By the time the desert dust settles after Burning Man, most people consider summer festival season to be on its way out until the following spring with Coachella. This isn’t exactly true. So I packed my bags, grabbed a camera and submerged myself in three back-to-back weekends of insane fall festivals all around the country to see what was out there. I began at mega rave TomorrowWorld in the ATL, headed to Texas for Austin City limits and then ended my tour back in California at San Diego’s CRSSD festival. Between the airport food, raving, missing flights and partying in a garbage-bag-turned-poncho, it’s safe to say my body is still back somewhere in the dried mud of TomorrowWorld.
The coolest part about this journey? I’ve never been to any of these cities before, so I was able to experience each place through music, food and nightlife. So when you’re trying to decide which festival to put your time, money and effort into next year, here’s an honest (I promise) guide to three fall festivals you should have on your radar.
Through a sea of wet ravers, mud and Shaq totem polls I’d found myself at TomorrowWorld, America’s sister rave to one of the biggest dance festival in the world. The festival sprawls out over 8,000 acres on a hilly horse farm 40 minutes outside the city, and over 160,000 people come from all over the world to get weird for three days the last weekend of September. Marketed as one of the closers to summer fest season, let’s just say things didn’t go so well after a steady rain fall the second day. But despite a partial closure of the festival Sunday, I still came, raved, was pissed 70 percent of the time and yes, sported a garbage bag as a much sexier version of a poncho. Also, this happened.
LineupFor a dance festival that attempts to rival the likes of mega raves like EDC, they have to bring in dance giants like Armin Van Buren, Tiesto, Martin Garrix, Kaskade and Afrojack to appeal to the masses. But the inclusion of having artists like Thomas Jack and Pete Tong curate stage lineups and debuting a live performance stage where DJs go unplugged is what sets this festival apart. My favorite part about the lineup this year though was the fact that Shaq, aka DJ Diesel, had a surprise performance at the insane trap stage back in the woods. Not to mention, the abundance of totems as Shaq as the genie in *Kazaam* had me dying. Warning: this is not the fall festival for you if you can’t handle straight-up EDM music and bass drops for three days and ravers bumping into you wearing neon-colored pasties and tutus.
FoodFor a giant, 160,000-person festival, the food was surprisingly above average. I usually expect festivals at this size to stick to chicken strips and fries (yes they did have those, too) but I also found fresh smoothies, decent tacos and some really good Asian food that distracted me from the fact that mud had creeped up my overall shorts. Yes, I did do the whole VIP-sitting-and-eating-experience thing with Top Chef finalist Kevin Gillespie (which was amazing and I tried grits for my first time), but even the general festival food exceeded my expectations. So in summation: don’t go to TomorrowWorld expecting 5-star level food unless you do VIP, but also don’t expect to be living off shitty pizza every day.
Art & CultureOne of the coolest parts about TomorrowWorld is the community that it boasts within the festival. Dreamville, a camping ground that’s about 3 miles long, has everything from morning yoga and Pilates classes to its own kick-off parties called “The Gathering” where, you know, the [infamous ass eating happened](https://thump.vice.com/en_us/article/what-the-ass-eating-at-tomorrowworld-says-about-american-dance-culture). Inside the fest there’s face painting and body painting booths, a wedding chapel where yes people DO get married and its own marketplace that makes you feel like you’re in a mini dance utopia. The only issue is that unless you’re camping at Dreamville, you do not have access to most of these activities. Just something to keep in mind.
Best & Worst
BEST There’s something about raver culture that makes festivals like TomorrowWorld so enjoyable to be at. Every person is happy, and most importantly respects one another. I was able to meet people from all over the world at TomorrowWorld, and witnessed a series of incredible moments, like a woman proposing to her girlfriend during The Chainsmokers’ set on Sunday. The venue itself was also incredible. The eight stages were sprawled out across 8,000 acres, so you’re never feeling cramped. And of course, the performances are out of this world. You’re going to get the best performance from every artist at TomorrowWorld, and most closing acts always have fireworks following them. Remember: you’re paying upwards of $700 to a $1,000 to be there depending on your ticket, so TomorrowWorld does a pretty good job of making it worth the money. Also, can we all agree the sign above is pretty fantastic?
WORST Did you guys know that a mystical currency called “Pearls” exists? The only way you can buy goods in the festival is through a card you have to load money on, where $1 is equivalent to .45 Pearls, TomorrowWorld’s choice of made-up currency. Like where are we, Narnia? Hogwarts? It’s America, and that is not only misleading when you are buying drinks and think you spent less than you actually did, but try explaining that conversion to your accounting department. Besides the incredibly annoying money situation, there was the mud. Oh, the mud. And all the chaos that came with it. People were stranded in the woods after Ubers stopped picking up festivalgoers, and girls were found sleeping in pizza boxes at the side of the road. And don’t even try going out after the festival if you aren’t camping — the city is more than 40 minutes away with traffic. By the time you get back, your body is already calling for the nearest bed.
