To your left is a man in a golden toga and shutter shades. To your right is a gaggle of teens with giant mouse heads. Behind you is a pair of women in furry boots, rainbow tutus, and little else. Believe it or not, you haven’t dropped acid. It’s just an average day at the Ultra Music Festival.
UMF is one of the largest and most influential platforms for electronic dance music in America – scratch that, the world. From its small-time roots, the event has become a modern-day Woodstock for ravers of all stripes. Come March, thousands make the pilgrimage to Miami to worship at the alter of the DJ with a community of fellow enthusiasts.
To join the fray is to be sucked into a Technicolor wonderland even Alice couldn’t have imagined, but if you make it out the other side alive, you’ll have tales to last a lifetime. Follow the tips below and you’ll tackle it like a seasoned Ultranaut, even if this is your first trip to UMF.
Dance Music Mecca
In 1993, Russell Faibisch had a dream and a ticket to a Depeche Mode concert. He knew he wanted to work in music and began attending raves around Miami. Though he was only 15, he became a staple on the scene. By 20, he was a full-fledged promoter. By 1999, he’d teamed up with Alex Omes and launched a dream named after Depeche Mode’s 1997 album: Ultra.
The first Ultra Music Festival lost money, but the second year was successful and by the third, the event had already outgrown its original home in South Beach. The party moved to Bayfront Park and attendance swelled by the thousands. UMF brought in the biggest names in dance music: Tiësto, Josh Wink, Paul van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, Sander Kleinenberg, and more.
The festival continued to expand in size, scope, and influence. By its 10th anniversary, Ultra was pulling in more than 50,000 concertgoers and artists like Underworld, Armin van Buuren, deadmau5, Ferry Corsten, Moby, Benny Benassi, and MSTRKRFT. The event also expanded to span an entire weekend.
Today Ultra costs millions to produce and brings millions more to the city. More than 150,000 neon-clad fans from across the globe gather every March to dance in the mecca of dance music. It has weathered it’s fair share of storms, but UMF consistently comes out on top to become an even bigger phenomenon than before.
Ultra may be the biggest, shiniest thing in Miami in March, but it’s not the month’s only opportunity to hear incredible music – and if you get your terminology wrong, the locals won’t hesitate to chastise you.
March is also home to the Winter Music Conference, an annual event that sees fans, artists, DJs, and industry delegates from over 70 countries converge on Miami Beach for hundreds of events, parties, seminars, and workshops. Since it’s launch in 1985, WMC has become the largest longstanding EDM and dance music industry gathering in the world. You may also hear it referred to by its unofficial name: Miami Music Week.
Along with the International Dance Music Awards, the Ultra Music Festival is one of the crowning jewels of the conference’s events. However, the vibe can differ between UMF and WMC. Ultra draws everyone, even casual fans or onlookers who don’t like the music but want to see the spectacle. WMC events, on the other hand, attract only hardcore enthusiasts and industry professionals (many of whom, naturally, think they’re superior to the crowd in Bayfront Park).
The truth? UMF and WMC both have their pros and cons, but provide unforgettable experiences for attendees who enter with the right attitude.
10 Tips For Ultra Survival
Whether you’ve decided to limit your exploits to Ultra, or plan to pull double-duty and hit WMC too, you’ll need a plan of attack. Miami is a beautiful, mad, exciting, overwhelming place. Without a strategy in mind, you may find yourself buried in white sand and frozen drinks and incredible Cuban food before you even know what’s happened.
Below are our top ten tips for surviving the Ultra Music Festival like a champion.
#1 The Ticket Sitch
More than 100,000 neon revelers pack into Bayfront Park on Ultra weekend – and those are just the ones who get tickets. Plenty more will roam the streets outside begging for spares and praying they don’t get scalped. UMF tickets sell out every year, sometimes at blink-and-you’ll-miss-them speeds, so secure yours early if you don’t want to join the scalper-bait in the street.
#2 Location, Location, Location
Ultra Music Festival is located in the heart of downtown Miami. Traffic is notoriously congested during festival time, so savvy visitors steer clear of roads as much as possible. Staying downtown allows you to skip parking fees and cab fares by walking to the venue, however hotels in the area jack up prices around UMF. Alternatively, South Beach is farther away from the action, but offers a picture-perfect Miami locale and easy access to the afterparties.
#3 In Your Arsenal
You’ll burn out on day one if you don’t pack wisely. Every Ultra attendee should have a few essential items in their arsenal. Cash is less complicated than cards. Water is a must at all times. Bottles will cost you $5 a pop, but it’s an expense you won’t regret. Sunscreen and sunglasses are also musts in the Miami sun. Pack earplugs if you value your hearing, hand sanitizer if you value your health, and toilet paper if you value not being a disgusting cretin.
#4 Nix This
Ultra does not play around when it comes to contraband. The list of prohibited items is lengthy and taken seriously. The basics are obvious – no drugs, no weapons, no flammable items – but other verboten goods are more unusual. Amongst the odder outlawed items are stuffed animals, facial masks, inflatable balls, glow sticks, spiked jewellery, and any bags, backpacks, or purses that are not transparent. The full list can be found on the Ultra Music Festival website.
#5 Have A Plan, Stan
UMF can be difficult to navigate at your most clear-headed. Add an intoxicant to the mix and you may as well be on Mars. If you attend with friends, make a game plan before you hit Bayfront Park. Phone service is spotty at best, so establish an official meeting place where you can reconvene if you split up or get lost.
#6 Go With The Flow
Ultra is constantly expanding, adding new stages and more acts to its already-abundant lineup. Artists’ sets overlap, special guests sometimes appear unannounced, and crowds can make it hard to navigate between stages. You’ll never see it all, so choose a few can’t-miss sets, leave yourself plenty of time to reach them, and let the rest of the chips fall where they want. You may be pleasantly surprised by where serendipity takes you.
#7 Shun The Smartphone
You will be tempted to take photos for your Instagram or your Facebook or your Snapchat or whatever new thing the cool kids use. You will also be a sucker if you do it. A picture here and there doesn’t hurt, but you’re cheating yourself of the real Ultra if you only experience it through a screen. There’s one exception: the official UMF mobile app can help you navigate the event. If your battery runs out of juice, you can charge it at EcoVillage (but be prepared for a wait).
#8 Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Ultra is all about the attitude. The vibe is positive, open, spontaneous, and welcoming. Attendees treat each other like friends, trading high fives, fist bumps, and hugs with BFFs and total strangers alike. It’s not unusual to be offered a sip of smuggled alcohol, or another variety of contraband, or a piece of the colourful rave jewellery known as ‘kandi.’ Forget what your mother said and talk to strangers. Making festival friends is part of the adventure.
#9 All Night Long
The fun doesn’t stop when the headliner leaves the main stage. With the Winter Music Conference in full swing, Miami is bursting with pool parties, beach bashes, and afterparties that offer a chance to see your favourite artists in more intimate settings. The city’s club scene is legendary. It would be a shame to waste it.
#10 Follow The Yellow Brick Road
If you loved your experience at Ultra, you can get your fix beyond Bayfront Park. 2012 saw the launch of an event concept called “Road To Ultra” which brings the festival to new destinations around the world. Though smaller in scale, each RTU event showcases the same world-class visuals, lighting, pyrotechnics, and musical talent. The current lineup includes Bangkok, Macau, Puerto Rico, Peru, and more.