How Ultra’s triumphant Bayfront return restored my faith in humanity [Op-Ed/Event Review]
Weekend afternoons are peak shopping time at Bayside Marketplace. The shopping center, which borders the northernmost side of Bayfront Park, is filled with tourists on any given weekend of the year. From families impatiently waiting to disembark on the city’s famous aqua tours to out-of-towners shopping for knick-knacks at the vendor booths of Pier 5 Market, to wide-eyed children in line for the Skyview Observation Wheel, and groups of Spanish speakers of varying descent browsing restaurant menus waterside, the magic of Miami can be seen and felt. However, during this last weekend in March, the crowd becomes intermixed with a different breed of human.
As “Kandi kid” ravers of every age, “PLUR” babies with their furries and fishnets, and countless “bro” types on spring break begin to emerge from the monorail that lines a blocked-off Biscayne Boulevard, it’s clear that something spectacular is happening in this bustling downtown center. Making awkward attempts to conceal their slight glances at these ostentatious party goers, the tourist groups begin to combine with the many rave families coming from across the globe to form a heterogeneous entanglement of out-of-towners being directed by traffic cops.
Unbeknownst to these unsuspecting tourists surrounding Bayfront Park, March 25 through 27 saw the triumphant return of Ultra Music Festival (UMF) to its rightful home between the waterfront across from Port Miami and the million-dollar condominium skyscrapers which line the newly fenced-off public park. As one nears the festival’s main entrance, a bottleneck of people is inevitable as locals enter the crowded scene. These wayward street pushers stand in intersections with their children in strollers as they hawk Ultra souvenir tees and overpriced water bottles to hyped-up festival-goers.
After a two-year hiatus spent in COVID-19 lockdown, along with a questionable detour at Virginia Key Beach—which included lawsuit battles, transportation disasters, breakouts of fires, and massive stresses on local aquatic life—UMF finally returned to its home at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. The battle for its rightful venue was a long-and-hard-fought one. Arguably, it was one in which the creators behind Ultra ultimately won the war. When an ornery downtown neighborhood alliance began petitioning a ban on Ultra in 2018, local authorities ultimately made the decision to grant the globally-renowned festival its permit in the end.
Yet, what makes Ultra’s flagship annual festival in Miami so legendary isn’t the overbearing barrage of local politics, the influx of endless parties during Miami Music Week, or even the fact that Ultra generates $79 million annually for the local economy. What makes Ultra Miami a living, breathing institution is that—despite the monumental growth over its 22-year history—the festival retains its authenticity and authority even during our so-called “post-EDM” times.
The sold-out, 22nd annual edition of Ultra Music Festival welcomed 165,000 attendees from 101 countries and showcased surprise performances from Hardwell, 50 Cent, Joe Jonas-fronted DNCE band, Kodak Black, Joel Corry, and more. As highlights from the weekend began stacking up like Miami Music Week announcements, one had trouble remembering which was the best. With larger-than-life closers in Illenium, Kygo, and Hardwell, the weekend was absolutely unforgettable.
Illenium debuted a drone show that would mark the weekend each closing night. Kygo brought a surprise guest in 50 Cent as the two performed a medley of the rapper’s greatest radio hits. Hardwell ended his four-year DJing hiatus with a stadium-smashing surprise closing Sunday night set on the Main Stage.
The Dutch superstar even came on the mic to explain the emotional journey that birthed his new sonic identity, in addition to announcing his forthcoming studio album, Rebels Never Die, and a coinciding 24-date world tour which includes a headlining set at Ultra Europe. Before Hardwell’s closing performance, Ultra Music Festival announced the 23rd edition to take place Friday, March 24 – Sunday, March 26, 2023 at Bayfront Park via a custom light-up drone show.
Each passing day brought even more untouchable moments—including a surprise set from Martin Garrix on the UMF Radio Stage, Hardwell showcasing his new dark, driving techno on the Main Stage, a surprise Swedish House Mafia album teaser in Paradise Again, to name just a few. For the first time ever at Bayfront Park, Carl Cox headlined his own RESISTANCE Megastructure Stage all three nights.
But I’m not here to talk about the music or the mind-blowing stage production or UMF’s impossibly stacked line-up with every possible conflict under the sun. In all honesty, I don’t even attend festivals for any of this any longer. Well, except for the music… always the music. What I’m here to talk about is the unforgettable learning lesson that the Ultra experience gave back to me. For it was Ultra Miami that ultimately restored my faith not just in the good of humanity, but in the festival scene that we all love, live, and breathe.
