The Electric Daisy Carnival — with its towering Ferris wheel, celebrity disc jockeys and pulsating lights — is the largest electronic music party in the United States.
The wildly popular multi-day festival is relocating this year from Los Angeles to a desert site 14 miles from the Las Vegas strip, a move that heartened officials in both cities. Sin City leaders are heralding an even bigger party, while those in L.A. are still sensitive to the drug problems and arrests the Carnival sustained a year ago.
"Every time we have a new venue come here that brings thousands of people, it is good for the city," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "The word gets out that Vegas is a good place to party."
Critics, however, warn that Las Vegas has turned a blind eye on the rave festival's darker side. A 15-year-old girl died of an Ecstasy overdose following last year's L.A. event, and more than 226 people needed emergency medical treatment. There were 114 arrests for misconduct, drug possession and other charges.
Promoter Insomniac Inc. of Los Angeles, meanwhile, announced this month that the annual event will add a third day of thumping beats to showcase more than 200 performers on six stages at the Las Vegas site, another testament to the city's reputation for anything-goes revelry.
Los Angeles officials declined to comment on the festival's move.
The mother of Sasha Rodriguez, the 15-year-old Los Angeles girl who died after consuming drugs at the carnival, has said she cries herself to sleep every night.
"Insomniac may not be selling drugs. I don't accuse them of that," said Steven Archer, the Los Angeles lawyer representing Rodriguez's parents. "But they are certainly creating an environment where they know drugs are going to be consumed."
From dusk 'til dawn
The Las Vegas blowout from June 24-26 marks the end of a tour making stops in Florida, Texas and Colorado. Electronic music heavyweights Tiesto, David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia are among the performers expected to ignite the crowd at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Advertisements tell of a "dusk till dawn" atmosphere filled with "thousands of beautiful people!"
"I've been looking at Las Vegas for a couple of years now," said Insomniac founder Pasquale Rotella. "It's a destination. Every nightclub there is playing electronic music."
The million-dollar extravaganza with its tickets starting at $75 and Top 40 headliners is a distant cousin of the earliest raves held in abandoned warehouses and underground clubs in the 1980s. Organizers said they are taking new precautions, including imposing an 18-and-older age restriction, offering free water stations and using electronic scanners to verify identification at the entrance.
The sprawling parties, however, are still buffeted by reports of illegal drugs use.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a review of a New Year's Eve rave held in Los Angeles last year that ended in 18 Ecstasy-related hospital visits and one death. The study found partygoers who sought medical care reported Ecstasy-related illnesses included hyperthermia, seizure, decreased consciousness and kidney failure. The 24-year-old man who died in his home after attending the party had Ecstasy, heroin and cocaine in his system.
The health report warned, "City and county managers and elected officials should be aware of the potential health risks and costs associated with making publicly-owned facilities available for large commercial events such as raves."
Las Vegas officials said they are not worried because they are accustomed to policing raucous crowds. Goodman cited the city's annual New Year's Eve celebration, when nearly 300,000 people crowd the Las Vegas Strip and other tourist hotspots.
"The truth of the matter is, there is very little incident," Goodman said. "Our police force here and the securities forces we employ, they are all professionals and they know how to control a crowd."
Las Vegas police spokesman Marcus Martin said wristbands will be used to identify 21-and-up partygoers because alcohol will be sold at the 1,000-acre venue.
But Martin, who has policed raves before, acknowledged that it can be difficult for officers to catch partygoers in the act of swallowing small, unmarked Ecstasy pills.
"They are, of course, careful not to be popping them in front of us," he said.
One big party
The Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which generally hosts NASCAR events and their fans, has focused on the party's economic prowess. Tourism-dependent Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation and is desperate for cash flow. Insomniac Inc. estimates the carnival pumped $42 million into the Los Angeles economy last year.
Nearly 90,000 people a day are expected at the Las Vegas festival, half the crowd of Los Angeles' mega party in 2010.
"EDC will create a significant boost to our local economy," said speedway president Chris Powell in a statement. "Also, we're quite happy with the relationship we've forged with our friends at Insomniac, who've displayed years of experience and unparalleled creativity."
It's hard to know whether the drug-related mayhem in Los Angeles last year was a one-time occurrence or evidence of a larger problem.
Only 11 of the some 70,000 people who attended the Electric Daisy Carnival in 2008 needed hospital care, said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey.
In nearby San Bernardino, Insomniac's Audiotistic party last year saw 15 people hospitalized and two dozen people arrested, mostly on drug charges.
In other cities, however, organizers said the parties have been held without complaint.
"It was a great success," said Craig Holcomb, president of the Friends of Fair Park in Dallas, which hosted its first Electric Daisy Carnival event last year. "A whole lot of people came and they had a very good time and I don't know of any incidents whatsoever that happened."
But opponents claim the arrests and medical emergencies in California reflect the unchecked drug culture celebrated at raves and other electronic music festivals.
"If you walk into one of these things, you are going to smell marijuana immediately and if there is marijuana, there is going to be other chemicals," said John Lieberman, director of the Visions Adolescent Treatment Centers in Malibu, which serves teenagers addicted to drugs.
Sasha Rodriguez, 15, was among the more than 180,000 people crammed into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the 14th Electric Daisy Carnival last year when she collapsed. She died a few days later at a hospital after being removed from life support. The two-day festival was limited to people 16 and older, but health officials complained event staff did not check identification as people entered.
Archer said Rodriguez's parents had no idea their only child was attending the party.
"I would really be concerned that you are going to have a festival of this size run by this company with its past track record," Archer said. "Someone ought to tell the health officials in downtown Las Vegas that a bomb is going to go off there."
Rotella said his parties don't deserve such notoriety.
"They might be thinking about the stigma of what dance music was two decades ago, but it's very different," he said. "We have some of the safest events in the world."