The classic Disney “kiss good night” doesn’t come in any more classic a version than an epic fireworks show to cap off a fun (and probably exhausting) day spent with your family and friends in the Parks.
What really separates the pyrotechnics of a Disney fireworks spectacular, though, especially from consumer fireworks, is the ability of those high-in-the-sky explosives to truly tell a story. Synced with an epic musical accompaniment and projections, lasers, and other effects on the ground, Disney fireworks are as much a medium of storytelling as any of the other rides, shows, or other attractions at the Parks.
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When you see a Disney fireworks show, you inherently understand the emotional beats of the explosives, and what role they’re playing in the story. It doesn’t really matter if you know the technical details of the fireworks themselves, what’s important is the feelings that they engender as the night sky is painted with sparks and fire.
But let’s say you’re a nerd. The kind who follows websites with in-depth articles about the Disney Parks. Then maybe you’re interested in knowing more about exactly what goes into a fireworks spectacular, including information on the types of fireworks you see in these shows.
If that’s the case, this article is for you!
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The Historical Perspective
Author and theme park designer David Younger, in his seminal book Theme Park Design & The Art of Themed Entertainment, has the full scoop on how fireworks shows developed at the Disney Parks and at theme parks in general:
Growing from their historic position as explosive performances in the night sky, theme parks have married fireworks shows with synchronized soundtracks, lighting design, and numerous other show techniques. Instead of being solely visual, Fireworks Shows now apply theme and even story to support them in creating a show with content and emotional variation to entertain the audience.
Believe… There’s Magic in the Stars (Disneyland, 1999), for example, was Disney’s first fireworks show to implement a theme and story: the concept of believing in magic, manifested through extracts from various Disney songs.
It’s no surprise that Disney pioneered the modern fireworks show, given the company’s mastery of all other aspects of theme park design. But fireworks designers aren’t just working for Disney or Universal, but rather taking the storytelling skills pioneered by these industry leaders and applying them to all sorts of shows and spectacular fireworks displays.
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Younger describes the type of work that these designers undertake:
A typical approach will involve the designer mapping out the hills and valleys of the experience, with various emotions, colors, and specific fireworks effects being saved (through Rationing) for distinct scenes.
There are multiple types of Fireworks that a designer will select between, assessing their shape, color, size, tempo, sound, and smoke, split across two key categories: ground level fireworks . . . and aerial fireworks.
That brings us to the technical aspect of fireworks spectaculars – the types of fireworks available and the ways in which they can be used!
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The Fireworks Themselves
If you’ve seen even one professional public fireworks display, then you know that there’s a wide variety of types of explosions that you’ll see in the sky (and along the ground), each of which has unique qualities and visual appeal.
Younger divides up fireworks types as follows:
Bees – A swarm of rapidly wiggling fireworks which leave a trail behind them
Brocade – Threads of interwoven, sparkling fireworks.
Chrysanthemum – A spherical burst of fireworks, with dotted trails.
Comet – A single firework burst which leaves a long trail behind it.
Crossette – A firework in which many stars split into further stars, leaving trails behind them.
Fish – A swarm of rapidly wiggling fireworks, like Bees, but which do not leave a trail.
Glitter – A sudden burst, followed by each star fizzling away.
Palm – A burst of long trails, each of which curves downwards towards the ground.
Pearls – A swarm of individually bursting stars.
Peony – A spherical burst in which the stars change color as they streak outwards.
Pistil – A spherical burst with a bright core.
Ring – A spherical burst around a hollow core.
Round – A spherical burst.
Shaped – A burst designed to be a specific shape, variously including stars, hearts, and circles.
Starburst – A spherical burst in which each trailed star will be of a different length.
Stars – A spherical burst of individually bursting stars.
Strobe – An initial unseen burst spreads flickering stars across the sky.
Willow – An extra-wide burst which rains down dotted trails.
But how does a designer decide which of these many types of visual and auditory explosions to use in a show? Well, that depends on the story that’s being told and, perhaps most importantly, the soundtrack.
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The Soundtrack Synchronization
The sounds that the fireworks made can be divided into distinct categories, including reports (loud bangs), crackles (sizzling sounds), hummers (buzzing hums), and whistles (buzzing hums). These noises need to synchronize with the soundtrack and score so that there’s a cohesive soundscape being produced that helps create a mood or tell a story, especially if there’s dialogue or lyrics that are essential to the narrative being told.
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As Younger explains, “Many theme park fireworks shows use microchipped fireworks that are able [to] count down before exploding, allowing for split-second synchronization with the music in combination with the velocity of launch. This technology even allowed shapes to be painted in the sky.”
So the next time that you’re watching a professional fireworks show, be on the lookout for these specific types of fireworks and admire how they tie into the music that you’re hearing. As with everything else, this attention to detail is the hallmark of quality that you get from the Disney Parks.