As the Miami International Boat Show worked to get its “don’t drive” message out, Thursday’s “Premier Day” was a dress rehearsal for the busy weekend ahead, when 25,000 people a day are expected to attend the show at the Miami Marine Stadium Park and Basin Marine Stadium on Virginia Key.
And even though thousands of attendees on Thursday arrived by the free shuttles and ferries to see the more than 1,200 boats on exhibit, traffic on the Rickenbacker Causeway crawled along at times. And there were first-day logistical challenges: Not enough signage, shuttles and water taxis were common refrains.
Show organizers and the media had spread the word that only people with pre-paid parking tickets would be able to park at the show — there were on-site spaces for just 800 showgoers — but some people tried to park anyway and were turned away at the lot.
Eastbound traffic on Virginia Key in the morning was stop and go and thick at times, but thinned out considerably after 1 p.m. It took a Miami Herald reporter 40 minutes to drive the 2.5 miles from the toll booth to the parking entrance in the dedicated boat show lane at about 10 a.m.
Mario Cotopassi, an exhibitor with Colunna Boats, was one of the drivers turned away and told to park at Marlins Park for $5 and take the free shuttle. It took him nearly an hour to drive from the toll booth to the parking entrance, he said, and there were no signs that only pre-paid parking holders would be accommodated until just before the turn into the boat show parking lot. A little later, when a Herald reporter took a shuttle from Marlins Park with Cotopassi and other passengers, there was a big electronic sign displayed before the toll booth and more signs along the way. The shuttle from Marlins Park to the boat show entrance took about 30 minutes at a peak time.
Cotopassi said his company did have a pre-paid space, but his boss used it. Trying to drive over first delayed his expected arrival: “Time is money, you never know who will be walking in.”
Greg Fleming of Seattle said he got to Marlins Park at 7:45 a.m. but the parking garage was not open yet and the first shuttle did not take off until about 9 a.m. Some exhibitors on that bus were angry because they arrived at 6:30 a.m., he said. On social media, “not enough buses” were reported at AAA Arena; long ferry waits were reported at Sea Isle Marina and near the Intercontinental as well as for return ferries in the evening.
The boat show’s management said it had 60 buses and 20 water taxis running continuously and added 10 more buses during the day. On Friday and Saturday, the boat show will add more buses and signage and is trying to add larger ferries at its busiest locations, said George Navarro, transportation and security director for the boat show.
“We planned for our busiest day, a Saturday rather than a Thursday, but it wasn’t enough. We were slammed all day,” said Navarro. “Everybody wanted to be here; attendance was much higher than we expected. My message to your readers is please park at Marlins Park.”
Showgoers were encouraged to park in satellite locations. Organizers have arranged 12,000 parking spaces, primarily at Marlins Park and AmericanAirlines Arena — up from about 2,000 spaces at the old Miami Beach Convention Center. Visitors were shuttled free from 16 locations. most offering both buses and ferries. The Strictly Sail sailboat show, also part of the Miami International Boat Show, is taking place at Bayside, with shuttles and water taxis connecting it to the main site.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, a cadre of city administrators and three of the city's five commissioners were among the crowds arrived by water Thursday. The city delegation traveled from Dinner Key to Virginia Key aboard Recess, a 41-foot pleasure boat stocked with a spread of grapes, kiwi, bread sticks and fontina cheese. During the 20-minute boat ride, which passed under the William Powell bridge, they noticed traffic headed toward the show appeared to be light, at least from the water.
When they arrived, attendees were already milling about exhibit booths, strolling through vast, carpeted tents full of boats and accessories, and grabbing lunch and drinks at outdoor cafes.
“Advanced ticket sales are up 20 percent from last year,” Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said while showing Regalado around.
Regalado stopped to sign a petition to restore the Miami Marine Stadium, which looms from the shoreline over the show. Then he told reporters that Key Biscayne — which is suing to block the city from using the $24 million exhibition space created to host the Boat Show — will hopefully acknowledge after the weekend that the event hasn't disrupted Miami traffic.
“We will be in court with Key Biscayne and hopefully they will understand this doesn't disrupt the lives of Key Biscayne or anybody else,” he said. “I think they have found the perfect venue.”
But Village of Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Lindsay issued this statement: “Traffic nightmare doesn’t even begin to describe what we are experiencing throughout the city because of the boat show, with backups from Brickell Avenue to I-95. You can’t have over 100,000 people come to an event with only one lane of traffic and zero places to park. Not only is it a major inconvenience, it’s a serious hazard for the emergency vehicles that need to get to where they need to go quickly. Hopefully city and county leaders will finally come to their senses and move the show to a more suitable venue next year.”
A number of attendees who caught a water taxi back to Dinner Key Thursday afternoon said they enjoyed the ride. But some waited more than 20 minutes just to catch the ride back to Coconut Grove, and some people hoping to catch a water taxi out of the boat show became confused by long lines.
One boat captain and exhibitor looked around and said “this will be mayhem” come Saturday, when the larger crowds arrived. Brian Davis, a 56-year-old pilot from the Keys, was equally skeptical.
“I hate to say it but I don't know if this is going to work to be honest with you,” he said. “Saturday and Sunday, this is going to be crazy. But I hope it works.”
Miami Herald reporter David Smiley contributed to this report.
IF YOU GO
Progressive Insurance Miami International Boat Show & Strictly Sail At Bayside: Miami Marine Stadium Park and Basin, 3501 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Feb. 12 to Feb. 14, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Feb. 15. Strictly Sail at Miamarina at Bayside, 401 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. through Feb. 15. $20 one-day pass, $35 two-pass (Feb. 12 to Feb. 15); free for kids 15 and under accompanied by adult. MiamiBoatShow.com.