San Diego Frustration with the noise from SeaWorld's fireworks has long simmered in the neighborhoods near the theme park. In May, the pot began to boil over when a local newspaper, the Peninsula Beacon, printed a letter written by Ocean Beach resident Karl Korhum. "SeaWorld's nightly fireworks season is about to begin," Korhum wrote. "Again, this year, they have been launching their fireworks using explosive powder, the concussions of which resemble a war zone."
Korhum noted that in June 2004, Disneyland switched its fireworks displays from a powder-launch system to a pneumatic system, which uses pressurized air to shoot the fireworks to their bursting height. "Disneyland stated that they switched from using explosive powder to pressurized air," Korhum wrote, "to reduce the noise of the explosions, the smoke, and the hazards to safety. Disney said they wanted to be 'good neighbors.' "
In a later issue, the Beacon ran a letter written by Annelie Brinkman and Carlos Gutierrez of Loma Portal. "We are writing this letter because we are not happy with SeaWorld as our neighbor. The noise generated from the fireworks, especially during the summer months, is very disruptive to our lives.... We are the owners of two beautiful greyhounds. They are quiet, obedient, and a pleasure to have around, except when the fireworks go off. They become nervous, anxious, and apprehensive.... In order to keep them calm, we have to close all windows and doors no matter how hot it is in the house. Some people, as well as small children we know in this area, have early bedtimes because of work or school schedules, and I'm sure they find the explosions disruptive as well."
Brinkman and Gutierrez added, "From 1965 to 1988, we owned a house [near] Saint Brigid's Catholic Church in Pacific Beach. Sometime prior to 1988, a few neighbors complained about the beautiful church bells we so enjoyed on Sunday mornings, and they were quieted.... The noise generated by SeaWorld's fireworks is by far not as pleasant as the church bells in Pacific Beach, yet no one seems to have enough clout to quiet them."
Picking up on Korhum's theme, the Loma Portal couple closed their letter asking "that SeaWorld consider converting to pressurized air to launch the fireworks in an effort to be a better neighbor."
At the end of his letter, Korhum exhorted readers to make their feelings known to the theme park. "If enough of us contact Mike Cross, an executive vice president for SeaWorld, we may be able to convince him that SeaWorld could also become a 'good neighbor' by converting to pressurized air to launch their fireworks."
At least one of his readers, 62-year-old legal secretary Barrie Smith, took the suggestion. Sitting on the couch in the nine-by-nine-foot living room of the Sports Arena apartment she shares with a couple of cats, she says, "I wrote the letter, and I said I thought it would be a good idea if they at least went to pressurized air. It would still give them their fireworks, but it would also give peace and quiet to the neighborhood. Because if you come home from work tired, and you want to go to bed early, at ten o'clock at night, when those things go off, it doesn't matter how tired you are, you are wide awake."
Smith's apartment sits across the San Diego River and Interstate 8 from SeaWorld. It's 9:35 on the night of Friday, June 23. On a coffee table in front of her lie a pair of hard plastic earmuffs, the type worn by gardeners using power tools or cops practicing at the firing range. "I bought that headset so I can block the fireworks out," she says. "If I want to go to sleep before ten, I wear earplugs. I have no problem with fireworks. I like fireworks, but after a while it just gets to the point where you are sick and tired of them. For a special occasion, to emphasize something, they're great. But every single night of the week, no."
And every summer, for about 90 consecutive days starting in mid-June, SeaWorld signals closing time with a six-minute fireworks display.
Between 9:50 and 9:55, a loud pop breaks the silence in Smith's apartment complex. "There they go," she says.
Though they color the fog rolling upriver from the ocean, you can't see them burst. You can hear them though, and the percussive pops are loud enough to make you jump. "With a pressurized-air system," Smith says, "you'd still get the colorful display, but you wouldn't have that concussion."
Not true, says Pete Gillenberg, operations manager of Fireworks America, the Lakeside company that runs SeaWorld's pyrotechnic shows. Almost all of the noise, he says, "comes from the break of the shell up in the air. The launch makes a foof noise, which isn't very loud."
A source (who asked not to be named) at another local fireworks company, Pyro Spectaculars, confirmed Gillenberg's contention. "People who think a pressurized-air-launch system will reduce noise are completely mistaken. You get a little bit of noise from the launch, but 99 percent of the noise is in the break at the top of the rise, 300 to 500 feet up in the air. What you get with the pressurized-air launch is less smoke."
Gillenberg agrees, "That system [at Disneyland]," he says, "was developed to reduce smoke, not noise. With the pressurized-air launch, there's no smoke at ground level, only up in the atmosphere."
The July 7, 2004 Associated Press article by Tim Molloy on the Disneyland system confirms that point. "The move," Molloy wrote, "comes partly in response to about 70 complaints since 1991 by some of the park's neighbors in Anaheim to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air quality in the Los Angeles area."
Molloy went on to quote Sam Atwood, spokesman for the air quality district, saying, "What they're doing now has reduced the smoke at the ground level, and that's probably the most effective place to reduce it, because that's where people are going to breathe it."
"That's a $7 million system up there," Gillenberg says. "We'd be happy to use it, but it's cost-prohibitive."
Gillenberg insists Fireworks America has taken steps to reduce noise at the SeaWorld displays. "We don't use any salutes -- those are the shells that make a flash and a loud bang -- and we don't use any shells larger than six inches."
Fireworks shells, he says, can be as big as 24 inches in diameter. The bigger the shell, the more explosive powder it contains and the louder the bang it makes. By limiting the approximately 300 shells that are fired off each summer night at SeaWorld to six inches and smaller, Fireworks America limits the noise. Still, the source at Pyro Spectaculars says, "I've seen the SeaWorld show, and it's a little obnoxious. They have bigger shells than they really need. They could be more artistic and use fewer big shells, that's for sure. They could move the display in-park" -- SeaWorld's fireworks are launched from a barge floating on Hidden Cove, between the park and Fiesta Island -- "and go for smaller shells and a more artistic presentation instead of just lobbing big shells up there."
Reached by phone, David Koontz, communications director at SeaWorld, says there isn't room within the park for an in-park launch. And he stresses that the theme park complies with the city's regulations and Coastal Commission stipulations. Asked why the late hour for the display, he says, "The park is open in the summertime until 10:00 on weeknights, and it is open until 11:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. So the fireworks are basically the conclusion of our day, like at many parks. We are allowed to do fireworks no later than 10:00 on a day that precedes a workday. And then you can actually do them until 11:00 on a day that precedes a weekend day or a holiday. But all our fireworks are done by 10:00, whether it is a weekend day or a weekday."
As for Gutierrez and Brinkman's skittish greyhounds, SeaWorld has a solution to offer. "Because there are some people that say that fireworks frighten their pets," Koontz says, "a couple of years ago, we worked with a local guy who is sort of a dog-behavior expert and put together a CD, which is basically fireworks noise. You play it at home for your pet and you start to increase the volume. It is basically a desensitizing process."
Koontz says "anybody that asks for one" can obtain the compact disc by calling SeaWorld's PR department.