Special Section - Technology - November 2018

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Cedar Point employs drones to capture aerial footage and photos for use in communications, like social media, advertising, and construction updates. (Credit: Cedar Point)

Flying into the Future

The opportunities and challenges of drones 

by Keith Miller

One of the hottest-selling products flying off store shelves is drones. Sales of the buzzing, unmanned aircrafts continue to grow. Business Insider Intelligence Estimates expects global consumer sales of the small aircraft to increase from 13 million in 2018 to 29 million by 2021. 

Sales of drones used for commercial purposes are expected to hit 805,000 in 2021, up from 102,600 in 2016. 

For the attractions industry, the widespread availability of relatively inexpensive drones equipped with high-definition cameras holds significant potential for uses ranging from entertainment to ride inspections. Yet, laws and regulations applying to drone operations vary from country to country. 

History and Regulations of Flight

The United States took an early lead in aircraft regulation with the passage of the Air Commerce Act back in 1926 and later opening the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Globally, several countries followed and adopted similar regulations.

Today, small unmanned aircraft are governed under those regulations.

“Traditional manned aviation regulations have generally applied to commercial drone use, even though the differences between large manned aircraft and small drones are great,” says Lisa Ellman, a partner and leading policy lawyer with Hogan Lovells (www.hoganlovells.com) and member of the U.S. Commercial Drone Alliance, who led educational sessions on drone use at IAAPA Attractions Expo 2016 and 2017. “However, most developed countries have now at least started to define a regulatory framework for regulating drone operations.”

Ellman notes that many variations exist in terms of what certifications and standards the drone and drone pilot must meet. Also, in many countries, regulatory waivers are necessary if an attraction wishes to fly a drone over people, fly it at night, or fly multiple drones simultaneously. In the United States, a different regulatory framework applies depending on whether the drone is being operated purely for recreational purposes, as opposed to commercial purposes. She says that distinction of operational purpose does not exist in many other countries.

In late September, the United States Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which will likely update U.S. law to allow greater opportunities for commercial drone use—and while expanded with some limits still in place—government use of counter drones. Ellman says the use of most counter-drone systems designed to disable or otherwise damage a drone in flight is illegal in many countries.

“Counter-drone systems designed to hack or jam a drone’s radio communication link or navigation systems are also currently illegal,” Ellman stresses. “That said, the use of certain passive technologies designed to detect, identify, and track rogue drones and their operators is allowed.”

With the risk a drone poses over crowds of people and heavy equipment, like those found at outdoor attractions, Ellman says place an emergency call for help if a rogue drone is observed.

“A park should contact local law enforcement and take steps to document the suspected illegal activity to facilitate a civil or criminal action against the operator of the rogue drone,” Ellman says.

Regulatory Resources

Laws and regulations governing the use of drones vary from country to country and change often. The following two websites provide details on the current drone laws for countries around the world:

Jonathan Hunter is CEO of Department 13 (www.department13.com) in Columbia, Maryland, which bills itself as a technology company focusing on wireless and mobile technologies to create solutions to transform networks and communications. Department 13 employs a patented counter-drone system called “Mesmer” that detects, identifies, and mitigates drones. In the United States, the system is currently available only for federal government agencies. Sales to international clients are for use in defense, critical infrastructure protection, prisons, and various open venues.

“Our solution leverages the power of protocol manipulation to take control of drones and employ deterministic mitigations on them. Mesmer inserts messages into the communication between a drone and its commanding controller to take an action, such as exit a restricted airspace, return home, or land in a predetermined safe zone,” Hunter says about Mesmer.

The system also has the ability to simultaneously control multiple drones that use different radio protocols.

Current laws in the United States and many other countries don’t permit the use of a system like Mesmer to take control of drones, but detection and identification of such drones, which Mesmer also does, is allowed.

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Neopter drones carry lighted angels above Puy du Fou’s massive “Cinescenie” nighttime spectacular. (Credit: Puy du Fou)

Droning for Entertainment

On the flip side of the issue of intrusive drones is the prospect for the use of drones by attractions to serve their own purposes. One of the most promising is for entertainment purposes, and there’s little doubt one attraction venue leading the way is Puy du Fou (www.puydufou.com) in Les Epesses, France.