Every festival is a test of mind, body, and spirit. However, Ultra Music Festival teaches the age-old lesson of the Lost & Found… and not only in the literal sense. Sure, the Lost & Found booth was a vital part of my journey through the weekend. Indeed, it was where I learned that letting go of my material belongings was the only way to see them come back to me. Also in the metaphysical sense of losing ourselves to find ourselves again— in the music, the moment, and the power of connection with hundreds of thousands of strangers.
Falling from the treetops & into the arms of strangers
With daytime highs of 79 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, and salty bay breezes blowing softly through the palm trees, Bayfront truly seemed to be a magical place. Over the three-day festival, which launched Friday afternoon and wound down early Sunday night to accommodate local noise restrictions, Ultra truly demonstrated its expertise in event production. The crowd control was outstanding, for starters. The park felt quaint and intimate, despite the overwhelming amount of attendees passing through the gates each day. A festival that boasts upwards of 150,000 attendees also presents the prime place for thieves to thrive.
Indeed, the thieves and pick-pocketers were out in full force at Ultra, as they are at every large-scale event. I imagined them hiding sneakily in the shadows, on the prowl for smartphones, and snaking through the crowds just waiting for to perfect opportunity to make a clean sweep through unsuspecting patrons standing shoulder-to-shoulder. After hearing multiple reports of phones being stolen in the crowd, I came into UMF’s second day on full alert. Still, I wasn’t going to allow hearsay to ruin my time or my trust in others as I wandered from stage to stage guided by a sense of childlike wonder. Half starry-eyed, half on a mission, my job was twofold: To gain a real sense for this festival’s spirit and to get the best shots imaginable.
At one point during the day, as the sun was beginning to set and golden hour was presenting me with prime shooting time, I stopped at Ultra’s infamous Worldwide Stage. The structure’s signature arch loomed overhead like a masthead as Whethan was closing out their set just before sundown. I spotted the perfect climbing tree to hoist myself above the crowd, then switched out my equipment, opting for a telephoto zoom lens that would get me the close-up snapshots I so deeply yearned for.
Kneeling right beneath the tree, resting against its hardened vine-like roots was a “heady wook” type guy. Taking a mental note to head my own earlier advice, I took one look at him and thought to myself, “trustworthy.” We exchanged smiles and he gave me the nonverbal reassurance I needed, so I motioned to him for help in lifting me up into the lowest branch. One the way up, I felt my camera bag beginning to slip down my torso, and I instinctively handed it down to him without so much as a second thought.
Anyone with photography experience knows that the minute you peer into your device’s viewfinder, the rest of the world fades out and you are enveloped in the world of the lens. This is exactly where I went as I was hoisted up in that tree— just me and framing the ideal golden-hour shot. I was proud of this lens in particular because I spent years saving up for this expensive piece of hardware, knowing it would take my “photo game” to new levels.
I positioned myself against the tree’s brawny branch, adjusted my DSLR camera’s focus, and took my shots, playing with the natural light leaks from the warm glow of the sun. When I came back to reality from my technical world, I noticed my helpful wook buddy was still crouched down as signaled to a friend to come help me down. I then went on my way, heading to the next stage for a PEEKABOO set when I reached down for my bag and it wasn’t on my back! I couldn’t have walked more than thirty steps before sprinting back to the tree in a panic state. Lo and behold, he was gone. The camera bag was gone. My lens was gone. “Stolen,” I thought.
It’s funny how the mind always goes to the worst possible case scenario, almost like we’re programmed to distrust others as some instinctual knee-jerk response. After looking around in a frenzy, the crowd began to spin and the night sky began to darken the grounds. It was then that I knew what I needed to do: Let it go.
The act of letting go: Manifestation &
putting it into the ground
This universal truth has been a long-held proverb passed down through the centuries. But sprinkle the right amount of self-awareness into the adage and it strikes straight to the heart of manifestation. It’s this pseudo-scientific, spiritual-leaning concept of manifestation that is the practice of bringing something tangible into your life through the law of attraction and belief. So I made like Oprah Winfrey touting The Secret and began to remind myself calmly, “if you think it, it will come.”
As I made my way across the festival grounds, dipping past crowd hotspots and security check points, my loss was becoming more real with each and every step. The crowd was thickening as darkness was setting in. The sunlight was quickly giving way to the electric glow of LED screens and lasers as the evening’s real light shows were about to begin. Yet here I was, lost in my own head as lights passed by in a blur like streetlamps zipping by when you’re going full speed on a highway. I knew what I needed to do, but I first needed to get past the self-loathing and pain of loss.
