Despite a torrent of transportation issues and noise complaints from neighbors, Ultra Music Festival is looking to return to its new Virginia Key location in 2020.
In a press conference Monday wrapping Ultra’s festival weekend, the event’s head of security and Miami Beach’s former police chief Ray Martinez said organizers hope to return to the island location for another year.
“It was a great event in a beautiful location, and we look forward to being here next year and producing — and even improving on — our event and our festival,” Martinez said.
Social media was rampant with complaints from festivalgoers on Friday night as many had to make a roughly two-and-a-half-mile trek to and from the mainland via the Rickenbacker Causeway due to a lack of transportation and clear instructions.
Virginia Key is the fourth location for the 21-year-old festival, which revealed it hosted 170,000 people over the three-day event that received mixed reviews due to Friday night’s transportation issues.
According to those at the festival, many fans trying to leave the event wound up stuck on the island for hours. Crowds began to form along the highway, overwhelming the sporadic shuttles sent to pick up passengers. Confusion and chaos took hold as fans waited hours hours to catch a ride back to one of Ultra’s hubs where they could hop on public transportation or hail a car from a rideshare app. Rideshare services were not allowed to drive on the island to pick up passengers at that late hour because organizers wanted to avoid congestion by only having attendees take the provided free shuttles.
“Last night, many of you experienced challenging transportation conditions leaving the festival. This is unacceptable and inconsistent with the high standards you have come to expect from us,” Ultra said on its social media platforms following its failings on the first night of the festival, adding it would work throughout the weekend to earn back “confidence and trust.”
Billboard reached out directly to Ultra, but did not receive additional comment.
Ultra announced the location change in November, moving its flagship festival to the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park and Miami Marine Stadium Flex Park with expanded space and an extended operating time, closing down the festival at 2 a.m. instead of midnight. The relocation came after Miami City Commission unanimously voted down a renewal for its contract at Bayfront Park in Downtown Miami in September.
Festival organizers had only four months to figure out logistics for the new site which had only one way off the island and was the first time the event had to handle transportation since it was no longer in an urban epicenter of a city.
“It was day one of year one,” said Martinez at the press conference. “In Downtown Miami, we did not provide transportation. We were anticipating when crowds were starting to leave. They actually left sooner than we were prepared for.”
By Saturday afternoon, festival organizers said they met with the city manager, police and fire chiefs and established a plan for a dedicated bus lane to open earlier on the bridge to keep the free shuttles running more consistently. Martinez also promised better signage to help festival-goers find buses and announced the festival would halt the use of fireworks that caused a palm tree to catch fire Friday night.
“It was still a bit of a nightmare,” festival attendee and local DJ Naseef Khan tells Billboard of Saturday night’s mass exodus. “Their attempt to clean things up was keeping everybody inside the festival, inside the grounds and having the police at each exit moderating who gets to go to the bus, counting people out.”
According to Khan who has attended several Ultra festivals over the years, acts were closing down their sets later than the 2 a.m. deadline.
“At 2:30 they announced a surprise AfroJack set at the Radio Stage. If people didn’t want to stand and wait in line, which most people didn’t want to do, they could go and keep enjoying the festival,” adds Khan. “It felt a bit odd because the facilities were closing and you couldn’t buy drinks anymore. It was pretty much just cash food vendors and the bathroom.”
The issues with transportation were predicted by local news outlets and neighbors, several of whom joined a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the City and Ultra’s license agreement.
“There’s no way to get 60,000 people out of there on a two-lane road,” says attorney David Winker, who is suing the city of Miami on behalf of residents who objected to Ultra’s relocation to Virginia Key. “I don’t think that they can solve those problems, honestly. Logistically, it’s too much. I don’t think you can get that many people off the island.”
While Martinez announced at the press conference on Monday that transportation on Sunday night was “flawless,” festivalgoers still reported waiting for several hours to catch shuttles back to the mainland.
In addition to transportation issues, some attendees complained about noise bleeds when they weren’t close to stages and noticed a dramatic shift in the layout as the event was spread across two sites on the island, the Virginia Key Beach Park and Miami Marine Stadium.
“They essentially threw two festivals this year,” says Khan, who adds that it was a roughly half-hour walk between the main stage by Marine Stadium and RESISTANCE island. “It didn’t make sense to me the first day, but going back the second day and realizing it was like two different festivals and that’s why they set it up like this.”
Regardless of the hiccups for the first year at Virginia Key, Kahn says he hopes the festival returns to the island.
“I’d like to see them give Virginia Key another try,” Khan tells Billboard. “The production was next level. The Carl Cox megastructure was absolutely insane. It was isolated on a beach. You had to walk a lot to get to it, but once you were there you didn’t want to leave. It was a spectacle.”
Ultra’s Virginia Key contract with the city of Miami is a year-to-year lease and, according to the Miami Herald, mayor Francis Suarez, city manager Emilio Gonzalez and other administrators will meet with Ultra representatives to discuss the issues faced at this year’s event and whether the festival will return to the island.