The park known for recreating periods in history through historical shows and period reenactments, uses a fleet of 20 sophisticated drones called “Neopters.” Introduced in 2014, Puy du Fou developed its drone system internally at a cost of more than 3 million euros. They’re utilized in Puy du Fou’s signature spectacle, “Cinescenie,” which the park promotes as the world’s biggest nighttime show, employing 2,400 actors and animals and performing over an area of 23 hectares before 13,000 guests.

Flushing Out the Culprit

When Puy Du Fou in France first began using its drones, called “Neopters,” in the park’s “Cinescenie” show, staff members noticed that something was interfering with the wireless communications between the drones, but they couldn’t figure out the cause. Finally, after much investigation, they discovered the culprit.

“It was coming from the toilets near the control room!” exclaims Park President Nicolas de Villiers. “At the [entrance] to the toilets, there is a light beam that counts the number of people entering so the cleaning people know when it’s time to refill the supplies. That light beam was causing the interference!”

The drones have carried lights, dresses (representing angels), banners, and flags, some being the dimensions of a human and weighing up to 2.5 kilograms, the maximum payload of a Neopter. “­Cinescenie” takes place at night, and though the Neopters are a spectacle themselves, the intent is for only their payload to be seen by the audience.

In 2018, Puy du Fou added 10 Neopters to its “Cinescenie” performances.

“We have improved the drones a lot, and now we’re able to fly in the wind and the rain, and there is no problem,” says Park President Nicolas de Villiers. “The Neopters are larger than one meter and are very smart. They are autonomous—no human being has to touch anything—and they can decide themselves if they must go home due to a problem.”

The park thought of everything from weather to solar storms. Testing found GPS is not enough for the drones, so de Villiers says the park created its own system.

He says the drones all fly in unison, and their precise systems allow them to fly in the wind and rain. The drones follow a choreographed program and “talk” to each other to know where each is located. Although they must fly over the stage performers, they normally don’t get within 110 meters of the audience or exceed 60 meters in altitude.

De Villiers notes that one of the greatest challenges with Neopters came in convincing the French government authorities that the park could operate the drones in the manner it wanted using technology currently available.

“We had to get the authorization to fly them autonomously and to fly at night without any lights on the drone, which was not legal, so we went to Paris to attain permission, and after some time of work, we were granted it,” de Villiers shares.

Guest and employee safety is a primary concern, and the staff can always take manual control of a Neopter simply by pushing a button. They must operate within a certain “flight cage.” 

“If a Neopter ever flew out of the ‘cage,’ it would immediately lose power, so it would never [reach] the spectators. After 2,000 flights, we’ve had no crashes or collisions at all,” de Villiers says. 

He confirms that, having just expanded its Neopter fleet this year, Puy du Fou will continue to use drones in the years ahead. As for what he sees in the future for Neopters, de Villiers says not only does he expect their payload limit to increase, but he also wants to carry even larger payloads by utilizing multiple drones in tandem. Finally, he states the park has made its Neopters available for purchase by any other business around the world that wishes to use them, and he expects that effort to expand.

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Dave Rust, videographer for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, used drones to document the construction of the new Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience. (Credit: The Indianapolis Children’s Museum)

Marketing Photography

Prior to the advent of relatively inexpensive drone aircraft equipped with high-resolution cameras, if attractions wanted to capture aerial photographs and video of their facilities for marketing purposes, the only alternative was to charter a helicopter or airplane to shoot the images. But now, drones provide a flexible and affordable alternative. 

In March 2018, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (www.childrensmuseum.org) opened the Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience (RCHSLE), a $38.5 million outdoor attraction featuring a host of sports, fitness, and health activities. During preparations leading up to the opening, the museum wanted to market the new addition, and drone-captured photography was the idea solution.

Tips on Drone Use

Dave Rust, videographer for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, has a few tips for attraction facilities considering the use of drones:

  • Get at least two or three batteries. Some shots require several takes, with waiting time in between. It really helps to just rotate the batteries through a charger, charging one and always having two ready to go.
  • Never fly unless all devices are 100 percent charged. 
  • Extra propellers are handy. You will inevitably hit leaves and maybe some branches, the side of a building, etc. It’s best to inspect after each flight and just snap on a new set, as needed.
  • Once one is comfortable flying, Rust recommends purchasing drone virtual reality goggles. A phone or tablet is very difficult to see clearly in bright sunlight. With goggles, pilots can see well enough to weave around obstacles.

