Hang around any theme park long enough and you will overhear conversations from enthusiasts about how everything runs. From how special effects are achieved to how ride vehicles move. Yet, as long as I have been going to theme parks, something I never ever hear about is how the fireworks shows are pulled off.
Which, to be fair, is for good reason. Fireworks are generally loaded and launched in a location on the outskirts of the park’s property nowhere near a guest area. Clearly, the reason for this is while fireworks may be beautiful, they are essentially small bombs. Every year around the 4th of July, news broadcasts are often peppered with stories about how dangerous even small sparklers can be. No doubt, you have seen the videos of mannequins holding exploding roman candles six inches from their face. After the smoke clears, their arms, legs and even face have been blown to smithereens.
Every day in theme parks around the world, there are small platoons of trained professionals who load, prep and launch fireworks for millions of guests each year. It’s a thankless job with inherent risks, but with a great reward that can be seen for roughly 15 minutes a night in spectacles that dazzle thousands of people.
For most major parks that put on a nightly fireworks show, workers load hundreds of shells into tubes that are grouped into various boxes. Each shell has a pre-determined tube and box that it gets loaded into. So when it’s time to be launched, a signal is sent to an electric match and then? Kaboom! A computer uses a time code that is synchronized to the soundtrack that determines what shells are shot off in what order.
After the tubes are loaded, everyone clears the firing area and the system is powered up to check for continuity issues. The computer is smart enough to give the pyrotechnics team a list of which shells need to be rewired.
Next, the system is powered back down and the team goes back out into the firing zone armed with a list of specific shells that need to be rewired or reloaded. This process repeats itself several times until there are no errors in the continuity tests and the show is ready for launch.
The computer systems custom built for pyrotechnics have been around since the late 80’s and are extremely reliable. However, several years ago, there was an accident at a major theme park where a shell was accidentally ignited due to some sort of issue that remains unknown. As a result of that accident, Firelinx, a division of Birket Engineering based out of Winter Garden, Florida, was given the task of designing an entirely new show control system using today’s technology.
So Firelinx sat down with many of the major theme park operators who use fireworks and pyrotechnics on a daily basis. Firelinx asked if they built a perfect launching system, what kinds of controls would be ideal, how user-friendly should it be and what kinds of safety checks should be built-in.
They also dissected the current operating systems for firing pyrotechnics and determined there were 20 different scenarios, that under certain conditions, where they could possibly fail. Their job was to create a new system that addressed everyone’s concerns, make it more user-friendly and minimize the possibility for errors that could cause an accidental firing of a shell.
After years of development, Firelinx created the Aegis Control System, the most advanced pyrotechnics firing system in the world. I recently got a chance to preview this new technology and I have to say, it’s ingenious. The entire set up is controlled wirelessly from one main unit using a mesh network. Each individual module can control one box of shells and runs independently of the main system.
In other words, each controller unit already has its timing code pre-loaded in it before the show even begins. Instead of the main system telling each individual controller exactly when to launch a particular shell, that information gets pre-loaded into each individual module that controls one set of shells. Another way to look at it is instead of a conductor telling each instrument in the orchestra what note to play and exactly when, the conductor simply waves the baton and each instrument/module has their sheet music and launches it’s shells independently.
The Aegis Control System is also extremely user-friendly. After powering on, the system talks to each pre-assigned controller and establishes a connection. Once all of the individual units have communicated with the main controller, all lights will turn blue while they are in maintenance mode. Once each individual shell has been wired and the connection is good, the individual controller is lit green. When it’s show time, the modules glow bright red, which means stand back – the firing sequence has started.
Furthermore, it can be used for live stage shows where pyrotechnics are used and the individual firings need to be done by a live person based on blocking, musical queues or other different factors. Meaning, it can be synced up with pre-determined firings like a soundtrack, along with more safety-critical ones that need several sets of safety checks in order for them to be triggered such as a stunt show.
The first full-scale test of the Aegis Control System was recently conducted at the Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley, California, as they celebrated 80 years of being in the business. Firelinx set up and fired the entire show, which included certain shells in the finale that were triggered by an individual user just for fun. The entire presentation went off flawlessly and the esteemed guests who witnessed the event never knew there was a new system being used to regulate the show. Which is kind of the point, isn’t it? If you want to see the entire show from that night along with the Aegis Control System in action, check out the link below.
Instead of having to wire each individual shell, each individual controller can tell you if the connection is bad in real time without having to check and re-check them all over the course of several hours – a potentially huge cost in labor savings. Those glowing red boxes on the ground are the controllers, sending signals to the electronic matches, igniting individual shells. It’s really a unique perspective seeing the fireworks launched from such a close angle.
Another nifty feature to mention about this wireless system. Anyone with access to the Aegis Control app Firelinx has developed, with proper login credentials for your specific show, can view what the system is doing in real time.
There is far more that goes on behind the scenes of a theme park that most guests will never get to see or even think about. However, that’s the entire point. While you are in a park with your family, you’re there to escape from reality. For me, learning all the intricacies of just what it takes to bring a theme park to life every day gives me a greater appreciation for how it all comes together. Your thoughts?
For more stories on how theme parks actually work, follow us on Twitter by clicking here or Like our Theme Park University Facebook Page by clicking here.