Austin City Limits Austin
After I lost most of my soul to MudWorld in Alanta, my next festival adventure the following weekend led to me into Austin for weekend one of Austin City Limits. My friends raved about both ACL and Austin, so I was pumped to not only experience the festival, but to obviously eat my body weight in Tex Mex and BBQ. Held in the picturesque Zilker Park right outside downtown, the festival overlooks a river and is literally near everything you could ever want. Over 450,000 people attend the event each year, so you know ACL knows what they are doing (it also helps that the same people that put on Lollapalooza put on ACL.) And with a lineup including The Foo Fighters, Deadmau5, Alt-J, Drake and The Strokes, you immediately know why Austin is reffered to as “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
LineupIf you need a little piece of every genre in a festival for you to really enjoy it, then ACL is what you need. Mirroring a little bit of Lolla and Coachella, you can watch G-Eazy and Drake one minute and then find yourself roaming to a stage to watch of Monsters and Men and Twenty One Pilots perform. You can’t exactly escape synthesizers and remixes of Major Lazer’s “Lean On” at TomorrowWorld and other EDM festivals. ACL provides a beautiful mix of alternative, dance, hip-hop and yes, even folk music (looking at you, José González). The only thing you might not like is that there are two weekends of ACl, much like Coachella, except each weekend has totally different lineups. So you and your fest crew will have to duke it out over which weekend to go. Oh, and the Bassnectar set on Saturday during weekend one might have changed my life.
FoodHave you ever been on a quest for something that took over your entire soul until you completed that quest? I was on a mission like that during ACl, and it was for some food concoction dubbed “The Mighty Cone.” Spoken of by others at TomorrowWorld as if it were some sort of rare, mystical unicorn, ACL’s Mighty Cone consists of crunchy fried chicken and fried avocado smothered in a spicy siracha-like sauce and homemade coleslaw. It was the only thing I ate all weekend, and I’m proud to admit that. Besides this fried goodness, ACL Eats attracts foodies from all over the country. You’ll find everything from funnel cakes to turkey legs to stuffed tamales. And don’t even get me started on the root beer from Maine Root food truck. Needless to say, ACL lives up to Austin’s reputation for spectacular food.
Art & Culture
There are tons of other cool things at ACL besides crunchy Mighty Cones and Deadmau5. ACL boasts a super comprehensive art market, featuring local artists selling everything from fine art to clothes to books. There are also interactive art performances at the GigaPower Gallery that bring art exhibits to life, so there’s always something to do while you’re waiting for bands to change out sets. As far as the culture and crowd atmosphere of ACL goes, remember this is a city park and it is not 21 and up. It’s also taped live by PBS and has been since 1974. So there’s a very good chance you’ll be raging at Deadmau5 and Drake next to a family who does not want to hear about how drunk you and your friends are. And because of the family atmosphere, the festival ends at 10 p.m. every night. So if you don’t like day drinking in the hot Texas sun and having to contain some of your wildness, this isn’t going to be for you.
Best & Worst
BEST One of my other issues with TomorrowWorld is that it’s a festival catered to those camping on-site, so there’s no chance in hell you’re going to go out after the festival if you’re back in Atlanta because it’s up to an hour away in traffic. ACL is perfectly in the center of downtown with a five to ten minute Uber to the always packed 6th street, where you can bar crawl it up after the festival ends. And everything at ACL runs smoothly — they have got planning a large festival down to a beautiful science. There’s no uncertainty to where things are, the lines are short and you have the option to pay for everything you need in the festival through your wristband. That’s right, you can hook up the credit card of your choice to your wristband and can scan it for food, beer and whatever you want. It made drinking and eating a seamless process and made lines shorter.
WORST There’s a lot of room to frolic around at the spread out ACL, so while I was mid-frolic without a care in the world, I ran straight into a folding chair and practically toppled over a frightened child. “What the fuck is a chair doing here?” I thought. That’s when I realized there are, wait for it, designated chair zones at ACL. Chair zones are not conducive to dancing and in my opinion, no one should be sitting down at a festival. Again though, ACL is a family-friendly festival, so chair zones mostly consisted of families while I was there. I also wasn’t so much into the crowd vibes at ACL. Everywhere I looked young people were just sitting around standing with their arms folded, looking like they were having the worst time ever and judging the fuck out of everyone. The amount of times I received strange stares for dancing around with my friends, well, it was hard to count. So to go from TomorrowWorld where weirdness is expected and 100 percent encouraged to running into folding chairs and judgmental frowny faces was a bit off-putting, to say the least.
