This year’s Ultra Music Festival Miami has been mired in controversy because their contract with Bayfront Park where the festival has been held since its inception 21 years ago was not renewed. That area has a lot of condo’s and hotels and the residents complained about the noise and the traffic. We went last year for the first time and frankly, I can kind of understand why the residents wouldn’t want 150,000 EDM fans descending on the streets below.

So after a lot of discussions and negotiations, the Ultra organizers were able to secure a new location on the Virginia Key in the Miami bay. Ultra is so big it actually has to span two locations across the island: Miami Marine Stadium and Historic Virginia Key Beach. Both locations do have pretty regular events/festivals at them so it’s not totally out of the ordinary. But there was ample controversy about the environmental and traffic disruption of such a big event.

The timing is also quite ironic… Just a couple of months after the Fyre Fest documentaries came out. Having a giant music festival on an island. Fortunately there is actually a bridge to this island, but still there’s seemingly only one way off and on the island.

So going into it we definitely had a bit of trepidation… Terrified of the prospect of being stranded with only cheese sandwiches. Their plan was to utilize 230 buses to get people on and off the island and Lyft and Uber had banned ride pickups on the island itself, opting to save their drivers from a potential traffic quagmire. They also decided to offer a ferry service and Helena and I being big boat fans, decided to sign up hoping that we’d get to bypass at least some of the crazy traffic and get a nice bay view on the way in.

On Friday night we decided to go a bit closer to sunset because what’s better than the sunset on a boat. When we arrived at the boat dock we only had to wait about 20 minutes to board a boat. They had a great system of “ferries” on basically what seemed like all the giant party boats and water taxis they could rent. I’m sure the festival this year was a boon to the boat rental industry. They even rented the illustrious Seafair Miami, the biggest corporate party boat of them that normally docks in Bayfront Park to act as their “artist yacht”. A little known fact about this giant yacht… It has no engine so they have to tow it from place to place and so not surprisingly, it remained docked by the festival the entire time.

I have to say, taking a boat to the event, increased the Miami vibe 100x. It was also pretty convenient as we could see the bus traffic on the causeway was going pretty slow. Although I didn’t hear many complaints about the buses getting to the event, getting back from it is a different story… More on that later.

So when we got there, having the ferry passes entitled us to a pseudo VIP experience because we were able to get in a separate security line and get into the festival in under 10 minutes. I recall it was almost an hour getting into the festival last year with general admission tickets.

Due to the new locations, the layout of the festival this year is very different from previous years because it’s split between 2 disparate locations with a 1.3 mile/26 minute walk in-between. Fortunately for us, all the acts we wanted to see were on the live stage and the main stage which were in the location you’re dropped off at. Those stages were directly across from each other with a big tent in-between so you couldn’t actually see/hear the other stage very much, which was nice. The first day we stuck to the main location but planned to spend some time at the second location on day 2. There seemed to be ample bathrooms and the lines for food and drinks weren’t bad… Except for the empanada trucks… Ultra people seem to really like their empanadas. The only hiccup was that near the end of the night we tried to get a 21+ wrist band, but they seemed to have run out and the bartenders aren’t actually allowed to serve you just based on your ID.

The big acts we were excited to see the first day were Odesza, Galantis, and Marshmello. Odesza put on a really great “live” show. In the EDM world, I think the definition of live is that you have at least one instrument on the stage and not just a set of turntables on a table. I don’t think the live music is actually so different from any of the other stages– The difference is in the performance. Odesza wholeheartedly fulfilled this by including a drumline in about half their songs and switching it up between DJ’ing and personally playing a lot of percussion themselves. They also featured a trumpet and a trombone player, which made appearances in a number of their songs, which I didn’t even realize were really trumpet/trombone parts, but it fit right in and sounded amazing. Naomi Wild, the vocalist on one of their songs, “Higher Ground”, also made an appearance and her vocals were impeccable. One thing that really made the performance for me was their visuals. They had a mix of dreamy and sci-fi industrial animations playing on the big screens behind them. I really liked the layout of the screens on the live stage as you could see the visuals clearly, as opposed to the main stage that has a lot of different screens at different heights and dimensions where if you’re not straight across from the stage, looks a little distorted. Galantis gave a similarly live percussion-heavy performance on the live stage featuring a bit more trippy visuals and the cat/owl/bear creature that’s visible on much of their artwork. I really like Galantis and enjoyed their performance, but we didn’t stay for all of their set because we wanted to get in a good position for Marshmello on the Main Stage.

