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Just how spectacular was WDW's Bicentennial spectacular?

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Just how spectacular was WDW's Bicentennial spectacular?

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Bradley R. writes in to ask:

Jim --

I was just down at Disney World and I have to admit that the Magic Kingdom's "Celebrate America! -- A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky" show was pretty spectacular. But as good as those fireworks were, they got me thinking. Has Disney World ever staged a bigger display than that? What were the fireworks like back in 1976 for the Bicentennial? Or for the millenium in 2000?

Dear Bradley --

Ever since the "Fantasy in the Sky" fireworks show first exploded over Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle back in June of 1956, the Disney theme parks have become known for their pyrotechnic spectaculars.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Lange

As for WDW's Bicentennial display, Bob Jani (i.e. the Disney Legend behind such classic theme park entertainments as the "Main Street Electrical Parade" and "America on Parade") had that particular show in the works since 1972. In fact, the "Spectacular in the Sky" display may be the only fireworks display to have a public rehearsal.

Strange but true, folks. In January of 1974, Walt Disney World rolled out its "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular." Which was a pretty unique pyrotechnic display, given that it wasn't presented over the Magic Kingdom. But -- rather -- out over Seven Seas Lagoon.

And "Spectacular" really was the right word for WDW's "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular." Among the show elements involved in this new nighttime entertainment were:

  • Four thermal balloons, 55 feet in diameter (with) ... 4927 light bulbs attached to them.
  • Six kite skiers, flying at around 200 feet, at speed of 26-34 miles per hour.
  • Six parasails with lights and fireworks attached.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Lange

So that it would be easier for the guests standing on shore to see WDW's "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular," Seven Seas Lagoon was lit up by 10 Super Trooper spotlights which were positioned around the lagoon. To add additional light to this nighttime entertainment, the two "Electrical Water Pageant" barges were anchored in the center of the lagoon. With one unit facing the Polynesian while the other faced the Magic Kingdom and the Contemporary Resort.

To make sure that WDW guests would be able to hear the "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular" soundtrack, 13 amplifiers pumping out 3,500 watts of power were set up around Seven Seas Lagoon. To give you some idea of the size of the 1970s era sound system that we're talking about here ... The "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular" sound system was four times more powerful than the one used at Woodstock. On a quiet night, the show's soundtrack could actually be heard as far away as downtown Kissimmee.

As for the fireworks side of this spectacular, it was something on the skimpy side. Just 350 shells. Which was only a 50 shell improvement on the then-standard Magic Kingdom fireworks show.

But let's remember that WDW's "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular" was something of a Trojan Horse. A public dress rehearsal for Disney World's Bicentennial celebration. Bob Jani really put this nighttime show together on the cheap. Which is why he'd have to borrow 12 Mastercraft boats from WDW's waterfront area & 32 radios from the Buena Vista Construction Company each night and then make sure that all of this equipment was returned to the appropriate department by morning.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Lange

Guests who visited Disney World in 1974 really loved the "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular." And those who return to the resort in 1975 & 1976 were puzzled when they discovered that this obviously-popular nighttime show had been cancelled.

But as I mentioned at the start of this week's "Why For" column, the 9-minute-long "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular" was really just a dress rehearsal for what Jani was looking to do at Disney World for the Bicentennial. The 30-minute pyrotechnic display that WDW guests saw on July 2, 3, 4 and 5 clearly built on everything that Bob had learned from 1974's nighttime entertainment.

I mean, never mind about the 2,000 shells that exploded over the Magic Kingdom each night that WDW's Bicentennial spectacular was presented. Out over Seven Seas Lagoon, 12 water skiers flew over the water clutching Delta Wing Kites that spurted fireworks. Just as they had been during the "Fantasy in the Sky Spectacular," the "Electrical Water Pageant" barges were anchored in the middle of the lagoon. Only this time around, in additiom to the music & the lights, pyrotechnics were being fired off from each of the barges.

As if all this wasn't spectacular enough, toward the end of WDW's Bicentennial show, a helicopter took to the air from the Magic Kingdom's North Service Area. This copter then hoisted into view a ginormous illuminated American flag. Weighing 1 1/2 tons and measuring 100 feet by 60 feet, this glow-in-the-dark Old Glory was made up of 5,263 red, white & blue Christmas lights.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Lange

And then for the show's Grand Finale ... 116 shells would explode in the air simultaneously over the Magic Kingdom. Which -- given that WDW's previous fireworks show climaxed with a simultaneous blast of only 16 shells ... Well, Disney was clearly stepping up its game here.

So 2000 fireworks exploding in a single Disney theme park display sounds pretty darned spectacular, right? Particularly those 116 shells going off simultaneously in the show's finale. That sounds really hard to top.

Well, to put things in perspective here ... At this year's Macy's Fourth of July fireworks presentation, over 35,000 shells exploded over the East River in a 30 minute display. That translate to over 1,000 booms per minute.

