I can only recall a handful of times in my life where I’ve experienced a kind of sensory overload that has made me feel like I’ve been transported to another world (previous occasions would probably be my trip to Kolkata in 2006 and Burning Man in 2011). But that is what I felt at the Tomorrowland music festival in Belgium last week. It was another world.
In normal circumstances, Christine and I probably wouldn’t have signed up to fly to a 3-day long music festival in Belgium. Generally we prefer to spend our precious few vacation days doing romantic trips together more akin to our Sardinian honeymoon. But now that we’ve embarked on a one-year long around the world trip, when our close friends Teeba and Basel suggested we join them for Tomorrowland this year, we found ourselves saying “why not?!”
Quick background on Tomorrowland for the non-initiated (which included me as of a few months ago) is that it is one of the world’s largest (if not “the largest”) electronic dance music festivals, with 180,000 attendees. Established in 2005 by a couple of Belgian party dudes, it quickly grew from 10,000 people coming to a one day event to 180,000 people coming to a festival that spanned 3-days. Each year they sell out within a couple of hours (or sometimes only minutes) of making the tickets available. Part of the attraction is the ability for the event to attract the entire lineup of the world’s most well-known DJs (think Above and Beyond, Paul Van Dyk, Tiesto, Moby etc.). However, I’d be selling Tomorrowland short to say it is all about the lineup, because it really is much more than that. The setup of the stages, the art installations and chill-out areas are beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a music festival before. The best way I can think of describing it is to say is that it felt like Disneyland for adults (with apologies to my friend Jaime who I know would cry out “Disneyland is for adults” if he were to read this…). There’s a YouTube clip of the 2012 Tomorrowland festival that captures the spirit well that has had over 115 million views! Worth checking out.
In case that clip made no sense to you, let me explain what we got up to. Having finished our honeymoon in Sardinia, Christine and I flew to Lisbon to meet our friends Teeba, Basel, Shilpa and Jessica, along with our new friend, Rahul, who Shilpa had brought along from Singapore. While it may have been a more direct flight to go straight from Sardinia to Brussels (near where Tomorrowland is located) the reason we went to Lisbon was so that we could take the special Tomorroland chartered flight out of Lisbon (they set up several of these out of many cities from Europe. Lisbon was the only one we could tickets to).
The party plane lived up to it’s expectations. Shortly after take-off, the window shades were lowered, the cabin lights turned off, beer trolleys came out and dance music was turned on. What ensued was a dance rave at 30,000 feet. When we landed in Brussels 2.5 hours later, we all were not sure where the time went.
From Brussels we were transferred to the aptly named town of Boom where Tomorrowland is located. We commented to each other that we expected that the residents of this small town must hate having their home invaded every year by so many people. However, we were pleasantly surprised to see locals coming out of their homes as our buses passed by to smile and wave to us, many also waving the distinctive Tomorrowland flags. Later in the festival I had the chance to meet a local and asked her what people really thought. While she said not everyone was thrilled with the event, that many people did embrace it and that the organizers invested a lot in winning over the locals, including giving them free day passes to come to the event.
After the short 30 minute bus ride, we arrived at the location on Thursday evening. While the majority of attendees stay at a location outside of Boom (e.g. in a hotel in Brussels), about a third of people stay onsite at Tomorrowland in the camp grounds called Dreamville. In our case, we opted for an upgrade and stayed in the Dreamlodges in Dreamville. They were described as pre-built tents, but in the end way exceeded our expectations. Having been diverted away from the masses that went to set up their own tents at the camp grounds, we arrived at the check-in counter of what felt like a tropical island resort. We were then guided to our cute canvas tiki tents where two flowers awaited us laid upon the mattress of our comfortable beds. Having expected to be somewhat roughing it in tents, I was very pleased to know I’d have a bed I could look forward to return to each day! (TOMORROWLAND TIP: splurge a bit and do the Dreamlodges. They’re worth every penny).
Later that evening they had a welcome event for everyone staying at Dreamville (which in itself was a bigger concert than many I’ve been to before), however we decided to not go too big this night knowing that we had some big days ahead. Also, the performance of the DJs was not as good this evening. Too much unnecessary chatter coming from the DJs which kind of interrupted the flow. Fortunately the performances at the actual festival were all much better!
After a refreshing nights sleep, we awoke to the hum of dance beat sounds in the distance. Tomorrowland was officially beginning. We continued to feel convinced that we had made the right call to do the Dreamlodges when we saw the breakfast buffet (once again more akin to what you’d see at a luxury resort than at a dance festival) and this feeling was yet again reaffirmed when our tickets allowed us to skip the lines at the entrance to the festival.