CRSSD San Diego
So at this point in my three-week festival stint, I’m feeling weird. I’ve been back and forth to too many time zones, so I was extremely thankful to be back in sunny California for CRSSD festival in San Diego. All I’ve ever known of San Diego are quotes from Anchorman and that it has a really cool zoo, so I was excited to experience it for my first time through music. CRSSD festival boasts very unique lineups in that it’s mostly house music, with a few big live acts mixed in. This included everyone from The Flaming Lips to Big Data to TV and the Radio and Banks. It also felt like I was transported back to Coachella — everyone was beautiful, young and dressed like they were really rich hippies who liked neon and gladiator sandals. CRSSD is set within Waterfront Park on the harbor, so believe me, it was a fucking beautiful venue to party at.
This is a festival where you are definitely not going to know who everyone is on the lineup list. It’s for more niche house music fans that don’t always need lyrics to enjoy a performance. And it’s also for music lovers who are into exploring new artists they’ve never seen live before. But the inclusion of a live stage with the acts I mentioned above gave the festival a perfect range of choices. Watching the super mysterious ZHU perform on the live stage was like a religious experience, and The Flaming Lips, as always, had the crowd going nuts. Tropical house DJ and producer Kygo had one of the largest crowds Sunday night during a ridiculous sunset on the harbor, and female acts like Banks (who is touring with the Weeknd) and Alunageorge slayed. But one of my other favorite parts about the lineup was the back-to-back DJ sets that CRSSD had lined up. Instead of just seeing Goldroom and Cashmere Cat perform alone, you got to see them have a blast DJing alongside Le Youth and Trippy Turtle.
No joke, I tried almost all the food. Almost. I have German DJ/producer duo Andhim to blame for this. Just like ACL, CRSSD really didn’t mess around when it came to getting quality food vendors on site. If you asked me before CRSSD if I would eat sushi at a festival, I would have laughed at you. There was in fact incredible sushi, dumplings, Hawaiin BBQ, Philly cheese steak sandwiches and more than enough craft beer and liquor stations to keep you happy. There was nothing special about the way you purchased the food — most vendors took credit card and there were ATMs everywhere. The food was more upscale and fit the vibes of the festival, and I very much appreciated the fresh watermelon and pineapple juices considering it was about 95 degrees outside. Oh, I also might have eaten a whole watermelon at one point.
Art & Culture
CRSSD was the smallest of the three festivals, so it was strictly all about the music. But, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re not looking for all the extra bells and whistles and art exhibits and you just want to dance around all day, then this is a good place to be. As far as the culture and atmosphere of the crowd, I really do mean it when I say it was like I was at a mini Coachella. Women will show up wearing giant wedges and heels with flowing dresses and guys will probably be shirtless wearing some sort of neon hat (to be fair, it was scorching hot that weekend.) You’re probably not going to be making friends with strangers and you’ll probably stick to just hanging with your group. But because of the small size of the festival, you’re able to get really close to your favorite acts and the vibe of the entire place is extremely chill.
Best & Worst
BEST Uh, I cannot get over the venue still. Situated in Waterfront Park right on the harbor, it’s a picturesque California festival with badass sunsets every night. The layout of the festival was also extremely easy to navigate, considering there were only three stages and they were spaced out far enough that the music didn’t overlap one another. And the fountains. Oh, the fountains. All along the festival were these giant pools of glorious water open to the public, so you could splash around, dance and cool off while still catching a set with your crew. And just like ACL, you could immediately leave the festival and be at great nightlife in no time. A quick 10-minute Uber takes you right into the heart of the Gas Lamp District for after-parties with DJs at Omnia and other clubs and bars. So not only would you get the festival experience, you could experience the nightlife aspect of San Diego in a very accessible way.
WORST Honestly, I couldn’t find many errors in CRSSD. I will say the fact that I had to surrender my dearly beloved ChapStick to security was a bit ridiculous (not their fault though, it’s a city policy.) The only thing I can really comment on is the fact that the live stage during the day was pretty much impossible to be at because of how hot it was with the lack of shade. I was looking forward to catching Big Data’s set, and was there for about 20 minutes until I had to leave because I had practically melted. Big name acts like Big Data drew very small crowds because of the mid-day time slot, but again, this happens at most California festivals including Coachella. So congrats CRSSD, you made me really happy 80 percent of the time.
But let’s be honest, that might have just been because I knew the end — and lying in my bed for days —was near. Now if only I could get an infinite supply of Mighty Cones and watermelon smoothies…
RELATED: A preview of what we were up to at TomorrowWorld
Nicole Theodore is an editorial assistant at Playboy. Her body is still recovering from too much bass and airport food. Follow her on Twitter..