Celebrating the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

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Like so many other Walt Disney World fans, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights was the highlight of a Christmas trip. In this post, we thought we’d pay tribute to the Osborne Lights via photos, their history, and what the display meant to us. We hope you enjoy this jaunt down memory lane.

Most people know the story of the Osborne Lights by now, but if you don’t, here goes. The story of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights started in Little Rock, Arkansas, 30 years ago in 1986. It began with the actual Osborne Family, when 6 year old Breezy asked her father, Jennings, if they could decorate the house with Christmas lights.

It started small and, as you can imagine, snowballed from there into something colossal. Every subsequent year, he added more, adding a variety of elaborate, but homemade elements that gave the display character. Some of these elements were just plain crazy, but crazy in a good way. In the early 1990s, his neighbors started to complain, so his solution was simple–he bought the houses on either side of his.

Fast forward to 1993. Presumably unable to buy up the entire block, Jennings was sued by multiple neighbors for the spectacle and traffic problems the lights were causing. While it’s easy to paint Jennings–himself a jovial, rotund, and kind man–as a sort of Santa Claus and this story as a modern-day Miracle on 34th Street, it’s hard not to empathize for his neighbors a bit. The display was causing nightly gridlock and destruction of their property, as the Osborne display was becoming a bona-fide tourist attraction in a residential neighborhood of Little Rock.

Jennings’ legal battle with his neighbors began in state court, eventually being appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, where he lost. Osborne sought review from the United States Supreme Court in 1994, but Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas denied hearing. With no further legal recourse, the Arkansas Supreme Court declared that the display could not be run in 1995.

By this point, Jennings and his display were making waves around the country. The story of the Osborne display being shut down was national news. For his part, Jennings made his case to the public through interviews with the Washington Post, New York Times, and other publications, in which he emphasized that he was simply trying to spread Christmas cheer. At this point, it wasn’t clear what could be gained by appealing to the court of public opinion.

Enter The Walt Disney Company.

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This part of the story is pretty well documented, as John Phelan, who has been the Show Director of the Osborne Lights since the beginning, has done podcasts and interviews recounting this portion of the story.

After hearing the Osborne story on the news, former VP of Disney-MGM Studios Bruce Laval proposed that Phelan approach the Osbornes about Disney running their display.

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It turned out that this was the perfect match, as Jennings and family were huge Disney fans. While he had offers from multiple cities to display the lights, the opportunity to have the lights displayed in a Disney theme park where millions of guests could see them was the ultimate trump card.

So, in early November 1995, four 18-wheelers began packing up the display at the Osborne residence in Little Rock.

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The lights arrived in the Disney-MGM Studios on November 4, 1995, with the mandate that they be ready for guests by the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Mind you, in subsequent years, Walt Disney World began putting up the display in August. 

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The quick turnaround was accomplished by a dedicated team that worked, literally, around the clock. Not only did the display have to be installed in that 3 week window, but it had to be adapted to its new theme park setting.

Numerous changes had to be made to the lights and infrastructure to make it workable. In addition to Disney’s team of 40+, four of Jennings’ own technicians were on-site to assist with the work.

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The display was branded the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights, and it first ran on Residential Street in the Backlot. It was shown there for nearly a decade before Lights, Motors, Action! was added to the park.

Then, the display was expanded and moved to the Streets of America.

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A couple of years after that, the choreography to music was added, and the display became the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

The Osbornes were special guests for the lighting ceremony of the lights at Walt Disney World throughout the years.

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Other additions were made over the years before the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights were retired last year.

I mean, who doesn’t remember what they were doing that fateful day when the internet learned National Treasure Baby Sinclair had been added to the Osborne Lights?!

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In 2011, Jennings Osborne passed away and John Phelan wrote a touching tribute to him on the Disney Parks Blog, sharing a bit of insight into the man behind the display that delighted millions of guests at Walt Disney World.

Following his tragic passing, Walt Disney World added a nice tribute to him in the form of a lone white angel amongst the angels that circle the globe. A fitting nod to the man who created light that shine so brightly on the ‘World.

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If you ever visited Walt Disney World during the 20 Christmases that the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights graced the Disney-MGM Studios (and later, Disney’s Hollywood Studios) you probably have fond memories of the lights.

They tended to be one of those experiences that left an indelible impression on guests, and almost every Disney fan we know has their own story of how the Osborne Lights impacted them.

Here’s our story…

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Our first Christmas trip together was in 2007. This was while we were still in college, and it was a pretty big deal for us to scrape our money together and make the trip. I knew we had to go because Walt Disney World, at Christmas, would be the perfect place to propose.

We first saw the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights after getting engaged, and it was absolutely entrancing. We were already high on the exhilaration of the engagement, and seeing the Osborne Lights that evening was a sensory and emotional overload. We were beaming, and the lights served to amplify that glow.

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That trip, the Osborne Lights were not only a conduit for our freshly-engaged, lovey dovey trance, but it was also for me as a budding photographer. Sarah had gotten me a point and shoot camera the previous Christmas, and while enamored with photography, I had zero clue what I was doing. We ran around the Streets of America, laughing, kissing, and taking photos of ourselves with the Osborne Lights as a backdrop.