“The new 7.5-acre experience was so vast, we wanted a way to show the enormity of it while helping people understand the variety of things to do there,” explains museum videographer Dave Rust. “It all really started with the construction phase. Shooting video from the ground only just wasn’t conveying the scale of the construction. We realized the only way to show the changing landscape was to shoot from above at regular intervals.”

Rust is a private pilot and explained to the museum’s administration the potential challenges to using a drone, such as the FAA and city regulations regarding their use. He suggested the institution acquire its own drone, knowing there would be future opportunities to use it without incurring costs from paying outside vendors. He sought the proper training and acquired FAA licensing for a drone. 

“The primary challenge is following FAA rules (or other appropriate governing entities) that limit flying over crowds and developing procedures for fast response to any mechanical and electronic failures,” he reveals. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to monitor the latest regulations and avoid protected air spaces.”

After the drone was used to video record the RCHSLE, the museum discovered other useful applications. 

“Those who run the facility have found the drone useful for evaluating the condition of our buildings,” says Rust. “For example, I was asked to fly over our atrium’s roof, both inside and out, so that designers could see firsthand how to build and install sun blinds for the skylights.”

For attractions considering purchasing a drone, Rust offers tips.

“My suggestion would be to start with a drone that costs $1,000 or less. Imagery from these devices is so impressive that most audiences would never distinguish between an $800 drone with a small camera and recording in MP4, and a $4,000 drone with bigger camera that shoots nearly uncompressed video,” Rust says.

When it comes to aspiring to a larger unit, Rust suggests flying a small drone for a year and then transferring that knowledge to the bigger one. 

“It’s a lot harder to explain to the bosses how you lost a $4,000 vehicle,” he says.

Drone availability was invaluable for the museum when it opened an outdoor attraction, but for an amusement park that’s almost entirely an outdoor operation, it’s an even greater bonus. 

Tony Clark, director of communications for Cedar Point (www.cedarpoint.com) in Sandusky, Ohio, knows the marketing value of using unmanned aircraft.

“Because of our setting with the surrounding water of Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay, there’s no better way to tell our story than with aerial footage and photos. These tools help us communicate the massive scope of the property and show how beautiful Cedar Point is,” Clark says.

Cedar Point uses the footage for social media, event advertising, commercial advertising, and construction updates.  

“The impact is huge,” Clark says. He shares the biggest advantage to having a drone is eliminating the need to contract for a helicopter to capture aerial imagery. Cedar Point has an in-house associate who has FAA certification to fly the drone. Yet, before any flights, there’s an internal approval process that includes the park’s safety team. Staying safe is a priority for Cedar Point before expanding drone use.

“There’s definitely an interest in using a drone for various things like traffic monitoring and high-level ride inspections, but we’re still evaluating how that would work and what procedures we’d implement for smooth and safe operation,” Clark concludes.

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Safety is a priority for Cedar Point when considering drone use. The park has an in-house associate who has FAA certification to fly the drone, and there’s an internal approval process that includes the park’s safety team. (Credit: Cedar Point)

Inspections of Rides and Facilities 

Clark mentions the prospect of using drones for high-level ride inspections, and this appears a valuable future use of the technology by parks and other attractions. Mark Frazier is founder of Frazier Reliability Solutions (FRS) in Southland, Texas, an industrial inspection company that makes use of drones to inspect equipment that is difficult or dangerous to access (www.gofrazier.com). He sees great potential in the use of drones for amusement ride inspections. 

“Our industrial inspection experience is directly transferrable to the amusement park industry,” he says. “If daily inspections are required, one of our drone pilots could be permanently assigned to a facility to work alongside the client’s inspectors each day.” However, Frazier notes that if daily inspections are necessary, it might be better for attractions to have their own pilots and drones, and FRS can assist with licensing, technical consulting, equipment purchases, and program oversight.

As for cost, he says FRS likes to sit down with a client and conduct a needs assessment to provide an accurate cost estimate.

“For budgetary purposes, a client should assume that an inspection with an experienced FAA-certified drone pilot equipped with a state-of-the-art drone will cost between $1,500 to $3,000 per day depending on the location of the facility, the scope of the inspection, the level of imagery processing, and the technology required for the inspection,” Frazier says, adding discount pricing is available with long-term contracts.

