Without a doubt, Suwannee Hulaween is a model of how to put on one of the most enjoyable festival experiences possible.
Music and arts festivals — currently experiencing what eventually may be regarded as the peak period in popularity — can almost seem as if they’ve reached a saturation point. While even some of the bigger festival names struggle with attendance (and there seems to be a growing list of fests bowing out and announcing the end of their brand), it leaves the formula for creating a successful and lasting festival a mercurial endeavor.
There are the fests that go for big-name performers and over-the-top lineups. There are others that aim to appeal to a certain niche crowd. But each faces the same challenge: to create an event that gets people excited to return year after year.
Suwannee Hulaween, however, has concocted the perfect formula. Set beneath a forest of live oaks draped with otherworldly flowing Spanish moss in the warm Florida autumn, Hulaween has captured so many of the elements that can only lead to a surreal and absolutely memorable experience.
Hulaween takes place at the Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park, a large camping and festival grounds built for events like this. Multiple campgrounds can accommodate everyone from tent campers to those renting out the park’s cabins, all of whom can flow seamlessly to and from the actual concert grounds. That means you can easily and quickly make your way from campsite parties to the festival itself and back out again with a short walk.
Second of all is the timing. Each year, the fest takes place around Halloween, and each year has a different costume theme. That adds to the festive atmosphere here. The crowd is a mix of those who dress in costume, to those who take up the general festival fashion to those who just show up, it’s this fashionable crowd that helps amp up the event, as each attendee participates in the entire alchemic scene.
Hulaween’s secret is that this festival is not about the lineup, but about just being in the center of a completely surreal world with friends and strangers all there for the same reason, to be a part of a massive party with likeminded people.
Though the lineup itself tends to be diverse and to have something for everyone. 2018’s Hulaween had The String Cheese Incident playing seven sets across three days, bringing out a variety of guest vocalists. In addition, headline-caliber performers across genres hit the festival, from EDM producers CloZee, Rezz, Odesza, Gramatik, NGHTMRE, and TroyBoi to more organic musical arrangements such as The Revivalists, Jamiroquai, Lettuce, Janelle Monae and Trampled By Turtles to the completely genre-bending and unique such as Lizzo, Bishop Briggs and Vulfpeck.
The entire time, though, the bands almost take a backstage to the open fields, or — in the cases of The Campground and The Patch stages — the wooded dance areas, where it was the massive crowd moving and dancing in a giant, colorfully lit sweaty unison with the band simply providing the energetic ambiance.
On top of this, there were the normal props you’ve come to expect from large scale festivals – sculptures placed throughout the grounds and the Ferris wheel lighting up the background. Though here, the number of installations and performers are so dense, that walking from one side of the grounds to the other was an extrasensory experience unto itself.
Stilt walkers, fire dancers, aerial performers, live painting artists, interactive installations and sculptures as large as small themed lands all lined the Spirit Lake area. With so many in costume, passing through seemed as if you were making your way through a colorful lit world of live performance art. And once the sun went down, colored lights, laser shows and projections on the fountain spray in the center of the lake all provided a colorful canopy. And the warm Florida nights never seemed to require more than a t shirt and shorts.
It seemed I was constantly stumbling across walkways and corners that I had somehow missed previously.
Suwannee Hulaween is an absolute feast for the senses. The eclectic mix of performers assured a variety of ages and interests in the audience. The Halloween vibe added to the already-hedonistic and festive vibe. While us in the Western United States seem to know of Coachella as the musical festival that all others stack up against, and Burning Man as the artistic and participatory festival standard-setter, Hulaween seems to have bridged the two smoothly. It’s no wonder so many conversations with strangers included the question of how many years you’ve attended now.
Though this was only our first, we left under Hulaween’s surreal and enveloping spell, and can only hope that we’ll return, as while other festivals struggle to find their footing and stability, Hulaween is well aware of what it takes to offer an unforgettable festival experience.
— Shaun Astor