Lights of Winter Tribute

The Walt Disney World monorail streaks through the now-defunct Lights of Winter with Epcot's Christmas tree behind it. This photo was captured in 2008, during the last year of the Lights of Winter.

The Lights of Winter at Epcot debuted for Christmas 1994 and were retired in 2009, with their last Christmas season on display being 2008. They were a series of archways that covered the gap between Future World and World Showcase with over 30,000 lights that danced to the area’s music loop. We caught them in 2007 and 2008 (and I saw them a few times growing up), and really miss their presence in Walt Disney World during the holidays. While the Lights of Winter weren’t an attraction, per se, they attracted many guests and were a fan favorite. We certainly loved the Lights of Winter, so I thought it would be appropriate to put together a tribute article for those who never got to experience them.

This tribute is mostly in the form of my few photos of the Lights of Winter, plus limited info and links I’ve scrounged up from elsewhere. The Orlando Sentinel ran an article on the Lights of Winter back when they premiered (it’s behind a paywall, so I only read the summary), but other than that, I couldn’t find much historical information on the Lights of Winter. It seems to be one of those things that was beloved, but taken for granted. The most extensive information I’ve found about the Lights of Winter is on E82: The Epcot Legacy, which has several articles including a downloadable loop of the music that played at the Lights of Winter. Probably the most extensive photo gallery of the Lights of Winter (at least that I’ve found) is this one from Mousesteps. AllEars also did a post with a few photos showing off the beauty of the Lights of Winter. For a display that ran through 2008, it’s surprising that there are so few good photos and info about the Lights of Winter online. This should not be considered a proxy for popularity–whenever we visited Epcot during its Holidays Around the World, the area around the Lights of Winter archways was packed with people gazing at the lights and taking photos. (I guess most of those photos just never found their way online?)

The Lights of Winter at Epcot were a beautiful Christmas display with dancing lights set to music. Here, you can make out the monorail passing through the Lights. Anyone else miss these?!

Official word from Disney via social media (posts that since seem to have disappeared) was that the lights were “obsolete technology,” which became a running joke among fans and was like salt in a wound. The rub is that Christmas lights aren’t obsolete technology–if they are, there are plenty of obsolete homes in every neighborhood in America each December. Not only that, but virtually every ride in Fantasyland should be shuttered for the same reason. The reason given isn’t superficially plausible, and if there is some sort of obsolescence issue with the control system, a few more words clarifying what, exactly, was obsolete might have been wise. (Even then, control systems can be replaced.) I think what irritates fans the most is being talked down to by Disney. Does the Company truly believe its fans are so dim that everyone would blindly accept the obsolete technology excuse? It’s even worse than the “we continually evaluate the various aspects of our operation and make changes and additions based upon feedback from our Guests” (possibly throwing in a gratuitous Walt Disney quote about change) justification for cuts made in the parks. Both of these responses lack any sort of substance, which is frustrating. I don’t think any fans expect detailed operational and financial rationale, but at least provide an actual justification. It could even be a carefully crafted marketing-speak, just so long as it actually says something. 

Back to the Lights of Winter, while we will never know the real reason why the Lights of Winter were eliminated, there are some possibilities. Perhaps they were a victim of Disney’s green initiative, with the upgrade costs prohibitive in terms of Epcot’s annual budget. Maybe other upgrades needed to be made that were deemed cost-prohibitive. It’s possible that the Lights of Winter’s location in a main artery of the park caused excessive congestion issues, and operational headaches. Maybe the look of the Lights of Winter during the day was deemed an eyesore, and they were cut as a result. Giving Disney the benefit of the doubt, I think either of these last two possibilities could be likely. We typically visit during Christmas at off-peak times, and even then, the walkway for the Lights of Winter was packed–I can only imagine how bad it got during Christmas week and leading up to New Year’s Eve. Likewise, for all of the beautiful nighttime photos of the Lights of Winter, what’s missing are the photos showing how ugly it looked during daytime hours. The Osborne Lights look just as bad, but in fairness, they are tucked away in a corner of Disney’s Hollywood Studios that’s relatively unused during the daytime hours. The Lights of Winter were prominent in Epcot, in the main pathway connecting Future World to World Showcase.

The Lights of Winter that used to be displayed between Future World and World Showcase in Epcot. You can see a bit of Spaceship Earth behind them.