He asserts that drone inspections cost about half as much as traditional ground-based inspections using man lifts, scaffolding, or climbers and yield much higher value imagery and data. 

“We believe [it’s] a good value considering drones give you the ability to eliminate human risk and access equipment difficult or impossible to inspect,” Frazier concludes.



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Universal Studios Hollywood’s DreamWorks Theatre featuring “Kung Fu Panda: The Emperor’s Quest” combines 180-degree projection mapping with motion-based seats, surround sound, and special effects. (Credit: Universal Studios Hollywood)

Public Displays of Connection

Projection mapping adds pizzazz after dark

by Juliana Gilling

CAVEMEN ON THE HUNT, boy wizards flying on their brooms, and even letters in the British Post come alive thanks to the magic of projection mapping. 

At attractions worldwide, guests are increasingly dazzled by an array of projection-mapped displays, which are transforming spaces and surfaces into memorable mirages. 

Projection mapping—the art of designing and mapping video content around 3D objects, like building facades—is a pleasing way to add motion and entertainment to almost any surface. 

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Holovis created a refreshed 4D projection-mapped show for Halloween at Fantasy Island to liven up the park’s 40-foot artificial mountain. (Credit: Holovis)

That’s a Virtual Wrap

From creating one-off effects and “virtual sets” to fully projected shows, Universal Studios Japan (USJ) made a name for itself in recent years by using projection mapping during parades, Halloween, and Christmas. 

USJ’s new “Universal Spectacle Night Parade: The Best of Hollywood” combines enormous floats, live performers, and synchronized projection mapping on buildings along the route with star-quality intellectual properties like “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” “Transformers,” “Jurassic World,” and “Minions.” 

“We are using projection mapping to expand the action from the street to around the buildings, wrapping our guests in the environments of the films featured in the parade,” explains Daniel Perez, entertainment creative manager at USJ.

This winter, Perez will use projection mapping to enhance show experiences in “Hogwarts Magical Nights: Winter Magic” and “Voice of an Angel.” 

“In the next few years, you can expect to see several new shows at USJ featuring projection mapping technology,” hints Perez.

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Energizing Exhibits

At South Africa’s Two Oceans Aquarium, you will find an energy exhibit using projection mapping in the Smart Living Challenge Zone. Developed in collaboration with the City of Cape Town and experience design firm Formula D interactive, it is one of a series of digital interactive installations highlighting four environmental themes: energy, water, waste, and biodiversity. 

The energy exhibit consists of a 3D cityscape where various scenarios are projected, explains Helen Lockhart, brand and sustainability manager at the aquarium.

“Up to two visitors take playful control of a city’s energy needs by carefully balancing supply and demand,” says Formula D interactive brand and marketing strategist Natalie van der Merwe. “Using a tablet, players must weigh the pros and cons of each decision. Choices and results are beautifully visualized through projection mapping onto a 3D city model, allowing players to easily compare outcomes.”

The energy exhibit—like all those in the Smart Living Challenge Zone—takes complex issues and “portrays them in simple, easy-to-understand, and fun ways,” concludes Lockhart.

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Projection mapping will be paired with other technologies, he says. “USJ’s ‘Expecto Patronum Night Show,’ for example, utilized not only projection mapping, but also drones and puppets to tell the story of Dementors attacking Hogwarts Castle.”

Across the Pacific Ocean at Universal Studios Hollywood this past summer, Universal Creative combined 180-degree projection mapping with motion-based seats, surround sound, and special effects at the DreamWorks Theatre featuring “Kung Fu Panda: The Emperor’s Quest.”

Perez also predicts projection mapping will be “implemented with more interactivity and in more environments” in the future. It’s a view shared by Peter Cliff, creative director at Holovis. 

“We’ve been developing ways of allowing the guest to design their own show and create projection mapping content, be it by using interactives or phones,” Cliff says. “The show itself would change on a night-by-night basis with zero cost to the owner.”

Multiple Choice

This season, Holovis added projection mapping magic to the pre-show for Alton Towers’ new “Wicker Man” roller coaster. The tech-laden show culminates in the conjuring up of the “Wicker Man” on a 3D sculpture of a head.

