One of the highlights of summer for me is Fourth of July weekend.
Yep, it’s great to have an extended weekend, but what makes the holiday extra special are the blazing fireworks that light up the pitch-black sky on July 3.
Milwaukee’s US Bank fireworks show was an honored tradition for my family and I until my parents moved north to West Bend. But this year, after a four-year hiatus, I decided to relive one of my favorite pastimes.
I took the day off of work to head to Lake Michigan’s lakefront and I met up with my friend Lizzie at her place near Brady Street to gather up some last odds and ends. We figured that since we were the only two who could get out of work, we’d secure a spot early in Veterans Park and hold down the fort until the rest of our friends could get there.
See, you’d be crazy to assume that you can show up at 6 p.m. and score a place to watch the show. Already by 4 p.m. Veterans Park was brimming with thousands of families and friends, locals and visitors who were grilling out, picnicking or just relaxing as they anticipated the night’s spectacular.
From McKinley Marina to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the entire lakefront looked like one enormous camp ground as hundreds of tents and campers scattered the once bare terrain. Many of these people camped out over night and declared their seats by roping off a large plot with police tape – that got a little ridiculous if you ask me.
Lizzie and I made a quick run to Pick ‘n Save to get a couple of snacks to munch on – fruits, veggies, chips – and some beer, and then picked up two #6 sandwiches at Jimmy John’s on Brady Street. We filled a couple of coolers and found several blankets, and then we made the short hike to Lake Michigan to stake out our spot.
Believe it or not, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into a day of waiting in the park – seasoned spectators know what I mean! You need to pack food, a cooler and something to sit on, and then navigate the city to find parking and later devise a plan for departure and a fast route home. Of course, all of that seems pretty painless when considering the meticulous planning involved in US Bank’s firework extravaganza.
Eric introduced me to SciFi's blog DVICE, which features a post about Milwaukee's lakefront fireworks and explains how it all works. To get this 50-minute show and each shooter synchronized, it takes a heck of a lot of time, patience and skill, I’m sure. According to the site, originator Jeff Bartolotta uses a software package mainly created for pyrotechnics and to choreograph the explosive spectacle. By means of this computer program, each and every sky explosion is laid out on a time line and graphically simulated in 3D. Bartolotta doesn’t use computerized ignition though; instead, fuses are hand-lit by an impressively efficient seasonal team of about two dozen pro-pyrotechnics and volunteers equipped with flares. You can read more about the technical stuff by heading over here.
By the time we finally arrived, open spaces were scarce. After weaving around occupied spots and stepping over blankets and coolers and dodging Frisbees and feral dogs, we eventually found a spacious patch of lawn that was in a prime location – close to Lake Michigan and adjacent to the War Memorial. As it turned out, we ended up with a primo view of the fireworks display!
Once we were situated, Lizzie and I killed time by snacking and talking and, of course, people watching. All afternoon folks came in droves, laying down more and more blankets on the grassy plane so that by the time dinner came, we couldn’t see a single blade of grass.
Eventually Eric joined us, followed by Lizzie’s brother and his friends, and then Terry and our other girlfriends who came at the very last minute.
With a BOOM, the show suddenly began and unfolded into three segments. As described here, “it was more of a fiery and explosive ballet in three acts than a mere fireworks display.” More than 10,000 fireworks were shot off over Milwaukee from three separate locations – one on top of the US Bank building, another on a barge floating in front of us in the bay, and the other was literally right next to us in a fenced in area in Veterans Park.
Now, if three different locations weren’t already confusing, the Bartolotta Fireworks Company knew just how to continue teasing the half million people – especially the newcomers – who were admiring their beautifully orchestrated pyrotechnics. During the display, there were several drawn out pauses in between sets of thousands of shells going off. Many of these premeditated intermissions were just long enough to prompt people to start packing up. Actually, there were many instances when I thought the show was over, but when I looked at my clock, only 20 minutes had passed. Yet, as soon as the next round was launched, people were back to sitting awe-struck as they gazed into the darkness.
In a thunderous fusillade, a confection of various colors and shapes illuminated the entire park so that it looked strangely like daytime one second and night the next. The deafening booms of each whizzing rocket resounded off the nearby buildings and made my ears ring. As I sat gaping at the rousing spectacle of shimmering art, I wondered what it would be like to stand right next to the team of pyrotechnics as they blow up heaps of fiery explosives. Then, I announced that one day I will be one of those volunteers amid the conflagration, donning a hardhat and other flame retardant gear to help make the July 3 fireworks possible. How cool would that be?
As always, the grand finale was the most astonishing moment of the night, but this time we got to see three final acts, which was even more remarkable. If you missed the US Bank fireworks, or if you just want to see them again, here’s some video footage that I took of two of the three finales. Just click on either link to see them. Finale #1. Finale #2. (So, the videos aren't working tonight. I'll try to fix them by tomorrow because you have to see this!)
This year’s July 3 fireworks were incredible! In fact, it was the largest and most impressive display I’ve ever witnessed. Even though it’s one day early, the US Bank fireworks display makes the Fourth of July for me – it’s always an unforgettable way to celebrate friends, family, a long weekend, and our independence.