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The Red, White and Blue View From the Inside

by on June 30, 2015 6:30 AM

Like most red, white and blue-blooded Happy Valley residents, this Saturday I'll be joining thousands of others to watch our glorious annual spectacle – the 4th Fest fireworks.

Of course, prior to sitting back and being enveloped in music, explosions and sparkling lights I will slog my way through the 4K race in the morning – thereby justifying the calories of fried, baked and boiled food I will consume during the day.

(Anyone else out there still working – decades later – to get rid of that freshman 20?)

When I was a kid the annual fireworks display took place above the Susquehanna River. Families would troop downtown, throw down blankets along the dike, and watch as the wonder unfolded in the skies over the river. The primary memory I have of those nights was thinking how smart it was to shoot them off at that particular location – any pieces still glowing when they came back down to earth would be extinguished in the water.

Then in early adulthood I spent many years living in Orlando. There was a long time when the 4th of July fireworks became an afterthought. Living in the land of Disney will do that to you. There were fireworks every night.

At some point in the evening the "booms" would start and we knew what time it was -- 7 p.m., 9 p.m., or 10 p.m. (it varied during the year) because the Magic Kingdom fireworks had started. If we wanted to watch we could walk to the street in front of our subdivision, look south and there they were.

In addition to making them an afterthought, living in Orlando simply made most 4th of July fireworks shows a disappointment for us. The Magic Kingdom fireworks were, after all, a professional "show." They were choreographed to music, set to the backdrop of Cinderella's castle, full of millions of lights and not without a human component – Tinker Bell – who flew out of the sky and down to earth. Virtually any municipally-produced program in the country was, at that time, downright disenchanting when compared to the nightly extravaganza the mouse-house produced. Disney was the gold standard.

Couple that with the extremely inexpensive Florida-resident passes, numerous friends who worked there and had "guest" privileges, and it was a common event to head down to Lake Buena Vista after work and go into the parks for a few hours, take in a ride or two, and watch the fireworks up-close-and-personal. Talk about getting spoiled.

A quick note for those who might be thinking to themselves, "Well, how could you afford that? You still have to pay for parking every time you went – which adds up quickly – plus who would want to deal with the mass exodus of warm bodies right after the show?" I will let you in on the local secrets of the time (none of which still work so we're not costing Disney any money).

When you came to the parking toll booths at the Magic Kingdom entrance you would go to the far right lane and tell the attendant you were heading to the Polynesian Hotel. They would let you through and tell you to stay to the right and follow the signs. You would get to the Polynesian, find a parking spot – there were always plenty of spots at the Polynesian – walk into the hotel, go up the stairs in the main lobby and catch the monorail to the Magic Kingdom.

After the fireworks tens of thousands of people would all exit the park at the same time. But almost all would be trying to get on the "express" monorail or the riverboat back to the main parking lot. We, on the other hand, took the road less traveled: the "local" monorail that stopped at the hotels and was never crowded. From there it was easy to get back in your car, out on the road and be home in 15 minutes.

However, on some rare occasions we wouldn't even venture into the park to see the show. It was possible to get on the Butler chain of lakes several miles north of the Magic Kingdom, and cruise through a series of canals that connected multiple lakes so that you ended up with a great view of the fireworks from your boat. The only challenge was navigating your way back to the boat ramp in the dark.

After a time the "Illuminations" show at EPCOT also became a personal favorite of ours. Get a table along the lake at the pub in England, have a pint or two, and be totally enthralled and engulfed by a laser-light, water cannon, fireworks display that was as mind-numbingly amazing as it was unique at the time. And at the end you just caught the monorail as noted before – although in those days EPCOT very rarely experienced the teeming masses at closing anyway.

All of which brings me back to 4th Fest.

4th Fest is easily the most immersive Independence Day fireworks show in the country – especially when seen from the VIP seating area. Almost four times longer than any Disney show, and for most folks significantly less expensive than a Disney show, you can watch a choreographed and musically-matched performance that rivals any in the country for sight and sound.

And one of the reasons for this total absorption experience is the proximity to the launching of the fireworks. In most large-scale Fourth of July programs around the country, the launching takes place a distance away from the primary viewing areas. And as the crowds at those events grow, that distance moves even farther.

But at 4th Fest most people are reasonably close to the "firing zone." In fact, those people in the VIP viewing area can actually SEE the launch area and watch the shells from the ground to the sky. Which is why I highly recommend, if you have never done it, to go ahead and spend the money to see the fireworks from the VIP area.

I know, I know. For a family of four on a budget, $100 is a big chunk out of a monthly allotment. And if the choice is between food and fireworks, obviously choose food. Yet, if there is some way you can make it work, trust me, watching from the VIP area takes 4th Fest to an entirely new level. (Thank you to our dear friend Penny Rhoades for introducing us to this aspect!) If you are used to watching from the parking lots, Medlar Field, or the hill at BJC, you are seeing a fantastic show. Seeing that same show from the VIP area will lock you into an open-mouth, skyward-facing trance for 45 minutes of pure engrossment.

The beauty and extra bonus of having your mouth agape for 45 minutes? It's easier to get fries in there.

See ya Saturday!

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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