If It's Disney, There Must Be Fireworks!

by Mike Scopa
AllEars® Feature Writer

Feature Article

This article appeared in the July 20, 2010 Issue #565 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)


When the month of July arrives my guess is that the majority of folks in the United States turn their thoughts to the 4th of July holiday, and that leads to thoughts of parades, cookouts, and, oh yes, fireworks. For those who visit Walt Disney World in July -- or any month for that matter -- the idea of fireworks is very much a nightly consideration.

Disney and fireworks seem to have been made for each other -- a match made in Heaven you might say. Have we ever NOT associated the two together like we do eggs and ham, love and marriage... and Chip and Dale?

For those of you who remember the Wonderful World of Color (or Disney) television show, you may recall the opening imagery of a Disney castle being showered with fireworks as Tink flies around the screen. Thus every time we see our favorite Magic Kingdom icon, the aforementioned castle, we find ourselves looking forward to the next opportunity to see and hear a fireworks display that only Disney can provide.

Walt Disney World fireworks have had a long history... and there have been some changes over the years. But before we dive into that history allow me to tell you about a little research I recently did regarding Disney and fireworks. This exercise led to the first treasure I found, which was Patent Patent number 533974. This patent was filed on January 7, 1992, and awarded to the Disney Company on August 23, 1994.

I'm not really up on patent research, but to the best of my ability I believe the title of this patent was, "Precision fireworks display system having a decreased environmental impact." This particular patent refers to more than 50 other patents going back to 1887, all dealing with fireworks and fireworks technology. I'm sure you can guess what this patent's abstract says, but if not, allow me to quote from it directly: "A system and method for launching projectiles, such as fireworks projectiles, which explode in the air into a pyrotechnic display." It goes on to say that the "exploded particles" become "inert flakes" that fall "harmlessly to the ground." The abstract is accompanied by some 26 figures over the 65 page document and two figures in particular look familiar. Yes, that IS the Cinderella Castle and it looks like a classic Hidden Mickey over the castle -- a fireworks Hidden Mickey.

Here are some interesting statistics: according to the patent, the shells appear to be designed to be launched to an altitude of between 200 and 600 feet, with 600 feet being described as the "practical limit." That's for a six-inch shell. A smaller shell casing will go lower and a larger casing will go about 1000 feet. There are all kinds of details on fuses and energy storage, igniters, counters, delay time storage... phew. It gets really complicated. All I was looking for was some history on WDW fireworks and wow, did I get a lot for my effort.

I found another patent called, "Fireworks projectile having distinct shell configuration." This patent takes the science to a little higher level regarding the method by which precision fireworks are displayed. So why am I telling you all this? Well, it's important to note the background information surrounding Disney fireworks. It's also to note that these patents were all filed in the mid-1990s and how they coincide with the debut of some of Walt Disney World's unique fireworks shows.

So now let's talk about Magic Kingdom fireworks.

"Fantasy in the Sky" made its debut in the mid-1970s and nights at Magic Kingdom have never been the same since. Every night guests line up in front of the castle and down Main Street USA to gaze at the colors and complete the exercise of allowing their minds to relax and escape. "Fantasy" had quite a long run at the Magic Kingdom. In fact, it lasted until 2003 when one night the voice of a young girl by the name of Chastity Farris sang the words, "Star light, star bright!" and then began the start of a new type of fireworks display at Magic Kingdom. "Wishes."

Basically that's been it over the years. Of course there have been special shows -- the 4th of July tag, "Hallow-Wishes" from Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, and of course the special fireworks display from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, not forgetting the short-lived Pirate and Princess Party. And this summer's Nightastic has its own special fireworks for the Magic Kingdom. However, the Magic Kingdom signature fireworks displays have been essentially few in number compared to those found in Epcot.

Now if you will indulge me, please follow me over to Epcot to look at the history of fireworks around the World Showcase Lagoon. Some may argue that as many as 10 different fireworks spectaculars have graced that area.

In October 1982, Epcot's opening month and year, guests witnessed the debut of "Carnival de Lumiere", which, if my French is still operative, translates into "Carnival of Light." As you can imagine such components as water and music were combined with the fireworks to provide entertainment for the guests. Although a wonderful show, there were some complaints regarding the limited view. Due to the use of barges and projection screens the show could be seen only from the front of the World Showcase Lagoon, primarily between the Canada and Mexico pavilions. There was room for improvement. Another show was on the way.

The summer of 1983 saw "A New World Fantasy" make its debut. This show brought with it synthesized music and a few more effects. It was obvious that show designers were experimenting and were setting their sights on bigger and better things. Sure enough, yet another new show opened in June 1984. This one was called "Laserphonic Fantasy." The soundtrack was the same as New World Fantasy, however this was a milestone show in that laser lights were now integral. But we're just getting started.