“It’s just a thing,” I repeated again and again. I was beginning to wonder if I did this kind of thing on purpose, much like this other time I lost my money and passport while at DejaVoom. Was this my twisted way of judging whether the festival really contained the “good vibes” that they all flaunt over social media and the blogosphere? Was it a form of self-punishment? If I were to truly manifest this expensive camera back into my life, I knew I would need to get to the root of these questions. Only then would I be able to honestly isolate my intention and, only then, would I be able to honestly let the camera lens go in order for it to come back to me.
Whatever it is that you desire, according to the law of manifestation, one thing is essential: Make your intention as specific as possible. “The more clear and concise, the better,” says Angelina Lombardo, author of A Spiritual Entrepreneur. She continues that “manifesting is making everything you want to feel and experience a reality… via your thoughts, actions, beliefs, and emotions.” Instead of merely saying, “I want to find this camera equipment,” for example, I knew I had to come up with a specific plan of action to see its eventual return. But the key was to not want it too hard… for truly letting go meant being able to face the potential reality that I may never see this physical item again.
So I make my way out of the hustle-and-bustle of the evening and find a clearing in the grass overlooking the bay. Yachts lined the water with dancing partiers enjoying the rumble of the bass from the water. I collapse into the earth, channel all the power of my intention, and begin to try to let this material object go. I would not leave this spot until I was honest with myself because I had known the power of manifestation before and how I’d used to work for my life.
After some hard-fought tears, and facing some hard truths with myself, I began creating some new possibilities for my reality: “Perhaps this person needed it more than I do. Perhaps this was karma coming back in some form to teach me a lesson that I needed to see.” It was then that I made the wonderful realization that I can always acquire more things because that’s exactly what it was: a thing.
This was a crucial step in practicing manifestation, I knew from the teachings of Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Gabrielle Bernstein, and many more. If I was able to shift my energy, I’d be able to attract more positivity, and in turn, be better equipped to realize my goal of finding the camera bag.
Luckily, lifting your energy is actually quite simple: Just focus on activities that cultivate feelings of joy and happiness. Channeling an intense gratitude for life, I reminded myself that I have the air in my lungs and people that care about me and these were much more important than any material object. I pulled this feeling from the crown of my head and launched its energy into the ground. Then I was able to stand up, knowing full well that I had truly let go of this material item, and made my way to see PEEKABOO at the UMF Radio Stage. With the hardest part now behind me, I knew then that the real work could begin.
I wouldn’t let this momentary loss phase me during one of my most anticipated sets of the weekend—and this would become my intention for the rest of the weekend. All that mattered was getting lost in the music, meeting strangers in the crowd, and spreading the love and power of connection for the next hour or heavy, headbanging dubstep. Sure, the thought would cross my mind at times, and when it did, I would voice this tough loss to my brand new stranger-friends in the crowd. I received a range of emotional responses throughout the evening: From pity to understanding, to a feeling sense of shared empathy. One security officer left me with a profound realization after telling me to channel my faith in the good of others, and to be positive that it will work out in my favor. But just knowing this wasn’t enough.
First things, first: Even though manifesting is about turning your thoughts, hopes, or wants into reality, it does require that you take proactive steps toward whatever it is you desire—so you shouldn’t expect it to happen instantly or overnight while you sleep. So I developed my plan: To tell many people about the lost item until I was led back it to my camera equipment (or it to me). It wasn’t a feeling of regret or shame that I would let guide my thoughts and behaviors, but one of gratitude and faith. It wasn’t focusing on what I didn’t have, but the things that I did have.
Love is at the root of gratitude. When we stop looking outwards at what we don’t have, we’re training ourselves into gratitude. When you actively create positive affirmations and form a habit of repeating them every day—“I am capable,” “I am enough,” “Love starts with myself,“— those thoughts become real things. So I reminded myself of something I’ve always let guide my adult life: “Think it. Say it. Be it.” I would let this phrase guide my stories in retelling the tough loss to others.
Energy is everything. The energy we put out in the world is the energy we get back. It all begins with thoughts, then words will follow, and finally, actions begin to manifest themselves. I knew this, I just needed to remember how to implement it again. Ultra provided that important learning lesson for me, forcing me into a moment of discomfort that required me to relearn it again.
