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FLORIDA TOURISM // In Orlando, it's still Mardi Gras

It's been said that a replica of everything big in the history of civilization exists somewhere around the theme parks of Orlando.

Now it's Mardi Gras' turn.

Last week, Universal Studios Florida started putting on nightly Mardi Gras-style parades; the events run until April 6. And with $1-million to spend, the theme park didn't mess around.

Universal executives rented 15 floats used in New Orleans' plethora of Mardi Gras parades. They signed up big-name artists such as the Neville Brothers, Buckwheat Zydeco, George Thorogood & the Destroyers and Ziggy Marley for five consecutive Saturdays of live pre-parade performances. They even got authentic Mardi Gras costumes for 200 hired street performers, plus 200 more to outfit park patrons who volunteer to ride in the floats.

Every day, one lucky couple plucked from the crowd gets to be the parade king and queen.

"Our theme at Universal has always been "ride the movies,'

" said park spokeswoman Linda Buckley. "Now you can ride the Mardi Gras, too."

Cities for years have been doing Mardi Gras knockoffs. Tampa's Gasparilla Festival is but one example. But Universal executives, who try to offer a "cooler" alternative to Walt Disney World's sanitized attractions, figured a monthlong Mardi Gras celebration best fit both their needs and their wilder image.

After all, $1-million parades have been a big hit at Disney for years. Universal's month of Halloween Fright Nights _ featuring such sights as the Rat Lady, who shares a coffin with hundreds of live rats _ has drawn monster crowds during the October doldrums.

This time Universal wants to one-up the hundreds of events that compete with theme parks for customers' time during March, the peak of the winter tourist season. In particular, they are angling for spring-break crowds.

Besides, the park needs to do something new to attract young people because its next blockbuster thrill ride, a $60-million takeoff of the movie Terminator 2, won't open until this summer.

Long term, Universal hopes the annual Mardi Gras grows to rival the Halloween Fright Nights, which now merit a separate admission and run for a month. For this year at least, the Mardi Gras events are included in the regular park admission.

Universal's Mardi Gras parade looks authentic. Dixieland bands strut their stuff. Street vendors push jambalaya, rum-laced hurricanes and all manner of Mardi Gras-themed merchandise. Cannons hidden in the palm trees let loose clouds of confetti.

Unlike the real thing, however, this is Mardi Gras Lite, staged not in conjunction with the real thing, which ended Feb. 20, but with the availability of floats that otherwise would go in a warehouse.

The celebration is in a secure, controlled environment where children will see nothing untoward. The drinking won't get out of hand because the park is heavily policed, closing right after the roughly two-hour celebration ends about 7:30 p.m. The parade itself is a 30-minute affair.

While New Orleans mobs would commit mayhem for a string of beads, the untrained, sedate crowds at Universal's inaugural parade last Wednesday often flinched when confronted with flying novelties.

Skip Sherman, Universal's vice president of entertainment, had six weeks to put together the show. He made sure the people hired to drive the floats _ which are powered by the same Russian-made tractors used in New Orleans _ didn't learn the job in traffic.

"We put them out in a remote parking lot. We had 15 tractors, their headlights on, pulling 15 lighted floats around in a tight circle in the middle of the night," he recalled. "It was somewhat surreal."

No more surreal, some might say, than a Mardi Gras parade ambling down a replica of a 1950s Los Angeles street that really is in the middle of Florida.

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