Once inside Tommorrowland, we were all taken aback as to the sheer enormity of the place and the attention to detail of the organizers in creating an environment that truly felt out of this world. I will try to describe it here but no doubt will not do it justice. The festival is inside a park that covers about a 1 squared km space. Scattered throughout the park are 13 stages, each with its own theme. Between the stages are lakes, paths, bridges, food stands, chill out areas, rides and some of the most incredible installations you’ll ever see. Much of it felt like it was shaped around an Alice in Wonderland theme with big brightly colored toadstools, big mirrors and even a couple of DJs who looked liked Mad Hatters (more on these guys later). There were hedge mazes, installations of scores of Barbie dolls attached to long-stemmed flowers, bridges with hundreds of thousands of messages inscribed on the wooden slats (attendees were asked to send their messages prior to the event), light shows beaming across water installations, a massive ferris wheel that looked in proportion to the London Eye… Added to these sights, you had the sounds of the world’s best DJs coming at you from all angles along with the incredible energy of the 180,000 strong crowd. What was also amazing about the crowd was the incredible international representation. I read that more nationalities were represented at Tomorrowland than the 2012 Olympics. And it felt that way with the sheer number of flags people had brought it. And I was proud to see that, as usual, Australia was well represented (in fact, other than Belgium, I think I saw more Australian flags than any other nationality. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!).
Over the course of the 3 days, the group of us (Basel, Teeba, Shilpa, Rahul, Ardy, Jacques, Jessica, Pato, Eyal, Tamara, Rawan, Rasha, Christine and I) wandered from stage to stage, danced, smiled, laughed and generally soaked up the experience. Too many highlights for me to mention in a single blog post, but if I were to choose one, it would be what occurred on Saturday evening mid way through the festival. After spending several hours in a dark tent dancing to trance music, the group emerged for a wander around the grounds and stumbled across the Grand Theater stage, which we were to later christen as “Happy Land.” The stage was one of the smaller ones at the festival, situated on a platform in the middle of the lake. The DJs playing were called Bart & Baker. None of us had ever heard of these guys and they looked a couple of decades older than any of the other DJs playing at the festival. But they were fun. Really fun. And as I alluded to before, these were the guys kind of dressed up like Mad Hatters. The tunes they played were kind of like a mix of Loony Tunes cartoons, upbeat jazz and electronic dance music. Across from the stage was a small chillout area (also on a platform on the lake). A few of the group peeled off to this area to dance. What then ensued was somewhat of a dance off (or perhaps a better way to describe it was “follow the other side”) where people would dance funny moves from one platform and the people from the other platform would copy. So much fun. It kept us entertained for hours :).
Some other notable highlights from the 3-days to mention were being introduced to Nervo, two DJ sisters from Australia (I’ve clearly been away from home too long), participating in the 8-hour marathon trance session with Markus Schulz followed by Paul Van Dyk, and getting to see my favorite DJs right now, Above and Beyond, on main stage (although the downside of mainstage was that they probably didn’t take as many risks as they would have had they been on a smaller stage).
Fast forwarding to the end of day 3, on Sunday evening at 11:30pm (30 minutes before the official close of the event) Christine and I sneaked away from Tomorrowland and made our way back to the bar at our Dreamlodge. We arrived minutes before the beginning of July 28th, my birthday. Since everyone else was celebrating the final few moments of Tomorrowland, we had the bar to ourselves which gave Christine the opportunity to collect 34 candles from all of the other bar tables to make me a mini birthday celebration for me. That along with a nice drop of red wine was how my 34th year began :).
The next day, we stumbled out of bed early at 7am to make our flight to from Brussels to Lisbon. For the first time in days we had some heavy rain (we heard they use sound canons at Tomorrowland to keep the storms away…) which appropriately matched the mood we felt as we dragged our heavy legs to the bus and bid farewell to the little town of Boom. We imagined the residents must have let out a sigh of relief to have their town back. Similarly, we felt relief to be returning to “normal” life in the real world. Tomorrowland exceeded my wildest expectations. A friend asked me at the event if I’d do it again. While I couldn’t imagine mustering up the energy to do it again next week (or even next month), in a year’s time (or in several years) I can definitely imagine coming back.
SPECIAL THANKS to Jessica Postiglione for providing most of the photos for this post!