You don't know what you've got until it's gone. For 20 years, the City of Miami had an international symbol of dance music's colorful and ever-evolving culture, but after one day of Ultra Music Festival's new home on Virginia Key, it's not clear how much of that dignity remains.
Following UMF's 2019 debut on Friday (March 29), social media is rife with photos, videos and frustrated commentary as tens of thousands of attendees were forced to walk two-and-a-half miles across the Rickenbacker Causeway following a complete breakdown of transportation logistics.
Traditionally, about 50,000 people attend Ultra each day, and most wandered away from stages after the event's 2 a.m. curfew to find wildly disorganized pick-up points due to a lack of infrastructure or instruction as to how or where to line up for free shuttles. Add to that a sprawling festival map that includes a minimum 30-minute walk between two distinct arenas, sound bleed between main stages and a palm tree fire, and two things become obvious: the City of Miami has greatly undermined and disrespected a 20-year cultural institution, and Ultra Music Festival organizers refused to accept the logistical reality of their move.
The mess started when the City of Miami refused to renew Ultra's contract to operate in its long-time home of Bayfront Park. In 2001, a one-day version of the festival moved from South Beach to downtown Miami. From 2012 to 2016, the festival operated three days in the downtown space, fitting an average of seven stages of electronic music representing a variety of styles. Iconic acts from Kraftwerk to Avicii and Snoop Dogg played the event. Swedish House Mafia famously used Ultra Miami as its official debut, highly-publicized final show and its big reunion five years later.
The event attracted thousands of attendees from around the world, but wealthy condo residents — who live in buildings younger than Ultra itself — complained about the noise and traffic. The City sided with their interests when refusing to update the event's contract a few months after Ultra's big 20-year anniversary celebration. Ultra had begun selling $400 three-day GA tickets for the 2019 event days prior. In November, the City approved Ultra's move to Virginia Key, wherein it would take residence across the Miami Marina Stadium parking lot and Historic Virginia Key Beach Park.
Event organizers had four months to properly plan and produce the show. It was not enough time, apparently.
In the last four months, there was much talk of environmental safety measures and how free shuttles would bus fans to the event from downtown. Less was said about stage organization and how Ultra would mitigate a rush of eventgoers leaving the island on said shuttles when the festival ended at 2 a.m. each night. Shuttles began bussing fans to the new Virginia Key site at noon on Friday. Wait times at three various hubs ranged from five to 20 minutes, and things seemed to run smoothly.
Once on site, fans were met with two musical options. The Main Stage, Worldwide Stage, UMF Radio Stage and Live Stage were crammed together in the Miami Marine Stadium parking lot, a space of about 15 acres compared to Bayfront Park's 32. The asphalt space lacked identity, and felt more like a carnival than an idyllic escape. Acts such as Marshmello, Skrillex and Boys Noize's duo Dog Blood, ODESZA and Jai Wolf were scheduled to headline the spaces that first night.
When standing on the side of any of these stages, it was impossible not to hear the booming bass of the other three, especially in the small cluster of the Live, WorldWide and Radio stages. The noise clashed in fans' ears as a mish-mash of beats. deadmuau5 is meant to give his massive cubev3 stage production a worldwide debut Saturday night (March 30), but it seems quite apparent that only a few thousand people who fit inside the tented Live Stage area will be able to enjoy the show.
Meanwhile, the second half of the festival map, dubbed “Resistance Island,” features loads of green space in a spread-out environment that used lighting, jungle stage design, island oasis motifs and decorated hang-out spaces to create that environmental festival fantasy. Carl Cox's iconic Megastructure was found here as well as two other stages. It boasted performances from house and techno favorites Black Coffee, Loco Dice and Adam Beyer.
Resistance Island was a great example of what Ultra on Virginia Key could be. The caveat? Walking between Resistance Island and the main stage arena was at minimum a 30-minute trek along the highway. It all but forced attendees to pick a side and stick to it.
Awkward venue aside, the real struggle came when fans tried to leave. Virginia Key is connected to mainland Miami by the Rickenbacker Causeway, a solitary highway. Some lucky partiers who left early in the night may have caught shuttles back to the mainland. Ride share apps were restricted from the area, and there was no parking for individuals on the island. The only way back was to take a free shuttle provided by Ultra.
Unfortunately, there were no barriers constructed to clearly demarcate shuttle lines, and there were no barriers between the sidewalks and the highway road. Thousands of tired ravers huddled into large crowds. Many spilled out into the road, the only thing between them and moving busses being the shouts of frustrated workers. Many decided to walk the two-and-a-half mile highway bridge back to Miami, but others chose to wait up to two hours for shuttles without knowing the shuttles themselves had been suspended due to heavy pedestrian traffic on the open highway roads.
Fans took to Twitter and Instagram to post videos and pictures of tens of thousands of Ultra attendees making the long trek. People were still walking back as late at 4 a.m. Many people joked about sleeping on the side of the road or swimming to shore. Once on the mainland, thousands continued to walk more miles toward hotels, as rideshare drivers canceled pickups in the hectic space. The hashtags #ISurvived and #FyreFestival2 started to trend.
Ultra has not made any public statement on social media or otherwise. (Billboard Dance reached out to Ultra for comment, but there has yet been no response.) Videos of a palm tree on fire at the festival site have surfaced with no explanation of cause or damage sustained. Ultra's most recent tweet, updated 14 hours ago, reads “your primetime necessity at #Ultra2019” with a picture of a woman pouring Absolut Elyx Vodka.
As of now, Ultra is planned to continue 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 30 and 31. Many have said they enjoyed the show itself, but how many fans will make the trek back is to be seen.
See more of the pictures and videos posted to socials below.