"What happened at Whitelake this weekend may have been more than an uncontrolled outpouring of hip young people, struggling as they did to survive. First, the 20-mile traffic jams and 5-mile hikes; then, the intense heat and sudden rain; the thirst and hunger from the shortage of water and food, just for the opportunity to spend a few days in the country getting stoned on their drugs, and grooving on the music. What happened at Whitelake was that hundreds of thousands of kids invaded a rural resort area totally unprepared to accommodate them."
- John Laurence, CSB News
That's an anchor talking about Woodstock in 1969, but he could have just as easily been talking about TomorrowWorld in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia this past weekend (September 25-27, 2015). Scattered showers throughout the festival turned the 8,000-acre farmland into a giant mud pit, and the festival organizers' decision to limit transportation services on Saturday left many people stranded, with some shelling out hundreds of dollars to pay for surge-price Ubers, and others forced to sleep on the side of the road with no water or food.
For most, things did not improve from there; the festival cancelled Sunday to non-campers, who formed the majority of attendees. Many tried to get in anyway through attempting to crash the gates, or dejectedly took to social media to discuss potential lawsuits, among other gripes. This was the third year of the EDM festival's US edition—the original Tomorrowland in Belgium was founded in 2005—and unless there's some major damage control to assuage the livid masses vowing never to return, it may have been its last.
By now, inclement weather has marred enough festivals that you'd think one of the biggest in the country—last year there were 160,000 attendees—would have a backup plan. Instead, the muddiness the plagued the rolling hills ultimately caused the festival to close the third day to anyone not camping on-site. Part of the official statement that was emailed on Sunday to THUMP upon request said: "We take the safety of all of our visitors very seriously. The rainfall since Thursday resulted in limited capacity of festival parking fields, drop-off locations, and the shuttle system. Festivalgoers with day tickets, guest list tickets, and anyone not already camping at DreamVille will unfortunately not be able to access today's events." Media were also notified that visitor and media shuttles would not be operating, and that TomorrowWorld would be accessible only to residents of DreamVille, the festival's camping grounds.
TomorrowWorld's announcement on their Facebook that "Mother nature has decided otherwise" did nothing to soothe those who were learning their plans of seeing acts like Armin van Buuren, David Guetta and Big Gigantic had just been destroyed. (The festival has since published a post with a link to their refund policy.) On the other hand, Armin van Buuren tweeted out his condolences in less than 140 characters: "Very sorry for the people who can't join @TomorrowWorld tonight! Hope you'll still enjoy my set via the livestream! Tomorrowworld.com/home"
The cancellation news was the salt on the transportation disaster wound of Saturday night, in which non-campers trying to get back to their homes and hotels had to trek through mud for miles in the dark in order to access shuttles and Ubers, which were unable to reach the festival grounds since the roads leading to the entrance were deemed inaccessible. Some paid hundreds of dollars due to surge prices after finally making it to an Uber; others simply gave up and slept where they could.
James Baker, a third-timer who volunteered for the festival last year, was "present for all the shenanigans." After the show, he knew exiting was "gonna be bad" and managed to sneak on a staff shuttle to a parking lot three miles away.
"From there, it was the Hunger Games," he said. He described the scene as looking like something from a movie, with thousands of people in the woods, and some pissing in the open, passed out on curbs, and banging their hands on the sides of full buses. Once Baker was safely on board a bus, he witnessed a man lay down in the street to try to stop the vehicle so more people could board.
"By the time we flagged down that bus we were up to over $100 pooled together to try to buy our way out," Baker said. "The rich and the lucky rode, the poor walked and the poor and tired stopped wherever they could find open ground."
As a metro Atlanta local who opted not to camp this year in order to have a bed and shower at night, Baker took it personally.
"There is a huge EDM scene here, with many of us officially and unofficially promoting the festival," he said, referring to the locals' enthusiastic embrace of the festival up to this point, both on the ground and through social media. "We're a key reason for this festival's success and they left us to rot like walking dead!"
Still, Baker says he loves the festival itself and isn't sure if he'd take part in a class action lawsuit, that, according to a private Facebook message sent by the Facebook page creators, is being spearheaded by a 20-year corporate lawyer and human rights lawyer who are currently exploring their options. "The problems we had mainly consisted of the neglect they showed to their patrons," they wrote to THUMP. "Have you seen the images of people who had to sleep in the forest because promised shuttles were cancelled?"
Fellow third-timer Erin Meyer, 25, from Kennesaw was similarly torn about a lawsuit, even though she and her boyfriend say they "had to almost get physical" to get on a shuttle before paying an Uber $50 cash, since the network was congested and the app crashed. "The huge problem is that I'm a huge fan of all these artists," she said. "I want nothing more than for there to be a venue available for them to all come together and entertain... [But because of] the complete lack of communication, effort to alleviate the known issues around transportation and almost 'ahhh fuck it' attitude the hosting company of SFX has given, I would totally back going after them. They are on verge of bankruptcy already. Maybe that played a part, maybe not."
A photo of festival-goers sleeping on the ground that was posted on the Facebook page for a potential class action lawsuit
The overwhelming consensus is that it wasn't the weather that ruined the festival experience; it was the lack of coordination and the disregard for the safety of people trying to exit on Saturday night into Sunday morning, who were largely left to fend for themselves. If there had been better planning on the festival's part, attendees said, the madness could have been avoided.
And then for the kicker: as hard as it was for what Meyer described as "walking dead hordes" of people to get out, it would be technically impossible for anyone to get back in since TomorrowWorld limited access only to campers. Many people refused to accept the fate and discussed rushing the gates on the festival's Facebook page, thinking there would be strength in numbers.
From what Reagan McCracken, 26, saw during her four-hour wait at the gate, it wasn't so much rushing the gates as it was standing around and pleading with staff. She'd traveled from Oklahoma just for Sunday and estimates that she saw 1,000 exiled people.
"We heard the music inside," she says. "All the events were still happening, we just couldn't get past the gate... Everyone's question was why not let people in if music was still playing. Why only cancel for people not staying on site?"
McCracken never made it in—she only felt excluded. She says she would absolutely support a lawsuit. "This was extremely poor planning and PR. A refund of just ticket price isn't enough, we prepaid for our hotel so we are forced to spend another night."
The tens of thousands who were inside the gates on Sunday were able to enjoy the final day rain-free and with plenty of extra elbow room. Those were cast out experienced something they'll likely never forget... not for lack of trying, though.
Follow Becca Godwin on Twitter