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It's a great year to visit the Universal Orlando Resort

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In theme parks all across Central Florida, new and exciting projects are currently underway that will literally change the face of vacationing in the Orlando area. Once known simply as the land of the Mouse, the Walt Disney Company now has more than it's fair share of competition for the almighty dollar.

One of their largest challengers for the theme park crown is the Universal Orlando Resort. This spring, their movie-themed attraction, Universal Studios Florida, comes alive once again with its Mardi Gras 2014 celebration which features 20 nights of electrifying concerts from the biggest names in music, coupled with the essence of the legendary Bayou bash; all included with theme park admission.

On select nights Feb. 8 through May 31, guests will experience a “N’awlins”-inspired, family-friendly version of Mardi Gras at Universal Studios Florida. The celebration combines unmatched theme park entertainment with delectable Cajun cuisine, authentic New Orleans bands, an awe-inspiring parade and live concerts by some of today’s hottest artists.

This year’s powerhouse musical lineup features a diverse array of talent, from R&B superstar Robin Thicke, whose hit single “Blurred Lines” topped the Billboard chart for a near-record 12 weeks, to UK pop sensation The Wanted, who has sold nearly 10 million albums worldwide, to Latin idol Prince Royce, who reached number one on the U.S. Hot Latin Songs chart with “Corazón Sin Cara.” Also performing is rock band Daughtry, Grammy award-winning Hip Hop artist Nelly, and the classic rock group Foreigner, one of the best-selling bands of all time.

Guests can also catch colorful beads by the handful during this year’s parade, which will feature 12 vibrant floats, including three new additions celebrating Jules Verne’s novel, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” All of the exquisitely detailed Mardi Gras floats are engineered by Blaine Kern Artists, the same company that has been hand-crafting floats for the iconic New Orleans celebration since 1947. Plus, guests can visit Universal Studios Florida’s very own French Quarter Courtyard to enjoy authentic Cajun cuisine and see performances by bands pulled straight from Bourbon Street.

After the Mardi Gras partiers have retreated for yet another year, the theme park takes on a whole new dimension this summer, as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley brings the world of the boy who lived to life yet again by recreating the streets of London, as well as the back roads of Diagon Alley.

Universal Orlando launched a global phenomenon when it opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade at its Islands of Adventure theme park in 2010. That area includes the iconic Hogwarts castle – which houses the groundbreaking Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction – and the village of Hogsmeade. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley will be located within Universal Orlando’s second theme park, Universal Studios, and will create new experiences based on the signature areas of London, Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley.

Universal’s creative team has been working closely with Stuart Craig and the production team from the Harry Potter films to make the new area as authentic and spectacular as possible – just as it did with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade.

The vision for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley is unprecedented, with Universal Orlando creating the world’s first centrally themed, multi-park experience.

After arriving at King’s Cross Station aboard the Hogwarts Express, guests will pass through London and the iconic brick wall archway from the films into Diagon Alley – a bustling, wizarding hub within a Muggle city. There will be shops, dining experiences, and a new ride called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional journey that will take theme park attractions to a new level.

Ever since the announcement was made of a Harry potter themed area at Universal, guests have been clamoring to board the Hogwarts Express and journey between London’s King’s Cross Station (located in Universal Studios Florida) and Hogsmeade Station (located in Universal’s Islands of Adventure). Now, their dreams have finally come true! Travelers will enjoy views of London and the British countryside – as well as a few surprises. Park-to-park admission is required.

Readers of the series of books will also be glad that Diagon Alley will include the "original location" of Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC, one of the wizarding world’s premier wand shops, where you can witness the magical experience of a wand choosing a wizard. Who knows? The wand may even choose you!

Be careful not to make any wrong turns, or you may end up finding the darker side of magic in Knockturn Alley, the darkest of dark places that features Borgin and Burkes – a shop specializing in the Dark Arts that will offer a wide variety of Dark objects, such as Death Eater masks, skulls, and other sinister items

Diagon Alley’s will also offer the chance to shop at some of the most famous shops in the wizarding world, including:

  • Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, a vibrant shop featuring novelty items, magical jokes, and toys inspired by the books and films that will amaze the mischievous child in everyone
  • Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, where guests will find a variety of wizardwear from Hogwarts school uniform ties, scarves and jumpers, to authentic wizard’s robes and character costumes
  • Magical Menagerie, which features a collection of plush animals, such as owls and Hippogriffs
  • Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, where guests can grab wizarding essentials such as telescopes, binoculars, armillary spheres, compasses, magnifying glasses and hourglasses
  • Quality Quidditch Supplies, offering a wide assortment of apparel and equipment including Quidditch sweaters, brooms, Golden Snitches, Bludgers, Bludger bats, Quaffles and more
  • Scribbulus, featuring authentic writing implements and products such as feather quills, ink and inkwells, bookmarks, journals, parchment paper, seals, stationery sets and postcards

All that shopping is bound to make even the most powerful wizard famished, so you will have enough of an appetitie to be able to enjoy traditional British fare that includes favorite dishes such as fish and chips, bangers and mash and more at the Leaky Cauldron, followed by a visit to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour for frozen treats in a variety of tantalizing and unique flavors such as strawberry-and-peanut-butter ice-cream.

Of course, Universal Studios Florida isn't all about parties and wizards. While you are there, you can also join Optimus Prime in the fight to save Earth on TRANSFORMERS: The Ride – 3D or visit Springfield, home to The Simpsons, to take an intergalactic spin on Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl. With an upgraded park-to-park ticket, guests will have the opportunity to visit Universal Orlando’s second theme park, Islands of Adventure, and enjoy award-winning attractions like: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk Coaster and more.

In addition to two theme parks, Universal Orlando Resort is home to three on-site hotels: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort, and a fourth on-site hotel, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, opening March 31, 2014. And its entertainment complex, Universal CityWalk, offers some of the hottest, most recognizable entertainment experiences in the world.

It seems like the magic is never ending for the lucky visitors to the Central Florida area, which is probably why it is still the number one vacation destination in the world. Have you planned your visit to Orlando yet? If not, what are you waiting for!

Of course, if you want the magic to continue every day of the year, maybe you should consider joining the cast and crew of Universal Orlando. The resort is currently seeking enthusiastic new Team Members for numerous full-time, part-time and seasonal positions now available across the entire destination. Positions, including management roles, are available in areas such as Food Services, Attractions, Merchandise and many more.

"From CityWalk and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to our administrative team and everything in between – Universal Orlando provides an exciting work environment for Team Members with great perks like free park admission, discounts, complimentary guest passes and more," stated Steve Calamusa.

Applications are being accepted now with some positions starting immediately. Interviews will be scheduled by invitation for qualified candidates.

Be sure to subscribe to this column, travel to some of the greatest local getaways around, all from the comfort of your desktop (or laptop, or PDA, or smartphone!) If you have a favorite local attraction you'd like to see profiled, please let me know. Also, be sure to follow me on twitter, and read my articles about motorsports, HOAs, elections, and restaurants.

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