“Using the power of projection mapping, we were able to morph the human head into a ram’s skull and set it on fire using a very impactful animation sequence,” says Cliff. “Because you’re playing with light, you can manipulate the physicality of the 3D structure.”

Projection mapping could allow operators to flip between different themes, allowing them to generate multiple experiences out of a single attraction. With its Ride and Realm system, Holovis can use projection mapping to change 3D scenes, presenting a multivariant ride experience. 

“We’re developing an attraction for a Middle Eastern client where, based on guest interactions, the whole ride can be rethemed and overlaid with different layers of projection mapping. It’s a huge move forward for dark rides,” says Cliff. 

Projection mapping can reinvigorate existing attractions, buildings, and underutilized spaces. Gardaland in Italy refreshed its “I Corsari” water ride for 2018 with a new storyline, 3D video mapping, lighting, and sound effects. Ghostly pirates now greet guests on the revamped ride.

In the United Kingdom, Holovis plans to turn back the hands of time inside the clock tower at Liverpool’s iconic Royal Liver Building. 

“We are using projection mapping to accentuate the beauty of the interior architecture, and we’re superimposing the view of the clock (which can’t be seen from inside) to give people a real sense of scale,” says Cliff. The installation will include a time-traveling tribute to Liverpool’s history, from music to sports and culture. 

“We’re using this wonderful canvas, that’s so much a part of the city, as a way to celebrate it,” Cliff explains.

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Longleat uses a historic stable block as a backdrop for a seasonal show featuring 3D video mapped projection. (Credit: Longleat Safari and Adventure Park)

Mindful Mapping

At The Postal Museum in London, guests who ride the “Mail Rail” (the underground heritage railway that once carried letters across the city) will stop at two platforms for projection-mapped shows. 

“Visitors can enjoy a two- to three-minute AV (audiovisual) experience projected directly onto the tunnel walls,” says Andy Richmond, head of exhibitions, access, and learning at The Postal Museum. 

The theatrical experiences transport viewers back to the “Mail Rail’s” 1930s heyday, following letters written by a retired colonel, a young woman, and a little girl as they wend their way to their recipients. Guests also see archive images and film clips of the “Mail Rail” and the people who worked on it. Haley Sharpe Design, Centre Screen, and D J Willrich Ltd. worked on the project (which uses Digital Projection’s projectors).

“Projection mapping allowed us to project directly onto the existing infrastructure in the ‘Mail Rail’ tunnels without the need to introduce additional screens or surfaces, which would have been costly—and looked out of place—in the heritage setting,” explains Richmond. 

“Projection mapping goes beyond the parameters of a standard screen and becomes a shared experience,” says Cliff. 

At Fantasy Island in Skegness, England, Holovis livened up the park’s 40-foot artificial mountain with a 4D “Mystical Mountain” projection-mapped show and then refreshed it for Halloween. 

“It’s always alive as you walk past,” says Cliff. “It’s a piece of living scenery that can be retextured based on different themes, events, and seasons.”

Rob Paul, design director at LCI Productions, describes projection mapping as “a transformational technology, which is heightening our ability to quickly change how a space feels to the viewer.” 

LCI’s “Dreamhunters” multimedia walk-through experience at Cheddar Gorge and Caves in Somerset, England, (commissioned by Longleat Enterprises) leads visitors in the footsteps of early man through the chambers of Cox’s Cave. Cave art comes to life, men hunt, and a bear breaks through the rock face during the prehistoric-themed adventure. 

“The trick is to create custom, story-driven content, which is designed to work for the space,” Paul says. 

LCI has also combined 3D video mapped projection with a 20-meter-high LED pixel-mapped tree to tell the tale of a boy searching for a magic Christmas tree at Longleat Safari and Adventure Park. The seasonal show uses Longleat’s historic stable block as a backdrop. 

The endless possibilities of projection mapping are testament to the medium’s versatility. “Video tracking is pushing video mapping forward,” says Julien Causeret at ECA2, the French production company known for its large-scale events and multimedia shows. Real-time video tracking could enable projection mapping on 3D surfaces to respond to movements, such as guest gestures. 

“That will help to create interactivity with your audience and more immersion,” says Causeret.

ECA2, which specializes in video mapping and video projection on water surfaces, is currently developing a new show in China, which reflects a trend for larger water surfaces for video projection. 

