For disabled guests, the Texas Eclipse Festival was a weekend of broken promises

Rumors of mismanagement swirled online after a weather cancellation, but disabled festival goers clocked issues from the start.

By Sarah AschApril 18, 2024 10:40 am, , ,

About 40,000 people attended the Texas Eclipse Festival in Burnet, only to have it shut down a day before it was supposed to. Organizers asked folks to evacuate right after totality – around 1:30 p.m. last Monday afternoon — because of concerns about severe weather in the forecast. 

The cancellation, and rumors of mismanagement on social media, have spurred calls for refunds and even investigations. But for festival goers with disabilities, the problems were obvious from the start. 

Tanya Valencia has a lot of experience going to music festivals in her wheelchair. She said from the moment she arrived at the festival on Friday, she knew it was not set up with disabled patrons in mind.

When they drove up to the site on a private ranch about 90 minutes northwest of Austin, Valencia said she and her husband waited in what they already knew was the wrong line of cars for over an hour, only to find out there wasn’t accessible parking.

With little help from staff, they finally made it to the campsite for disabled guests so they could catch a shuttle to the proper festival entrance. But, Valencia said the problems kept piling up. 

“And at that point, me and my husband decided that it legitimately was not safe for me personally, as a disabled person, moving forward,” she said. “We decided to go back to our car and just not even try to enter the festival.”

The Texas Standard spoke to five disabled patrons who all said they dealt with a lack of transportation, difficult terrain, and poor communication between event staff and those hired specifically to assist disabled patrons.

Festival organizers also had not erected the promised viewing platforms for disabled attendees on time, making it a struggle to see many of the acts. Sal Bonaccorso ran into this issue attending the festival with his 78-year-old mother, Rosy. 

“There was, like this dirt mound where there was a lake that was fenced off and there were no guardrails or anything,” he said. “It was like a drop off dirt cliff, almost. And I put my mom up there with her walker.”

Bonaccorso says platforms were constructed in time for Saturday night’s shows, but only at two of the stages. And he said views from one were blocked by the crowd in front of them. 

“I’ve been to so many festivals around the world and so many times, and I’ve been to all types of things,” he said. “I’ve never, ever, ever experienced anything like this in my entire festival life. And I’ve been doing it for 30 years.” 

This all was especially frustrating since organizers billed themselves as “dedicated” to making sure the festival was accessible.

Disabled people made up a small group compared to the total size of the event — about 250 patrons joined a Facebook group for disabled festival goers before it started. But for those the Texas Standard spoke to, what was supposed to be a weekend of music and celestial awe turned instead into a series of frustrations and broken promises.  

Kris McMahan uses a cane. She went to the festival on Friday night to watch some friends perform.

“There were no lights at this festival. Like, the pathways were not lit. There was no information about ADA. There was really no signage or anything that I saw, that was like, ‘hey, do you need special assistance? Call this number,’” she said. “It was extremely rocky, extremely dangerous. I tripped several times.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, requires people with disabilities to have equal access to public spaces. The law applies to events open to the public, including concerts and music festivals. 

» A TEXAS STANDARD SPECIAL: The state of disability in Texas

A captain with the Burnet County Sheriff’s office told Texas Standard he received several complaints about the lack of disability accommodations. While enforcement can be hard to address in real time, noncompliance is often the subject of lawsuits.

Deborah Cannon / KUT News

Thousands had traveled to Burnet to view the total solar eclipse on April 8.

McMahan says she also struggled with ADA transportation.

“I asked for an ADA cart and they said, ‘you know, one’s not going to be available for another hour or two,’” she said. “So I waited around and it was pretty sunny and hot that day and was trying to be really resourceful.”

She finally gave up and walked to a general transport shuttle, but the driver would only take her to a designated drop off area – nowhere near where she needed to be.

“At this point, I’m over an hour in,” she said. “And I’m actually starting to hurt. I’m walking a lot. Really getting frustrated, trying to keep my cool.”

Bonaccorso reported a similar situation – waiting for over two hours for a ride back to the ADA RV campground. He says it turned out the security guard who had radioed for ADA dispatch had called the wrong people.

“I wanted to cry,” he said. “It was like three in the morning. I was exhausted.”

The two companies that turned in the mass gathering permit for the Texas Eclipse Festival were Disco Presents, a company run by a well-known promoter named Disco Donnie, and Probably Nothing LLC. 

Their public response has mostly focused on the event’s early cancellation, and not on issues with disability accommodations. 

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Neither company would speak with Texas Standard on the phone, but a PR spokesperson for the festival, hired by Disco Presents, sent a statement over email. It said that ADA accommodations were planned from the early stages and every effort was made to deliver them. It also said they’re reviewing what happened.

There was also an outside ADA coordinator involved in the event called SeeTheShow. Staff there also declined to comment. The attendees we talked to said their interactions with SeeTheShow were generally positive, but that its staff seemed overstretched.

Miranda Alfaro, who uses a wheelchair, has a lot of experience attending festivals. She said part of what frustrated her about the Texas Eclipse Festival is that other event producers are already making it easier for disabled patrons to enjoy themselves with ease.

“They’re alienating such a large market,” she said. 

Bonaccorso said part of what would help make things right for him and his mother would be getting his money back. Ticket prices range from $249 to $669, plus fees and additional charges for camping or staying in an RV on site. 

Festival organizers said they are working on possible partial refunds.

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