Whatever the case may be, the disappearance of the Lights of Winter has created a void in Epcot’s Christmas lineup. We recently highlighted what Epcot does offer for the holidays, and it’s a pretty good list, but it’s missing that big, “breathtaking” draw. Something that is awe-inspiring, and leaves a real impression on guests. Sort of like a holiday “wienie.” In my opinion, every Disney theme park that I think does the Christmas season well does this. Magic Kingdom has the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights. Disney’s Hollywood Studios has the Osborne Lights. Disneyland has Sleeping Beauty’s Winter Castle and ‘it’s a small world’ holiday. Disneyland Paris has Disney Dreams of Christmas! Tokyo DisneySea has Colors of Christmas. Finally, this year, Disney California Adventure has World of Color – Winter Dreams. Having seen Disney California Adventure with and without Winter Dreams, I can say that it made all the difference in my impression of that park in terms of holiday allure. Arguably, Epcot does have this draw in Candlelight Processional, and while I enjoy Candlelight, it doesn’t fit the bill for me. It’s a great show if you have a meal package, but it’s not breathtaking.

In a perfect world where Epcot’s Future World actually is on the bleeding edge and utilizes emerging technologies in innovative ways, the Lights of Winter would be obsolete, and would be replaced by something that solves the eyesore problem and also showcases what the future of light displays might be for the rest of us. It could be a more passive display in terms of infrastructure, or even on the water. It could be something incredible–truly worthy of Future World.

After a couple of years in denial, thinking the Lights of Winter (which basically teased fans as they were stored in view for a while) would be refurbished and debut as a new light display in Epcot, I’ve resolved myself to the fact that they are not returning. Still…what I wouldn’t give to sit under the display listening to the music, watching the dancing lights, and snapping photos. I only had my first DLSR for about 5 months before our Christmas 2008 trip, and my photos of the Lights of Winter show it. While they are some of my best photos from that trip (a lucky accident, I suppose), I still find myself wishing I got some better and different photos of the display. I guess it will forever be my white whale.

I’m still optimistic that Disney will add a new Christmas light display to Epcot at some point, even if not in the same form as the Lights of Winter or in the same location. I’m not so optimistic that it will happen anytime soon, but I still think it’ll happen someday. Epcot needs it.

If you have photos or memories of the Lights of Winter, please share them in the comments.

For comprehensive tips for planning your Christmas-time trip to Walt Disney World, check out our “Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Walt Disney World.“ For Walt Disney World trip planning tips and comprehensive advice, make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide and related articles.

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Your Thoughts…

What do you think of Lights of Winter? Did you ever see the display in person? Do you agree that it was Epcot’s big “wow” Christmas thing? Do you think it was nothing special? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments!

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9 Responses to “Lights of Winter Tribute”

  1. MarkWDW85 says:

    Regarding “obsolete technology” and the reason the Lights were removed, I always took that at face value and assumed that either due to improper storage/maintenance or simply age, some aspect(s) of the control system for Lights had broken. Because the control system was legacy technology (that couldn’t simply be purchased off the shelf), it was deemed cost prohibitive or just “not worth it” to repair/rebuild the control system or to upgrade the Lights infrastructure to make it compatible with a current generation control system.

    I doubt anyone outside of those who worked on the Lights will ever really know, but that always seemed like the simplest/most logical explanation to me given the official line.

  2. Spencer says:

    Interesting. Those lights look pretty cool, sorry I never got the chance to see them. I definitely agree with you on the Christmas “wienie” thought. The parks that have it give you that “magical” moment for the holidays like the nighttime spectaculars do for the regular seasons.

    Glad to hear you liked World of Color: Winter Dreams! Being a singer & a Disney fan I jumped at the chance to be a part of the “Glow” virtual choir that opens the show. Super exciting to be part of something at Disney like that, even if it is a really really small part. We are headed out for a long weekend soon to see myself in the show and take in the other DLR christmas offerings. Really looking forward to it!

  3. Patricia says:

    Tom, the Lights of Winter were one of my top favorite places-to-be at Christmastime in Disney. The beauty of the lights choreographed to that great score of Christmas music along with the Fountain of Nations dancing in tune made for a spot to spend a lot of time. Many nights we were still standing looking, listening and enjoying even an hour or more after the park closed.

    I’d love to see the Lights of Winter or something very similar back at Epcot in the future. Your word was perfect – they were truly breath-taking.

    Thanks for the great tribute!

  4. SkipperKelly says:

    Such good Christmas memories with my family include seeing the lights. I miss them too.

  5. Cris says:

    Looks like Disneyland Paris had this same instillation back in the day along their Main Street. Take a look:

  6. Kevin says:

    I have heard of the Lights of Winter, but I have never seen a picture of the lights before, so thank you for the post about them.

    They are not terribly attractive in the day, but I don’t think they were super-ugly. And the prettiness of the night makes up for it. I could imagine them being a congestion problem, though.

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the World of Color winter show. We watched a youtube video and really enjoyed it, and I’m that’s nothing compared with actually being there.

  7. Jan says:

    Tom, thanks for this wonderful tribute. You gave good insights into what the real reasons for shutting it down might have been. Why it hasn’t been replaced with something “better” still mystifies me. And thanks for the link to the soundtrack! Best addition to my iTunes Christmas playlist this year.

  8. So nice and superb. Trekking tour guide to Nepal:

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