fruits of their labor. “My favorite part of the process is when we’re completely done and the floats go out for the first time,” says Kerstin. “I try to stand at the very beginning of the parade to watch them as soon as they come out of the gate. With the lights and effects added, it all just comes together and looks awesome. When I see thousands of people watching the Mardi Gras Parade, I have fond memories of watching the same parade as a child, and it feels so cool to be a part of it.”

A Mardi Gras float towed by a truck

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