As projection mapping technology becomes more affordable, accessible, and widespread, its success rests on compelling storytelling and cool content, as Perez sums it up best. 

“We want to create a great, emotional experience for our guests.”

Seeing the Light

Digital art destinations claimed the spotlight in 2018. The Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless debuted in June in Tokyo, Japan. Art collective teamLab, which “aims to explore a new relationship between humans and nature through art,” designed a digital nirvana. Around 50 artworks powered by 520 computers and 470 projectors illuminate a 3D, 10,000-square-meter exhibition space. 

teamLab successfully created a borderless world, blurring the boundaries between exhibits and guests to immerse people in art and create a shared experience. According to the collective, “Artworks leave the installation rooms and move down corridors, communicate with other works, and sometimes fuse with them. People use their bodies to explore the installations and create new experiences with other people. The result is a new kind of digital art museum the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.”

MORI BUILDING DIGITAL ART MUSEUM : TEAMLAB BORDERLESSMany of the exhibits respond to guest interactions. Visitors might find themselves sending ripples through the cosmos as they bounce around in “Boing Boing Universe” or see their hand-drawn sea creatures swim into life on wraparound screens in the “Sketch Aquarium.” The characteristics of digital technology mean that artworks can change freely. 

teamLab also collaborated with Singapore’s ArtScience Museum to launch “Future World: Where Art Meets Science” this September. The new permanent exhibition features interactive digital installations that will evolve over time. 

Paris’ first digital art center, the Atelier des Lumières, has welcomed more than 650,000 visitors since opening in April. The French attraction extended its inaugural Gustav Klimt exhibition until Jan. 6, 2019, in response to demand. 

Bruno Monnier, president of Culturespaces, which operates the Atelier des Lumières, says he believes digital technology can create “links between eras, add dynamism to artistic practices, amplify emotions, and reach the largest possible audience.”

The Atelier des Lumières has transformed a 19th-century foundry into a fashionable destination where visitors can step into the art. “La Halle” hosts the Klimt exhibition alongside a program on artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. In “Le Studio,” guests can discover digital artists’ work. The 3,300-square-meter attraction features 140 video projectors and a spatialized sound system. 

Culturespaces developed the AMIEX (Art & Music Immersive Experience) system in 2012. The first immersive exhibition took place at the Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux-de-Provence, France, with the help of film directors Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto, and Massimiliano Siccardi. According to Monnier, “the marriage of art and digital technology is the future of the dissemination of art among future generations."

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Fireworks entertain guests at attractions worldwide, but sometimes, their special effects can cause disturbances in nearby communities. (Credit: www.pexels.com)

The Quest for Quieter Fireworks

by James Careless

Fireworks are the stunning visual that conclude guests’ visits, while imprinting on their minds shared memories, which can foster the desire for a return visit.

Unfortunately, these same displays of beauty can be extremely loud. 

“Fireworks often exceed 150 decibels, and those that reach 175 decibels are not unheard of,” posts Dynamite Fireworks, a store outside of Chicago, on its website (www.dynamitefireworks.com).

The explosions emitted by commercial fireworks displays can frighten both domestic and wild animals in the vicinity. They can also anger residents living close to attractions offering firework displays.

A Silent Option?

United Kingdom news website Excite UK (www.excite.co.uk) ran a story in 2015 with the headline: “Town in Italy starts using silent fireworks as a way of respecting their animals.” 

Yet, don’t believe it, says Ray Brazeau, president of StarLite Pyrotechnics, north of Toronto, Canada. 

“You can’t have silent fireworks because fireworks use explosive ‘black powder’ to send the fireworks package aloft and then blow it apart to reveal glittering, burning chemicals,” Brazeau says. “Asking for silent fireworks is like asking for a silent explosive: It’s an oxymoron.”

Although “silent fireworks” may be an oxymoron, the notion of “quiet fireworks” is not. 

“The phrase ‘quiet fireworks’ is a reference for non-splitting, non-bursting effects such as mines or comets,” says Lori Cherry, SeaWorld Orlando’s director of public relations. “It is a rebrand of a term and not a new style effect. In that case, it refers to a type of product that we have always used that is quieter than an aerial effect.”

