There’s nothing quite like spending the Fourth of July on the National Mall. And that’s thanks to the spectacular fireworks show that closes out the festive celebration each year. As you head down to the National Mall for Independence Day’s beloved fireworks display, here’s everything you could ever want to know about the show.
The traditional Mall fireworks show dates all the way back to the 1920s. But there’s been a display in DC since at least 1845 (it was formerly held in Lafayette Park).
This year’s display will have some pretty fancy visual effects. Think a wide variety of visuals, ranging from “whimsical smile-face-pattern” explosions to “complex ‘ghost’ effects that appear to wash across the sky in a swipe of changing color,” according to Chris Santore, choreographer for Garden State Fireworks and the DC display. Even traditional displays like the “weeping willow” effect will involve a complex layering to create massive, golden forms. According to Santore, it’s a blend of art and science. “We continue to use the most advanced computer-firing systems available,” Santore says. “It’s the same technology used by Disney World and allows for .001 accuracy of synchronization of cues.”
They’re not just playing the hits — there’s a lot of thinking that goes into this display, a carefully choreographed event, where the visuals complement the music. “The soundtrack is the foundation of the display’s design,” says Santore. “The effects are selected to interpret the tone and tempo of the music.” He describes alternating between “intense, rapid-fire moments,” and “quieter, dramatic moments” that set up the climactic peak. That, of course, is the finale, and it’s something Santore takes particularly seriously. “The pace and intensity of the display throughout the program often includes moments that exceed a typical July 4th celebration’s finale,” he says. “So it is important that we find the right amount of intensity to get to that next gear and really obliterate the sky.” If it sounds intense, that’s because it is. “It takes hundreds of man hours and a team of highly trained technicians to prepare the display,” says Santore.
Fortunately, you don’t have to worry too much about finding a seat. The National Mall, for one thing, is huge, and it’s almost impossible to fill, even though hundreds of thousands of people watch each year. “Due to the enormity of the National Mall, it’s possible to show up minutes before showtime and get a good seat with a great view,” Mike Litterst, chief of communications and spokesperson for the National Mall and memorial parks, says. The fireworks can be seen from more than two miles away, and they’re meant to be enjoyed from multiple different angles; it’s really all about the backdrop you’re looking for. “Anywhere along the National Mall can be considered a prime viewing location,” he says. “Viewing from the Lincoln Memorial, you see the fireworks with the Washington Monument and the Capitol as a backdrop; from the grounds of the Washington Monument you get the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool.” There’s only one caveat: If you want to hang with everyone’s favorite party guest, Honest Abe, get there early. Visitors wanting a seat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial begin arriving in late morning, according to Litterst.
If you’re worried about parking, you’re right to be afraid. Try parking at a Metro Station or another transportation hub, since DC parking can be difficult on a normal day — and it’s always worse on Independence Day, due to road closures. When you’re planning your trip, remember that the show starts exactly thirty seconds after the clock strikes 9:09 p.m., and the whole thing lasts just 17-and-a-half minutes, so you won’t want to miss a second.
Of course, there are alternatives. The fireworks are televised live on PBS’s A Capitol Fourth, and they will be livestreamed on the National Mall’s Facebook page.