Tens of thousands leave Ultra and walk miles across Rickenbacker in Miami
Organizers of the Ultra Music Festival promised a better bus service Saturday night to get concert crowds off the festival’s new untested island home in Virginia Key after the event opening night saw hordes of ticket holders take over the Rickenbacker Causeway in an early-morning walk to the mainland.
Ray Martinez, a former Miami Beach police chief, stood alone at a lectern on a yacht tied up near the main stage to announce changes to a county-approved traffic plan for Ultra, one of the largest electronic-music events in the country. The county says the City of Miami also approved the plan. A dedicated lane for buses will open hours earlier Saturday night to avoid the pre-dawn problems of Ultra’s opener.
Ultra will also provide better signage and communication to help departing festival goers find the buses that correspond to one of three drop-off locations on the mainland. After a tree caught fire as the weary crowd exited Friday night, the festival will halt the launching of fireworks for the remainder of the festival, said Miami Commissioner Ken Russell.
Evicted from downtown, the concert negotiated a new deal with Miami to rent space at the city-owned Marine Stadium in 2019. Skeptics questioned how the event with 50,000 daily ticket holders could function on an island served by a single bridge and the ending of Friday’s festivities at 2 am revealed significant flaws.
“On the transportation part, obviously we knew that was going to be our challenge,” Martinez, Ultra’s security director, said on the third floor of the Grand Luxe yacht. “We had over 200 buses on site. The issue is crowds started leaving a little earlier than we anticipated.”
Ultra uses private charter buses to move people in out of the festival grounds. Miami-Dade, which controls the William Powell Bridge connecting Miami’s Virginia Key to the mainland, approved a plan to close off two westbound lanes at 1 a.m. to clear the way for Ultra busses for the Friday night departing crowds.
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 apologized to fans, promising 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.
Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade’s transportation director, said Ultra concertgoers were expected to use the Powell bridge to get back to the mainland if buses were running behind or getting full.
“We assumed some people wouldn’t want to wait for a bus,” she said.
The issue was so many people walking caused spillover from the segregated pedestrian path on the south side of the bridge, Bravo said.
Martinez said that walking from Ultra is standard, and that ticket holders used to hoof it back to Miami Beach from the festival’s former downtown home at Bayfront Park.
“We anticipated the walking,” he said, but not the number of people ditching the bus option after lengthy waits.
Martinez noted the weather was at least pleasant on Virginia Key.
“It was a beautiful night,” he told reporters. “It was a great night to walk over the bridge, with the water on both sides.”
The mayhem of Friday night’s mass exodus from Virginia Key led some attendees and critics online to liken Ultra to the infamous 2017 Fyre Festival, which left its attendees stranded in the Bahamas and became the subject of popular documentaries.
“Ultra u owe me new shoes, and a trophy for my 5k,” wrote Twitter user Blake Alexis.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the county’s Transportation committee, called the bus problems “inexcusable” and a “stain on our entire community.” He blamed the transportation woes on “the City of Miami’s apparent deficiencies” in planning the event.
Miami Police spokeswoman Kiara Delva said the new traffic plan was “developed to ensure safe and efficient transportation for not only those who are attending Ultra, but for the visitors and residents of Key Biscayne as well.”
“We are expressing to the public that while they are leaving Ultra to pay close attention to directives given by police officers and Ultra representatives,” she said in a statement. “There are enough buses and methods of transportation to get everyone off of the island safely. We’re asking everyone to exercise patience during this time.”
The U.S. Coast Guard beefed up its patrols around downtown Miami and Virginia Key in anticipation of the music festival on Friday and Saturday, leading to the foiling of three illegal charter boat operations near American Airlines Arena and Miami Marine Stadium over the weekend.
“It’s very important to us that people are being safe out on the water,” said Cmdr. Jason Aleksak, chief of response at Coast Guard Sector Miami. “With the Ultra Music Festival taking place this weekend, the Coast Guard, along with our state and local partners, will have an increased presence on the water focused on safety, boating under the influence and illegal charters.”
The illegal charter boats shared the waters off Virginia Key with festival-organized ferry shuttles transporting Ultra attendees who paid for $149 weekend passes or for VIP access. Bayside Marketplace and the Intercontinental Hotel serve as ferry hubs for general admissiona and VIP attendees, respectively.
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.
“It was day one, year one and we are working hard to make day two better,” she said. “We are in meetings to ensure a smoother exit for our guests tonight and tomorrow.”
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?”
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. Key Biscayne Police did not receive noise complaints and its officers was not on scene at Ultra, said Chief Charles Press in an email.
“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.”
Russell added: “Changes to the transportation plan are being implemented today. 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.”
Cherie Watson, a transporation employee coordinating bus transit to Ultra, said she wasn’t sure if any one reason caused the chaos of Friday night, but she’s sure of one thing: “Not a brilliant idea to hold a venue [of] that magnitute on an island,” she said in a text message.