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Flash! Boom!

Why We Love Fireworks All Year Long

If you think fireworks are only for the Fourth of July, think again. Fireworks light up the sky throughout the year. You’ll see them on major holidays, at high-end weddings and after Flying Squirrels Thursday home games. This year the baseball team will have a minimum of 14 fireworks shows at the Diamond, including its patriotic tribute on July 3 and July 4.

“Fireworks are the one thing that attract people of all ages,” notes Anthony Oppermann, the Squirrels’ director of media. “Fireworks have been a staple of minor league baseball. A lot of teams have them when they play at home. It’s one guaranteed promotion you can do where people will come out.”

Minor league baseball isn’t the only enterprise to realize the value of fireworks. It’s something Disney has known for years. Chris Oyen and Brad Cicotti are old hands at lighting up a night sky. The two Walt Disney World Resort employees are responsible for creating the resort’s nightly fireworks displays, as well as special events such as Fourth of July and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.

“There are 11 words that describe a fireworks show,” says Oyen, a Disney show director in entertainment. “Lights go down, music goes on, stuff goes boom, everybody cheers.”

The technologies that go into creating a fireworks show today may be new, but the actual fireworks concept dates back 2,000 years to China. At that time, the loud noises produced by Chinese masters of pyrotechnics were thought to drive away evil spirits.

The ancient fireworks were made by packing saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal into bamboo tubes. The explorer Marco Polo broadened the popularity of fireworks by introducing them to the Italian people after a journey to China in the 1300s. By 1600, the city of Bologna, Italy was known to have the most creative fireworks developers. It wasn’t until 1777 that America started celebrating its freedom with fireworks.

At Walt Disney World Resort, the fireworks displays have, over time, morphed into full-fledged extravaganzas.

“We now work very diligently at telling a story and using everything we can to create a ballet in the sky,” explains Oyen. “We want the fireworks to be an exclamation point for our guests at the end of the day.” Before he conceptualizes the show, Oyen develops the story and selects music that will create the proper mood.

“Then we look at how to create the impact,” he says.

It’s at this point that Oyen teams up with Cicotti, a Disney senior special effects fireworks designer to seamlessly weave the story, the fireworks and the music together.

The behind-the-scenes process has advanced over the years. Thirty years ago, for example, fireworks were lit by hand. Up until about 12 years ago, the fireworks show at Disney’s Magic Kingdom was fired manually by a technician who would rely on an audio track to tell him when to push the button that would shoot off the fireworks.

Today, fireworks are choreographed using state-of-the-art software programs and computerized firing systems that take the guesswork out of the show’s timing.

“The software has been out for about 15 years,” Cicotti says. “Before [we had the software] the fireworks designer made the audio track [that was used by the technician]. We would load every tube manually and they would be fired with the audio. It was all about precision.” Thanks to current technology the timing is always precise. Fireworks can be fired so they reach their height and burst into dazzling colors on the crescendo of the music.

“You have to know how long that will take,” Cicotti says. “You program in the type of product and [the software] will calculate the back time.” Years ago there only a few types of shells used during fireworks displays. Today there are standard shells that include chrysanthemums (bursting stars with trails) and peonies (stars without trails) along with a myriad of patterned shells, everything from smiley faces to hearts. The newer patterns began showing up in the nineties.

There are a multitude of fireworks manufacturers. One of the oldest fireworks companies in the U.S. is Zambelli Fireworks. The family-owned company has been making fireworks for over a hundred years.

Because Disney has access to fireworks manufacturers around the world, it will often ask manufacturers to create specific patterns for its parks such as countdown numbers for New Year’s Eve.

Some of the newer shells available can be fired in close proximity, producing an in-your-face type of experience. “We can create effects now that we have never been able to create before,” Oyen says. “There has been a lot of innovation in shells.” For its large Fourth of July display, Disney uses a traditional red, white and blue theme timed to patriotic music. The show covers the full perimeter of the park.

“If you are in the Magic Kingdom,

You are completely surrounded [by fireworks],” Oyen says. “We use different firing locations. It’s not just what we put in the sky but also where we are launching it from.”

A fireworks show, he says, should be like a thrill ride. “You want surprise, excitement and music that touches you. You want that emotional content. Stuff going boom will titillate, but we are creating something that has emotional substance.” One of Disney’s biggest concerns when it comes to fireworks is safety.

“We work hard on that aspect,” Cicotti says. “We have to have a safe environment. We are constantly testing product for continuity and fallout or any kind of issues we may have.” The computer systems used by Disney are extremely sophisticated. If there is a weather concern such as high wind, the system will allow operators to change the flow of the show.

Oyen and Cicotti have been working on the new Disney World show that debuted June 6 and will run through August 14. The “Summer Nightastic! Fireworks Spectacular” will spin a story of fairies and pirates as it paints the Florida night sky more brightly than ever before. The fireworks will create a surroundabout spectacle.

“With this show, we’re making the skies come alive – we’re not just going to immerse you, we’re going to surprise you, too,” says Oyen.

An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.
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