Miami-Dade County

Escape from Ultra: Festival’s first night on Virginia Key ends with chaotic crowd exit

Ultra Music Festival had a bad night while you were sleeping.

The event’s first day on Virginia Key ended with a logistical meltdown when tens of thousands of concertgoers waited hours for shuttles off the island or walked nearly three miles across the Rickenbacker Causeway to hail rides.

STORY: Here’s what Ultra organizers are doing to avoid a repeat of chaotic opening night

And there was a fire. As people poured out of the festival grounds, firefighters rushed to extinguish a tree that caught fire in an area sealed off from attendees with chain-link fencing. Social media posts pointed to fireworks, but this has not been confirmed; the cause of the fire was not clear early Saturday, but out of an abundance of safety, Ultra will not launch fireworks for the remainder of the festival, said Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes Virginia Key.

“The fire itself seemed to have taken place between the stage and the causeway,” he said, adding that his office was in touch with Ultra management to ensure safety and transportation issues were resolved today.

Festival organizers and city of Miami officials had feared what might happen when a mass of more than 50,000 people tried to leave all at once after the final performance, around 2 a.m. It turned out to be a chaotic exit for a tired morass of revelers who quickly grew frustrated with long lines to board 55-passenger buses.

Tens of thousands festival goers make their way out of the 2019 Ultra Music Festival in Virginia Key, Florida on Saturday, March 30, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

The angst and frustration began to percolate after 1 a.m., as lines formed outside the festival gates to get on the shuttle buses to take them back to the mainland. Ultra had arranged for more than 200 buses to take people to three hubs on Miami’s mainland where people could get to their own vehicles or call rideshare vehicles. People trying to leave complained of a failure to properly line people up for the buses. They said festival staffers were not helpful in directing people to the right pickup points.

“Changes to the transportation plan are being implemented today,” Russell said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that plan will be much improved and the City will not have more of a disruption than experienced yesterday and early this morning.”

Juan Perez, Miami-Dade’s police director, said Saturday Ultra wasn’t prepared for significant numbers of pre-midnight exits.

“The patrons piled out at the 11 o’clock hour,” Perez said. “The buses were not ready for that to occur. The patrons did not want to wait for the buses and walked instead. New plan for today.”

Ultra’s Twitter account on Saturday called the debut night’s situation “unacceptable” and promised to win back loyalty.

“We look forward to offering you a significantly improved transportation experience today and throughout the weekend, and we appreciate the opportunity to earn back your confidence and trust,” the statement said.

Stephanie Bromfield, a media relations coordinator at Ultra, said festival organizers met with municipal and emergency service officials on Saturday morning ahead of a planned press conference to be held before noon near Miami Marine Stadium.

Among the proposed changes are improving signage at bus pick-up locations, staff training and preparing for a 2 a..m. onslaught of weary dance music fans leaving the event.

“Everybody came out at two [a.m.],” she said. “I think they’re trying to figure out how do we filter that out.”

She said festival organizers would learn from the mayhem of the first day and make Saturday night a better experience for concert goers shelling out up to $400 for three-day passes.

“The transportation people, it didn’t seem like they were trained,” she said. “I think they’re trying to figure out that whole thing.”

She added: “It was the first night, we’ve never had anything in that location. We knew there were gonna be [issues with the] buses. Especially with people drinking, who’s gonna wait for a bus?”

Most applauded Ultra’s production during the day and complimented the new scenery. The gripes were concentrated on the sloppy end of the night.

“This is a s--show,” said Stephen Salvato, who traveled from Houston to attend his third Ultra. He and his friends sat in the grass under palm trees, staying away from the rapidly growing line for the buses. A few of his fellow concertgoers were fast asleep.

“This is my fourth Ultra — and probably my last,” said Linda Giron, who sat next to Salvato.

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Throngs of people pushed toward buses as they were pulling up, coming dangerously close to the vehicles while they were still moving. Some tried to board taxis stopped in the only lane of through traffic. The smoother experience was for those who left earlier in the night.

“It was great,” said Addison Poole, of Ohio, who was chipper about her first Ultra as she neared the front of a bus line after a 30-minute wait closer to midnight.

Commissioner Russell said his office received complaints from Coconut Grove residents who said they could hear the pounding music from their homes, but the safety of attendees leaving the festival remains paramount.

“Unfortunately, many of the issues I expressed concerns about at our city commission meeting when Virginia Key was first recommended as a potential location for the Ultra Music Festival were challenges experienced on its first day,” he said. “I will continue to work with our committed City of Miami police and fire professionals and Ultra executives to ensure that our residents and festival attendees are safe. Ultra must do a better job working with the City of Miami to address the serious issues we experienced.”

Some attendees faced problems even after boarding a bus. Kris Clinton tweeted: “although we got on the bus at the right place (Marshmello was still playing ), our bus went to the wrong location. We were lucky enough to get a ‘Sorry’ from staff.”

And after EDM artist Marshmello’s closing set, the mass exodus challenged organizers’ ability to quickly funnel people onto shuttles. Some of those concertgoers who came from afar — a common site at Miami’s signature electronic dance music event — were left aghast.

A group of friends from Houston, Texas rest from waiting in long lines for a shuttle bus after leaving the 2019 Ultra Music Festival in Virginia Key, Florida on Saturday, March 30, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

“I waited for two hours in this line for nothing,” said Esteban Araneda, who came from Chile for the event. When he reached the front of the line, he walked into a disorganized gaggle of people, some just walking up from outside the line, already waiting to push their way to the bus door. “This is what happens when you don’t have mass transit.”

Thousands of tired and angry concertgoers waited for hours to board a shuttle on a congested roadway. Thousands more abandoned the shuttle plan and crossed the Rickenbacker Causeway, walking nearly three miles to Brickell. Ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft were banned from picking up anyone on Virginia Key.

“Oh my god, my friend is still waiting for a bus,” said Stephanie Bigger, a University of Miami student who was sitting on the ground in Hobie Island Park around 4 a.m. as she texted a friend who stayed behind on Virginia Key. Bigger and a friend were taking a break from the walk — they, like thousands of others, had been on their feet all day dancing to the music.

In Brickell, weary people huddled on curbs and lay down on grass beneath the towers that form the financial district’s skyline. They waited on rideshares, many lamenting the poor ending to an otherwise fun day.

Tessa McGinness, who won tickets from a radio contest in Fort Pierce, said she loved the music pulsing from Ultra’s stage all day. As she sat on a Brickell Avenue swale trying to secure an expensive rideshare, she criticized the transportation issues that made a lot of people consider if they were going to come back Saturday at all — or at least if they would stick around for the late acts.

“They need to have more organization,” she said. “I came for free, and I’m still pissed.”

Herald staff photographer Matias Ocner and staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.
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