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America's best July 4th celebrations

June 29, 2012

Uncle Sam’s favorite holiday bursts upon the scene midweek this year, causing a bit of a problem: Should you celebrate the weekend before, the weekend after, or on Wednesday, July 4th?

Most big cities will mark the traditional date, July 4th, with landmark fireworks shows and parades, but many smaller towns are holding events before or after the actual date, with the weekend of July 6-7th lining up as a favorite.

The bottom line: Independence Day 2012 offers a prime excuse to party all week long.  Where should you go to see the biggest, boldest, most spectacular celebrations of our nation’s 236th birthday?

We asked a couple of people who know how to set the sky on fire – fireworks experts – for advice. “New York City tops the list,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, the trade association of the U.S. fireworks industry.
Her other raves include the shows in Lake Tahoe, Ca., Washington DC and Nashville, Tenn. And, she adds, “There are so many wonderful July 4th celebrations across the country and even the smallest hometown community display can be spectacular!”

 We also talked to Jim Souza, owner of Pyro Spectaculars, one of the nation’s top fireworks manufacturers.  Souza’s five-generation business has been lighting up the world’s celebrations for almost 100 years, including Olympic Games, presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls and Disney amusement parks.

“All the rockets are on the launch pad,” says Souza, who will produce 400 shows on July 4, including about half of the nation’s largest.

He agrees with Heckman that Macy’s New York show (which he produces) is the best. 
“When you hear the crowd cheer, that’s the payday for people like us.”

New York City

The experts’ choice for biggest-and-best show in the nation is Macy’s Ignite the Night extravaganza, which returns to the West Side this year with two tons of explosives scheduled to be fired from barges on the Hudson River.  More than 40,000 firework shells will light up the sky during a 25-minute synchronized display.

Produced by Macy’s and designed in conjunction with the Rialto, Calif., company  Pyro  Spectaculars, the show will be seen by more than three million spectators and millions of viewers nationwide. According to Amy Kule, executive producer, the display “is like no other, filled with incredible high-flying effects choreographed to a soaring, patriotic and exuberant score.”

If you can’t be there in person, you can still check it out on NBC (9 to 10 p.m. ET). Regis Philbin will emcee the program, “Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular,” which will feature Katy Perry and Kenny Chesney.


They really know how to throw a party in Philadelphia, especially on Independence Day.  But that’s not surprising, given that the city played such an important role in our history, including setting the stage for the nation’s founding fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence here in 1776.

Philly’s free party runs from June 25 through July 4, making the City of Brotherly Love home to the longest Independence Day party. The Wawa Welcome America celebration (Wawa is a mid-Atlantic chain of stores) includes concerts, festivals, educational exhibits and movies. Fireworks shows are scheduled on Saturday, June 30 and Wednesday, July 4.
The Philly 4th of July Jam and Grand Finale Fireworks will include a concert with The Roots, Queen Latifah and others.  It will be followed by fireworks over the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Colonial Boston didn’t care much for Mother Britain; that’s why residents staged the famed tea party in 1773, laying the groundwork for the American Revolution.

Today Bostonians still love to celebrate their independence. And for the past 39 years, the focus of that celebration has been the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, the orchestra's annual free outdoor concert.  
The show, sponsored by Liberty Mutual, draws a half-million spectators who pack Boston’s Charles River Esplanade. Several million more viewers will see it on CBS (10 p.m. ET). Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson will perform and Emmy winner Michael Chiklis will host the event.

The patriotic program features fireworks that are shot over the Charles River and choreographed to burst as the “1812 Overture” and other bombastic tunes are played by the orchestra.  The show, produced by Pyro Spectaculars, “epitomizes the concept of sky art,” says Souza.


Washington, D.C.

What could be better than celebrating the nation’s birthday in its capital? Independence Day is Uncle Sam’s chance to shine.  And Washington, DC, knows how to shine, with a red, white and blue program called A Capitol Fourth that will keep visitors happy all day. Best of all: Everything is free.