In January 1988, Epcot introduced "IllumiNations." To me this was the first true, authentic Disney fireworks spectacular at Epcot.

This was the first show to have not just synthesized music, but a full original scored soundtrack played by a full orchestra. Also, this show began the practice of interacting lights, laser graphics, music, and fireworks to the delight of its guests. This show was to serve as a predecessor of what was coming next. Over the next decade several versions of "IllumiNations" would debut, each one bringing with it a slight tweaking of music and other components. It was obvious that some experimentation was still going on.

One of the major milestones was IllumiNations25, Version 1.0, which ran from September 1996 to May 1997. This flavor of IllumiNations introduced additional fireworks barges, new laser and lighting effects, and a contemporary musical score. In May 1997, this was replaced with IllumiNations25 (B), which saw more tweaking of the program with the most notable change being the switch from contemporary to classical music.

I guess I should mention one other fireworks show that was introduced during that decade. I remember in 1992 watching a daytime spectacular called "Surprise in the Skies." Fireworks during the day do not have the same impact as they do at night, so I'm not too sure how successful this show was. I do remember seeing some sort of glide planes being operated by Disney characters, as well as other components for this show, but it never really caught on. I think part of the problem was that during the summer who wanted to stand in the hot sun around World Showcase Lagoon and watch daytime fireworks?

The Millennium was approaching and of course Disney was preparing for the celebration. On October 1, 1999, Epcot launched "IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth." The reception it received dictated that it would remain for a long time. When the Millennium Celebration ended the show directors decided to drop 2000 from the title, and we have what we know as today as "IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth." Those who have seen this nighttime extravaganza know of the lasers, water fountains, lights, music, and fireworks, all choreographed to an amazing musical score. You Beatles fans may be interested to know that the music was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. It remains today as my favorite Walt Disney World nighttime fireworks spectacular and it never fails to move me when I witness it.

In my attempt to try to be as complete as possible here, let me add that the "Holiday IllumiNations" show was introduced in 1994. Now, we have IllumiNations with a special "holiday tag" -- if you haven't seen it please make that as a homework assignment the next time you're visiting during the holidays. It will truly spoil you for any other fireworks or holiday showcase.

Regarding Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park, I won't go much into its current nighttime show, Fantasmic, except to note that it made its debut in 1996 and has its own theater, something its predecessor in Disneyland did not have. I, however, consider only "Sorcery In the Sky" as the trademark fireworks show for this theme park. "Sorcery" first appeared in 1990 and I have always been a huge fan of the show. It combined music, lights, and fireworks to entertain the guests with movie musical scores. Unfortunately it is rarely shown these days. If you get a chance, please catch it. It is shown from high above The Great Movie Ride and yes, if you're wondering, the demise of "Sorcery" seems to have coincided with the construction of the huge Sorcerer's Hat at the end of Hollywood Boulevard.

I have often thought about what we as Disney guests take for granted and one area in particular is the cost, effort, and creativity that go into the design and implementation of Disney fireworks shows.

It has become a science to produce quality entertainment with fireworks, and Disney may be the global leader in this area. Disney is the largest consumer of fireworks in the world and is always exploring new ways to bring the best to its guests. I've seen this with the patents that Disney files and also the fireworks pioneering that has taken place.

Two dates are worth noting as we close out this exploration of Disney fireworks. In July 1985 the fireworks displays at Walt Disney World were set to music and controlled electronically by either a computer or a switchboard. That leads to consistency for every show. But the technology never rests, nor does Disney. As recently as 2004, Disneyland started launching fireworks with compressed air instead of gunpowder. Why? Well, using compressed air means less pollutant -- there are no fumes because no gunpowder is used for launch. Secondly, the use of compressed air means that height and timing for each shell is more accurate, thus adding to the quality of the show.

So the next time you gaze at fireworks over Cinderella Castle or World Showcase Lagoon, say a little thank you to the number of Imagineers and creative minds that have worked hard to add some value to your Disney vacation.

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RELATED LINKS:

Magic Kingdom's Wishes! http://allears.net/tp/mk/mk_wishes.htm

Epcot's Surprise in the Skies: http://allears.net/tp/ep/e_sky1.htm

IllumiNations: http://allears.net/tp/ep/e_in.htm

Other AllEars® articles by Mike Scopa: http://allears.net/btp/mikescopa.htm

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mike Scopa has been a huge Disney fan for as long as he can remember. He first visited Walt Disney World in 1975 and has returned many times (how many? he's lost count!) since. Mike is a contributor to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Cara Goldsbury's Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World, and has served as keynote speaker for MagicMeets. He is also co-host of the WDWTODAY Podcast and writes a blog, The View from Scopa Towers, for AllEars.Net:
http://land.allears.net/blogs/mikescopa/

In addition, Mike is co-captain of Team AllEars® -- the AllEars.Net Running Team that will participate in the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in 2011.


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.