Nothing beats the Fourth of July at Memorial Park in Colorado Springs.
But as traditions go, the celebration has been muted of late; formerly because of city financial woes and more recently because of safety concerns last year after the Waldo Canyon fire. As a result, the last fireworks display took place at Memorial Park in 2008.
On Thursday, however, the much anticipated return of fireworks to the park, along with a performance by the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, attracted thousands of people to Memorial - including some who said they would have found something else to do if the fireworks had been canceled again.
"We haven't been here since they last had the fireworks. Before that we would come every year," said Craig Langer, who, along with his wife, Stacy, their three boys, and friends Bret Blackshaw and Jared Anthony, were among the first to show up at Memorial on Thursday, staking out a shady spot under some trees about 10:30 a.m.
The Philharmonic's performance, Blackshaw said, was another major reason to come. You can listen to music on a radio and see fireworks at other locations, he said.
But, "it's the combination of the two," Blackshaw said, anticipating a performance of the "1812 Overture," among other Philharmonic selections. "That's what makes it special."
This year's display also had been shelved by city and fire officials in late June, who cited extreme fire danger in banning public fireworks displays within city limits. But when the area recently received much-needed rain, city officials lifted the ban this week.
About 10,000 to 12,000 people had shown up for past fireworks displays, said Colorado Springs Police Sgt. Rob Kelley. About 65 officers were on duty Thursday to handle traffic and patrol the park.
"This being the first time we've done it in four years, we don't know how many people are going to come back," Kelley said. "The Sky Sox are also doing one (fireworks display), so that's going to draw people away. But I expect a pretty big turnout."
Billy and Angie Seabolt brought their son, Brandon, who turns 4 on Sunday, to see his first fireworks show. If the display had been canceled again, Billy said, the family would have gone elsewhere.
"I want to see the fireworks - boom!" Brandon said.
Lynn Holladay, the Philharmonic's operations manager, said the organization was excited over the return of the fireworks.
"It's the combination of listening to live music, to a world-class orchestra in your hometown and looking up at the stars and seeing the fireworks over the stage, there's absolutely nothing like it," she said.
As much as the fireworks and the Philharmonic were reasons many people came, Memorial Park held true to another tradition: Fun.
Many families and friends brought coolers with food and drinks, lawn chairs, blankets, air mattresses, games for the kids and even canopies to protect themselves from the sun, which beat down on the park for much of the day until clouds rolled through about 5 p.m.
"If we're going to come here, we're going to make a day of it," said Aaron Nile, who arrived about 11:30 a.m. with his wife, Grace, and their three kids. Early on, the family kicked around a plastic ball and threw a Nerf football to pass the time.
But one other tradition wasn't lost on the Niles and other people attending the event: Remembering the importance of freedom and independence that marks the holiday.
Aaron Nile said he served three tours in Iraq while stationed at Fort Carson.
"I've been there and I've fought for our freedom," he said. "So it means a lot when I came home. I have a good appreciation for our freedom, for our country."
Michael Cook, an Air Force reservist, came to the park about 3:30 p.m. with friends Amanda Joy and Cari Fox. Cook, who moved to the Springs in 2008 and who was attending his first Fourth of July at the park, called himself a "holiday realist."
"The holidays are around for a reason," Cook said. "And a lot of time, people forget it. To them it's a day off. The only reason we're here today is July Fourth. If it wasn't for July Fourth, we wouldn't be a nation. It means everything."
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