The holiday begins Wednesday morning with a 4th of July parade featuring marching bands, floats, military units and VIPs; next on the agenda is “A Capitol Fourth,” an Independence Day tradition on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building that includes a live concert by the National Symphony Orchestra.

The concert is followed at 9:45 p.m. by fireworks, which are launched from the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and light up the sky over the Washington Monument.

Nashville, Tenn.

Nashville is known for its music, but it’s also winning rave reviews for its annual fireworks show, which experts say is the largest in the South and one of the best in the nation.

Music City’s signature July 4th celebration, Let Freedom Sing  is a multi-day tradition with festivities, live music and fireworks taking place on July 3 and 4.

The July 4th evening concert will be followed by a fireworks display choreographed to live music by the Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony Orchestra.  Also on the stage:  The Mavericks, Craig Morgan and Sarah Darling.


Fireworks fans don’t need to wait for July 4th to celebrate in Chicago. Navy Pier sets the stage all summer long, offering shows over Lake Michigan twice a week. And Chicagoland residents have lots of other events to choose from, too, including a festival in Barrington, a picnic in Plainfield and fireworks in Rockford and Evanston.

The major event, however, is Navy Pier’s show. The pier, built in 1914, extends 3,300 feet along the Chicago shoreline of Lake Michigan. It features entertainment, shopping, dining, parks and other attractions.

Fireworks shows are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Memorial Day to Labor Day.


In the Pacific Northwest, Seattle’s Family 4th at Lake Union event is the place to spend Independence Day. Funk, blues and soul groups perform during the day and a spectacular 21-minute fireworks show lights up the night.

The event’s claim to fame is its high-flying bursts of pyrotechnics: that soar 1,000 feet over Lake Union.  Fired from barges, the show includes high aerial shells and ground-level barrages of fountains, comets and 5,000 mini-bursts that take place in the span of seconds.

San Francisco

The City by the Bay will give a star-spangled salute to the holiday when the annual City of San Francisco Fireworks Extravaganza  kicks off at 9:30 pm, July 4. The 30-minute show caps a day that includes hot dogs, picnics in the park, cruises on San Francisco Bay and other festivities.  Or stop by Pier 39, where rock bands will begin playing in the late afternoon.

The Fireworks Extravaganza will light up the waterfront from Aquatic Park to Pier 39, with rockets being shot from both the Municipal Pier and barges north of Pier 39.

Lake Tahoe, Calif.

As the largest synchronized fireworks display west of the Mississippi, Lake Tahoe's  Lights on the Lake Fourth of July fireworks show offers a lively salute to Old Glory. NBC’s Today Show selected Tahoe South’s display as one of the country’s top Fourth of July celebrations.

Best viewing spots are around South Shore’s sandy beaches or on the lake on board M.S. Dixie II and Tahoe Queen paddle wheelers. The annual display, which dates to 1981, is fired from barges on the lake and requires the efforts of 12 licensed operators and Pyro Spectaculars crew members to set it all in motion.

St. Louis, Mo.

If you miss the show in July, come back during the Labor Day holiday, when another fireworks show typically ends high season at the lake. Mississippi River town St. Louis salutes America and the Fourth of July in a big way with three days of fireworks and family activities that include air shows, military tributes, concerts and other events. 

Fair Saint Louis is marking the holiday with fireworks shows on July 4, 6 & 7. All shows will conclude a day full of activities. The annual event, now celebrating its 32nd show, features 30-minute fireworks displays fired from a barge on the Mississippi River.

The productions, featuring fireworks by J&M Displays,are choreographed to music each night and generally take on the same genre of music of that evening's headline music act.

Several hundred thousand people typically pack the Gateway Arch grounds and surrounding downtown streets on both sides of the Mississippi River, providing delight to residents and guests from two states, Missouri and Illinois. A special only-in-St. Louis treat: The reflection of the fireworks can be seen on the city’s iconic Gateway Arch each night during the show.