That short trip was incredible, and certainly caused us to become even more of Disney addicts than we were previously. It also began the trend of a visit every Christmas, a tradition we continue to this day.

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The following couple of years, our pattern with the Osborne Lights at Christmas repeated itself: hours spent under the lights laughing, lovey dovey photos (sorrynotsorry), and gleefully just watching the ‘World pass us by.

There are so many, seemingly insignificant moments spent enjoying the Osborne Lights that I still can recall in vivid detail.

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In 2010, the Osborne Lights were once again significant to us in our journey as Disney fans. That year, for the first time, we attended two group events: D23’s Magic & Merriment and WDW Today Podcast’s Reunion. Both had special events for Osborne Lights, and we had an absolute blast at both.

We met a lot of “internet friends” in the flesh for the first time, and still remain friends with many of them to this day. We felt a real sense of community with other Disney fans as a result of these events, and enjoyed the experience so much that we repeated them each of the next few years.

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For us, standing in the midst of all those lights never got old. We could–and did many, many nights–stand on the Streets of America for hours soaking it all up.

We would stay as late as we could each night, and I’d scramble to get “empty” park photos as the Streets of America started to clear at the end of the night.

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Seeing those lights for the first time each trip always gave me chills, and the display dancing to the music was absolutely enthralling. Occasionally, I encounter someone who didn’t like the Osborne Lights, and it’s always perplexing.

I’m pretty open to differing opinions with regard to the parks, but I could not fathom that perspective.

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For me, the display was as much about a feeling as it was about the actual visuals of the Osborne Lights. I never found it to be tacky, over the top, or even mundane (in the years that technology made synchronized displays accessible to regular people).

For me, it was just as much about the people reflected in the lights as it was the lights themselves.

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Being there with Sarah as we shared special moments and holiday tradition. Seeing the joy on the faces of everyone, from children to the elderly. Especially with small children, you could look at them and see their sense of enchantment. The Osborne Lights was an amazing display itself, but the sense of awe and happiness it created in guests was plainly visible, and the sense of holiday warmth was palpable.

The Osborne Lights illuminated the soul. As corny as that might sound, it’s the truth.

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I know I’ve said before on the blog that that the Streets of America was the happiest place on earth during the Osborne Lights, and I really meant it. No could not look in any direction without witnessing a sea of smiles, and it was like the rest of the world and all other problems just melted away when those lights turned on.

It was like the general feeling people get at Walt Disney World, but dialed up to 11. Even in the densest of crowds, people were perfectly content just being there during the Osborne Lights.

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I’ll admit that I got choked up every night during our visits to the Osborne Lights last year during our Christmas trip, as we visited the lights almost every night of that trip.

The last night was especially tough, as we thought that was the last night we’d ever sit under those lights.

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By surprise, the Osborne Lights were extended for a 3-night encore in January, allowing me to see them again during the first 2 nights of my Walt Disney World Marathon trip. To be honest, that was not nearly as emotional of an experience, probably in large because I headed down a few days before Sarah, and she didn’t join me on the trip until the day after the Osborne Lights ended.

This feeling, or lack thereof, is a big part of what informed my opinion what made the Osborne Lights so special: the people.

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After seeing the looks of awe in the faces of so many children over the years, I was hoping this was a tradition we would some day be able to share with our own children. Sadly, it’s unlikely that will ever be the case.

That doesn’t change the fact that some of our best memories together at Walt Disney World are just sitting and watching the lights, and we will have those memories forever. I’m sure we’ll form plenty of new traditions when we do finally have kids, anyway.

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I know you could reduce the Osborne Lights to their core components and contend that this was just an elaborate display, the kind of which could be replicated anywhere. I disagree. What simplistic reductions like that tend to ignore is the inarticulable x-factor, the emotive elements that don’t always translate when you critically dissect things.

For so many of us, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights oozed this emotional component. Disney captured lightning in a bottle with this display, and consequently, the Osborne Lights is something that will live on in the hearts of Disney fans worldwide.

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The lack of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights definitely left a noticeable void in the holiday lineup at Walt Disney World this year.

We were there on the opening night of Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM, and encountered nearly a dozen friends on the way out, and the recurring sentiment during those conversations was “it’s a nice try, but it’s no Osborne Lights.”

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I don’t think there will ever be another Osborne Lights. As mentioned with the whole ‘lightning in a bottle’ bit, the display captured and conveyed something that is not replicable merely by putting up X million lights, making them dance, and playing some Christmas music.

Despite their irreplaceable quality, I’m not bitter that the Osborne Lights were retired. The Streets of America had become a ghost town, which is why it was the perfect, out-of-the-way location for the Osborne Lights to begin with. Disney’s Hollywood Studios has desperately needed help for years, and the upcoming expansion is investing over a billion dollars into transforming the park. I’ll definitely continue to miss and mourn the loss of the Osborne Lights, but in the big picture, I think the right decisions are being made to turn Disney’s Hollywood Studios into a top tier park the other 10 months of the year. Plus, I think someday, Walt Disney World will unveil a new holiday offering, different from the Osborne Lights, that captures their enchanting essence. We’ll be there when that happens, ready to start a new Christmas tradition at Walt Disney World.

10 Responses to “Celebrating the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights”
  1. Stephen December 22, 2016
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