Lions International Club volunteers Darren Piersol and John Stewart sat in the shade Friday under a canopy they had just set up at Chandler’s Tumbleweed Park.
Sweat dripped from their faces, and they held cool drinks.
All around them, similar canopies dotted the expansive park. Crews fiddled with the final segments of temporary chain-link fencing, and a portable stage stood empty in the distance.
The friends had worked since July 5 the previous year planning this year’s Chandler annual fireworks festival — and the break from the afternoon heat was only a short one. Piersol said he would not be able to relax fully until the first fireworks explode Monday night, July 4th, over the heads of his 120,000 party guests.
"I like to walk through the crowds and listen to the oohs and aahs," he said. "All the kids smiling and laughing and looking up at the sky — that’s what it’s all about."
The Chandler Lions Club officers — along with other Fourth of July event planners from Cave Creek to Queen Creek — have a difficult job. They must keep pace as the East Valley grows larger and younger every Independence Day.
"As the city grows, we grow," Piersol said. "This whole park will fill up this year."
Overall, an estimated 450,000 people will attend East Valley fireworks shows this holiday weekend at more sites than ever. Festivals that were big last year will be even bigger this year.
"The crowds are just growing," said Kit Pearl, an event planner with the Kiwanis Club of Queen Creek. "It’s doubling every year."
Despite the growth, she said the show she helps organize at Schnepf Farms still aims for a rural atmosphere.
"We do things to bring families in and give them back that small-town feel," she said.
The Kiwanis Club of Tempe also has doubled the pizzazz at Tempe Town Lake. Event chairman Russ Plieseis said crowds that saw 7,000 fireworks last year in 40 minutes will see 14,000 this year in the same amount of time.
"The whole sky will be lit up," he said. "It’s such a panoramic view that there is no bad spot in the whole downtown area."
Then — like Piersol and Stewart in Chandler — he said he will start right back up the next day figuring out how to make things even bigger in 2006.
The Scottsdale Jaycees also have expanded their show at Rawhide Western Town and Steakhouse — the final hurrah at that location before Rawhide moves south to the Gila River Indian Community after 35 years north of Pinnacle Peak Road.
Rawhide entertainment director Rob Jensen walked down Main Street on Friday overseeing final touches on the patriotic decorations. Dressed in cowboy duds, he looked like an Old West sheriff patrolling a ghost town.
But he said the street would be teeming with as many as 20,000 guests during Monday’s festival. Hay rides, food, live entertainment, dancing and storytelling will all be available.
All the progress leaves longtime Mesa resident Kris Martin a bit overwhelmed. She graduated from Mesa High School in 1939 — at the old campus — and still recalls the cozy community gatherings she enjoyed there as a teen.
"It wasn’t crowded at all," she said.
Back then, she said, families could buy their own Fourth of July firecrackers in Arizona, and her father always had a supply.
"We always seemed to have them," she said. "I don’t know where he got them."
Now, she takes her grandchildren to a much larger fireworks display organized by Central Christian Church of the East Valley at Mesa’s Mountain View Park near Adobe Street and Lindsay Road.
"You can’t see a piece of grass in here," Central Christian staff member Marion Van Slyke said Friday morning while overseeing the setup of a stage for live music. "We will have people here at 6 in the morning staking out their claim."