Meanwhile, back at the Mouse House ... That 2000-shells-per-on-property-pyro-show record held for over 20 years. At least until Disney World rolled out "IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth" back in October of 1999. Which -- given that this nighttime spectacular makes use of 2,800 shells per show -- pretty much blew the old record out of the water.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Lange

Then when you factor in those 800 shells that were fired off in the final few seconds of Epcot's 25th anniversary back on October 1st of last year ... That 116-shells-exploding-simultaneously record has fallen by the wayside too.

But then again ... When you consider those water skiers and their fireworks-spewing kites soaring over Seven Seas Lagoon, not to mention that enormous lit-up America flag rising up in the air behind the Magic Kingdom ... It sounds like WDW's "Spectacular in the Sky" display for the American Bicentennial really was a tough show to top.

Speaking of things that are tough to top ... The spectacular photos that were used to help illustrate today's article were graciously provided by Jeff Lange of JeffLangeDVD. This coming Sunday, Jeff will be at the Crowne Plaza Resort Hotel in Garden Grove, CA. Where he'll be selling his extremely popular Disney theme park DVDs at the "Strictly Disneyana" Show and Sale. So if you're in the Anaheim area this weekend, be sure & drop by the Crown Plaza's Mazzatlan Ballroom and tell Jeff "Hello."

Photo courtesy of Jeff Lange

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  • I remember being there July 4th, 1976.. of course, I was 7, so the things I remember most about the trip to Disneyworld are getting a stuffed Dale character, and a toy musket. Can't remember a lick about the fireworks. Being 7, I am not sure a Bicentennial meant all that much to me at that age...

  • I was in NYC this past July 4.  There are two simulataneous fireworks shows for Manhattan, one at 34th Street and one further north.  From our position in Brooklyn we could see both.  They were remarkably in synch.

    Does the 35,000 figure refer to both shows or to each?

    I'd guess both.

  • One of the great "fireworks experiences" at Disneyland that went away with the inception of "Fantasmic!" was what insiders only knew about--the nightly "Fireworks Cruise" of the Mark Twain. Those in the know would ask a deckhand/dockhand cast member sometime in the afternoon on summer nights what time "the fireworks cruise" was departing--it varied from night to night but was usually around 8:30-8:45 to time to the 9pm fireworks show. What happened was that for that ONE cruise per night, the Twain didn't just circle the Rivers of America and come back--it STOPPED way back on the far side of Tom Sawyer's Island very near the mock indian village, and thus put guests UNDER the fireworks show that other park visitors viewed from Main Street and the hub in the "classic Castle view" but the actual launch point was backstage very near the spot where the Twain rested--indeed the original reason for the stop was so that the end of the cruise would not put the boat and its open decks under any potentially dangerous debris from the exploding pyro shells. Anyhow, they would channel the fireworks soundtrack through the Mark Twain's PA system too, but for that 15 minutes or so of darkness waiting, it was a really unusual moment because you truly felt miles away from the big city and in the "wilderness" out there in the dark without the Twain moving and only the soft "thump-thump-thump-thump" of its idling steam engine and the pre-recorded chanting of the "indians" of the village on the shore to accompany the very real birds, frogs, and nighttime insect noises. Then, the pyro would start, seemingly directly overhead, and framed only by the tall trees instead of the castle spires. Usually there were only a small number of guests on board, mostly "regulars" who knew about the deal, because other folks were warned that "This trip will be longer so if you are hurrying to other attractions, you may want to wait" and didn't board most of the time. One other note: In those days, without the distractions, the voices of the recorded indian chanters seemed to be saying a very inhospitable thing when you transliterated their native-american languages into what-does-that-sound-like English: "Go a way-hay go-a-wayy-yayyy-go-ah-way-ay..." over and over. With drums. And then...fireworks!  All of this stopped when Fantasmic was begun because at night the Twain was converted over for its part in that show AND because the area where the original indian village had been was reworked to put the docks for the Fantasmic! floats behind it (and to add a more complex "storyteller" animatronic figure to the set) and all Twain trips stop at dusk ever since to allow for that Fantasmic! conversion time and, of course, the addition of the Twain's OWN pyro pinwheels and effects for the show.

  • I've had the good fortune of attending two WDW July 4th fireworks shows in the last few years, and they were spectacular. Still, the greatest fireworks show I've seen was the one that coincided with the Pirate and Princess Party this past May. My dad and I watched it from Narcosse's, and it was the greatest combination of pyrotechnics and story telling I have ever seen.

  • I really miss the extra festivities of the Millennium Celebration; the cultural aspects of it were more moving than how many fireworks were set off in a 5-minute timespan... I miss the Tapestry of Nations parade!

  • The Tapestry of Nations/Dreams may be my favorite parade ever. Something about it just really clicked with me.

  • July 4, 1976 was my first trip to WDW.  I was 10 years old, and the fireworks show I was that night is still the benchmark by which I measure all fireworks shows.  To say it was spectacular is an understatement.  I have a vivid memory of Old Glory lit up and flying across the sky.  At the time I thought the flag was made up of fireworks.  Is there any video of the 1976 show?

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