SeaWorld Orlando’s seasonal party, “Electric Ocean,” concludes each summer night with a fireworks presentation called “Ignite.” Fireworks used in the evening production are sometimes misidentified as low rumbles of lightning in Williamsburg, Florida, the residential community southeast of SeaWorld Orlando. On evenings when the wind is blowing away from Williamsburg, the fireworks can’t be heard at all.  

“Fireworks can indeed be quieter, depending on the types of fireworks you choose and the launch system you use,” says Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA).

To create less noise, a theme park can select fireworks like those Cherry references: mines, which shoot simultaneously ignited chemicals from a tube/mortar, or comets, which leave trails of sparks as they soar upward without exploding into glittering starbursts. Either way, the explosives required to send sky rockets aloft are absent, eliminating fireworks’ traditional loud sources of noise.

“Using compressed air to launch aerial effects is also quieter than black powder,” Heckman says. “But it is not silent, just quieter.”

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For viewers’ safety, powerful conventional fireworks are usually set up at a distance, while audiences can enjoy pyrotechnics a lot closer. (Credit: StarLite Pyrotechnics)

The Pyrotechnic Option

There is a way for theme parks and other attractions to reduce their fireworks’ noise levels, and that is by replacing conventional fireworks with pyrotechnics. Commonly used by rock bands on stage, these are far smaller explosive effects that deliver visual razzle-dazzle without making a racket. To use the APA’s definition, pyrotechnics are “controlled exothermic chemical reactions that are timed to create the effects of heat, gas, sound, dispersion of aerosols, emission of visible electromagnetic radiation, or a combination of these effects to provide the maximum effect from the least volume.”

Because they are much smaller effects, pyrotechnics can’t be seen at the same long distances and heights that conventional aerial fireworks can. “Your viewers have to be much closer to a pyrotechnics display as a result,” says Heckman. “They really aren’t a practical option for large venues because they don’t have the same visual reach or auditory impact.”

Still, pyrotechnics are a “quieter fireworks” option—and one that the Town of Banff, Alberta, Canada, heartily endorses. 

The Banff Experience

Nestled in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, the Town of Banff provides fireworks displays on Canada Day, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve—that was until early 2018.

“The Bow Valley Naturalists and other Banff residents expressed concern with the effects on wildlife and domestic animals due to the concussive noise associated with traditional commercial display fireworks using existing event fireworks budgets,” says Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen. So, in February this year, the Banff Town Council directed the administration to replace commercial display fireworks at town events with special-effects pyrotechnics.

“We wanted to minimize the impact on wildlife in the townsite and the surrounding national park because loud fireworks can be very stressful to them,” says Sorensen. “Moving to the quieter special-effect pyrotechnics helps us live up to Banff’s leadership role in the area of environmental preservation.”

Long-time town supplier Aerial Fireworks & Fireworks Spectaculars won the competitive bid for the pyrotechnics show at the same cost of the previous fireworks display. And when it came time to light off the pyrotechnics on Canada Day (July 1, 2018) in Banff’s relatively small Central Park (compared to a big amusement park), everything went to plan.

“[The pyrotechnics] were much quieter than the traditional fireworks,” says Sorensen. “You could still hear the launch of the rockets, but it was a soft pop rather than a boom. When the shells exploded for the light displays, there was not the loud boom you would see at traditional fireworks. Just a soft pop.”

The move to pyrotechnics played well with the Banff audience. 

“We received many good comments this Canada Day,” the mayor says. “We received positive support from people who thanked us for not scaring their pets. And there were many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ during the show.”

Such was the success of moving to pyrotechnics that the Town of Banff plans to use them with the same contractor for similar shows on Halloween and New Year’s Eve, according to Sorensen.

“We are pleased people enjoyed the show, and we limited our impact on wildlife,” the mayor says.

A Trade-Off Between Noise and Visual Impact

The Town of Banff’s experience proves it is possible to reduce the noise level of fireworks displays using pyrotechnics but not without accepting a substantial reduction in the size, range, and visual impact of the show’s presentation. 

In simple terms, it comes down to a trade-off. Less noise from a fireworks display means less of a fireworks display, period.

For the Town of Banff, this wasn’t a problem. 

“We have a real intimate gathering in Central Park, so we don’t need as much height, and we don’t need the added boom,” says Sorensen. 

Yet, for big theme parks with a large gathering of guests to wow, loud noise levels may be the unavoidable price associated with large-scale, high-flying fireworks displays.