For me, the worst part of Ultra is probably the main stage announcer whose voice sounds perpetually like a monster truck rally TV advertisement. I was kind of bummed that we skipped out on Galantis early because Marshmello was about 10 minutes late so we were subjected to him stalling for about 10 minutes by trying to do shout outs to what seemed like every member of the production staff and then his signature callouts to the countries represented at the event, with an emphasis and repetition on China and Taiwan. When Marshmello finally came on we actually had a pretty good vantage point in the crowd. He busted onto the stage with his signature marshmello helmet and flanked by his cartoony visuals behind him. For a couple of minutes his mic didn’t work so that made for a few awkward pauses in the music where he turned down the music and tried to shoutout to the crowd, but there was just silence. But they got that worked out pretty quickly and he played an exciting ~80min set that ended just a few minutes before 2am.

The later ending time was another thing different about this years Ultra. Previously at Bayfront Park they had a strict noise curfew at 12am. Their new curfew was 2am, but that was seemingly pretty strict because as we were scurrying from the main stage to the ferry hub the live stage was still going strong until exactly at 2am where the sound shut off very suddenly. We were able to get pretty far in front of the ferry line and probably only waited 20-30 minutes for a boat to take us to the mainland, but there was a pretty substanial line behind us so I have no idea how long those people had to wait. With so many big boats running the ferry they were able to keep the line moving pretty well. Capping off the night with another boat trip draped by the Miami skyline was a pretty nice way to end the first day. But as we could see as soon as the causeway was visible, the non-ferry attendees were having quite a different experience…

The traffic seemed like it was at a complete standstill and we could hear a lot of honking and see a lot of flashing lights… Not good. As we were cruising back to the mainland I quickly scrolled through twitter to see that apparently there was a small brush fire going on and people had grown so frustrated with the bus wait they had started to walk back. It’s 2.5miles from the island to the mainland so that’s not an insane distance, but I’m sure for the people that were standing and dancing for 12 hours that wasn’t what they planned to do at the end of the night. Of course, there were more immediate comparisons to Fyre Fest, but getting stranded on an island 181 miles off the coast of Miami and one 2.5 miles away with a bridge are scales of magnitude different screw ups. I’ve heard various explanations for what the issues were, but they held a press conference Saturday morning and said they were doing a lot of things to help alleviate the chaos for Saturday night.

We had a little trouble hailing an uber from our ferry drop off spot at Bayside Marketplace. I wondered if part of the problem was the influx of people came a lot later and so there wasn’t more drivers available. Although it is Miami, so I’m sure there are a lot of drivers late into the night. We topped off the night with some greasy deliciosness from Big Pink while we were entertained by Story club patrons coming out in conditions ranging from hysterical tears to others trying to dance with cars in the street and a cake refregterator in the resttauraunt.

The second day we arrived about an hour earlier to give us more time to check out “Resistance Island”. We made the 1.5-mile trek from the main area to the Virginia Key Beach and honestly it wasn’t that bad of a walk and we made a couple of friends along the way, but I’d be lying if I said we weren’t slightly jealous of the staff zipping along beside the path in the golf carts. When we got to the Resistance Island the vibe was immediately different. It felt a lot more spread out, relaxed and not so cold and sterile as the main area, which is hosted on top of a giant parking lot. The area was mostly grassy and sandy and they really leaned into the tropical theme for some of the stages.

Tucked away in the back of the area was the infamous Carl Cox Megastructure where you can dance your ass off to continuous pulsing beats for hours. But also in that area they included some really neat art installations that reminded us of the House of Creatives festival that was hosted in the same place a couple of months earlier. It’s hard to describe the installations… There were old fancy couches and tiny houses and lighthouses that you could get inside. And it was kind of a surreal experience staring up at the lights while listening to the music in the background. Definitely not an experience that they had at last year’s Ultra! In this area, there were also a lot of hammocks, which was kind of amazing if you’ve been dancing on your feet for hours.

It was quite a transition and a bit of a letdown to go back to the main area…

This is a work in progress post as the festival is still going!

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