Falling back in love again: Losing ourselves to ourselves again
As luck would have it, I actually did end up running into my “wookie” friend at the end of the evening while exiting the festival. I ran up to him in a frenzy, grabbed him on the shoulder, and asked him where he left my bag. He turned around, bewildered at best, giving me a strange look as he pointed me to the Lost & Found booth at the festival’s main gates. “Thank you,” I repeated to him endlessly as he shuffled away in the crowd. I remember thinking his face looked guilty and, at that moment, the thought of theft came creeping back into my mind.
Make no mistake, the doubts and the worry and fear came back more often than I’d care to admit. I replayed countless horrific hypotheticals in my head. I questioned myself and others’ motives, despite knowing that I needed to push these negative thoughts out of my psyche. Easier said than done, I remember thinking; but if I was to truly see this camera again, I knew this was the difficult mental work that needed to be done.
In addition to changing your mindset and behaviors, manifestation requires us to remove all the limiting beliefs that cloud our vision, especially negative self-talk. “Telling yourself you’re not good enough, you’re not worthy enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not enough—it’s a tape that’s playing for a lot of people,” Winfrey said during an episode of Oprah’s Lifeclass. “If you’re not conscious of that, then you end up acting out of that belief system and not what you know to be the truest or want to be the truest for yourself. You don’t become what you want, because so much of wanting is about living in the space of what you don’t have.”
Of course, I would check the Lost & Found on the final day of Ultra Miami to no avail. I would go to the Operations booth backstage as busy workers took time out of their busy work to echo my pain and wish me luck. I began to entertain the possibility that the bag might not ever come back but it was a thought I began to accept with more and more ease.
To move past your limiting beliefs, it’s essential that you first identify what exactly they are. To do this, ask yourself: What are the beliefs I have about my situation that may be inhibiting my progress? The next time you find yourself questioning your sense of worth or saying, “I don’t deserve this,” Lombardo advises to pause and think of all the reasons why you are deserving.
After telling everyone I encountered about my expensive loss, I noticed with each passing story that I began to reshape my reality with more positivity and trust in humanity. From the head of press to the guy sitting next to me on the plane ride home, I made sure to reframe my story again and again with the ultimate learning lesson at the forefront of each retelling.
As the closing set of the weekend brought a host of exciting industry moments that would later become viral internet memes, I looked up at the drones lighting up this moment of finality. “SEE YOU NEXT YEAR” was the final message that I would be left with more so than the loss of my camera lens. I was just happy to not let the loss destroy my weekend and, at the same time, I still held out hope that my equipment bag was just lost somewhere in the shuffle.
Manifestation 101: Ask the universe for what you want
After a week of much-needed rest, relaxation, and reflection, I gave the Ultra team one final plea for my equipment. I wasn’t holding out hope for much since I had already exhausted my search throughout the weekend. As fate would attest, manifestation would prove itself to be a powerful force in my life once again. I would later get an email from the folks behind Ultra Music Festival that they had indeed found my camera bag with everything intact. My trust in the “wookie” who helped me out was confirmed and my faith in humanity was restored. The law of attraction knows truly no bounds. “Once you start dialing in your manifestation process, there’s no limit to what—or how often or much—you manifest,” Lombardo reminds us.
Throughout Ultra 2022, I would develop not just a new relationship with Lost & Found not just in the most material sense. But also in the sense of learning to lose myself in the moment of music in order to find myself again, and truly let go to see things truly come back to me. This was my process for manifesting the camera bag back into my life. I knew that the process is fluid and wouldn’t happen exactly the same as I’ve implemented it before. The steps you take to manifest something do not matter nearly as much as your belief, Lombardo says: “trust your actions, visions, and clarity as well as the ‘powers that be.'” Your faith in the process is the most important guiding force for manifesting your goals, visions, or dreams into reality.
So when asked to write about my experience at Ultra Music Festival, my time at Bayfront goes much deeper than the music, the artists, the set times, and the conflicts. Sure, it was still all those things. However, the weekend was a restoration, a revitalization, a jaunting journey inward, and a reminder to always ask the universe for exactly what you want. Then trust in the process, but don’t want it too much, then keep an eye on the future, and manifest your vision into reality.
Ultra Music Festival 2023 tickets are available via special pre-sale right now. The pre-sale ends on Thursday, March 31 at 11:59 pm EST.
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Information seeker. Dog lover. PhD drop out. College professor by day, EDM photographer by night.