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The future of theme park fireworks

The Walt Disney Co. has developed a patented system that uses compressed air instead of gunpowder in its fireworks displays.
Fireworks explode over Disneyland on New Year's Day back in 1996. The Walt Disney Co. has recently adopted smoke-free pyrotechnics system that is safer, quieter and reduces pollution.Rod Boren / AP file
/ Source: Orlando Business Journal

The smoke has cleared from the thousands of fireworks displays — big and small — that mark our nation's annual Fourth of July celebration.

However, there was a lot less smoke to clear at Disneyland in California, where the company has developed a patented system that uses compressed air to replace the gunpowder normally used to lift its 361 colorful explosive devices into the air.

Disney developed the new technology because it's safer, it's quieter and it reduces pollution.

"Now that we have this system in place at Disneyland, we're looking at our other parks to test and see where it would make sense," says Marilyn Waters, spokeswoman for Walt Disney Imagineering, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Co. that's responsible for developing new technology.

It's possible the next place to install the new system will be the new Disney theme park going in at Hong Kong. Waters says Disney isn't sure when its Central Florida theme parks could install or start testing the new fireworks launch system.

Bugs in the system?
Not everyone is fired up about the new system.

For one thing, insiders say it's expensive for new launch tubes, connectors, compressed air tanks and new computer hook-ups to allow the precise, timed-to-the-microsecond precision of the Disney-style show. Disney currently declines to reveal how much it would cost for other theme parks to install the system.

Insiders also say the system still has some bugs to work out, with delayed launches caused by leaking launch tubes being the biggest problem.

But Waters says the new system is working great, and that while the undisclosed development costs spent over the last 12 years were high, the finished system uses "off-the-shelf" products that are easily bought.

That's why, says Waters, it's Disney's plan to donate the seven patents it produced to a yet-to-be-selected non-profit group that can license the technology to the pyrotechnics industry.

Other parks are withholding judgment on the system. A Busch Entertainment spokeswoman says the Anheuser-Busch subsidiary that operates the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks doesn't know enough about the system to comment yet.

Universal-NBC says that, "While we are aware of the new technology, at the moment we are satisfied with our approach. We continue to evaluate, however, new ways of doing things."

Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, says the new technology may be just a fantasy for the immediate future. "It will take a little while for the technology to reach the level of theme parks and other fixed venues where it might make sense," she says.

However, the time is right for Disney, the largest single user of fireworks in the country. The theme park giant puts on large nighttime shows at three of its four theme parks in Central Florida, including a major Magic Kingdom show introduced last fall called "Wishes," which is several times the size of the previous "Fantasy in the Sky" fireworks show. Disney says the new 12-minute show uses 683 fireworks.

Clean air concerns
Although concerns have been raised in California about the environmental impact Disney's fireworks shows have there, Florida officials have no worries.

Disney's fireworks don't impact the local air quality because the theme park giant's extensive land holdings make "a nice buffer," says Tammy Eagan, a meteorologist for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The department monitors fine particle pollution in Orlando, Kissimmee and Tampa and, "We're not noticing anything different. It is comparable to a non-fireworks city."

To many, Disney's announcement that the new system had been activated in California a week before July 4 seemed nothing more than good publicity timing.

But others think the timing may have been an attempt to preempt some bad publicity: The July 9 agenda for California's South Coast Air Quality Management District includes an item that will address the issue of air quality and Disney fireworks.

Waters dismisses the idea, and says the timing of the announcement had to do with the availability of the technology. noting it had been operating "before the July 9 meeting agenda was announced."

Still, California officials say there have been numerous complaints about Disney fireworks in the past. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has recorded 73 complaints since 1991, five of them since 1997 on its complaint hot line.

The source of concern is visible, documented smoke, odors and unburned bits of paper and chemical that fall to the ground after a shell bursts.

There also have been several organized protests from local Anaheim, Calif., groups, says Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which monitors sources of air pollution in a four county region that includes Disneyland and five other theme parks. "Behind the small number of complaints is continued concern from the community," he says.

Atwood concedes that "there has been no violation, but that's not to say that one is not possible."

Disney's use of the new system and national publicity about it will go a long way toward alleviating concerns, he says. "Disney deserves credit for their proactive response."

Meanwhile, the goal of the July 9 hearing in California is to "seek Disney's commitment on paper ... to ultimately produce the low-smoke and low-low-smoke products they are testing now," he says. "We want to finalize their verbal commitment."