The Osborne Lights:
The Making of a Theme Park Spectacular
by Mike Scopa
AllEars® Feature Writer
This article appeared in the November 17, 2009 Issue #530 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
As Halloween becomes more and more of a memory and Thanksgiving plans are put in place I soon begin to anticipate with excitement my annual early December trek to Walt Disney World. This will be my seventh consecutive year visiting Orlando in early December and I continue to see each visit as special because of all the holiday happenings in and around Walt Disney World.
A few years back I had missed sort of a "celebrity" while in the then-named Disney-MGM Studios. That celebrity was a gentleman by the name of Jennings Osborne, and yes, it is the same Jennings Osborne who is responsible for the The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights that is displayed every year at the Streets of America section of the theme park.
Over the years I've been curious as to how this Christmas light spectacular came about and how the Studios prepares the display. For those of you who may not know it all started in Little Rock, Arkansas, some 23 years ago when 6-year-old Breezy Osborne asked her father if he would put up some Christmas lights on their 22,000 sq. ft. house. Her dad, Jennings Osborne, started that year by hanging about 1,000 red lights on his home.
Although he and his daughter enjoyed the lights he felt he wanted to do more and the following year he added more lights. As the years went by Osborne continued to add more and more lights and by the year 1993 the Osborne property was sporting over 3 million lights. A Disney fan, Osborne even included in his light display a train that was driven by Mickey Mouse -- a waving Mickey Mouse. Of course the Osborne Lights became well-known in Little Rock and throughout all of Arkansas. Fans of the lights came from all over to see them. You can imagine that between Thanksgiving and Christmas that the street where the lights were displayed was very well-traveled.
I recall either hearing or reading somewhere that Osborne reportedly purchased the properties on each side of his home and decorated those as well, much to the dismay of his neighbors. In fact this dismay grew to the point at which a lawsuit was filed against Jennings Osborne and his lighting display. As the story goes Jennings Osborne agreed to a few things to appease his neighbors by first and foremost limiting the nighttime hours for his lighting display. Then one night a family who had driven from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to see the lights was disappointed to arrive well after Osborne had turned off the huge display for the evening. The family pleaded with Osborne to turn the lights back on and thus by doing so defied the court order and was fined $10,000.
From what I understand Osborne's neighbors decided that they would not allow this to happen again and took their case to the Arkansas Supreme Court where in 1994 the light display was declared a nuisance and Osborne was barred from continuing with the lights and "causing a spectacle." Besides the aforementioned fine, Osborne was sentenced to time in jail for contempt of court. The sentence was suspended, but beyond that he was told to never turn on his lights again.
In stepped The Walt Disney Company, which signed a five-year agreement with Jennings Osborne to display his lights at Walt Disney World's Disney-MGM Studios theme park. John Phelan, Director of Show at the theme park, recalls how four moving vans left the Osborne home in November 1995 carrying every piece, every light, every strand from the Osborne display. The lights arrived on November 4, 1995, and they had to be up and running by the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. This was accomplished by employing 40 technicians working round the clock. Jennings Osborne himself came down to help with the planning of the display. Back then the display was put up on Residential Street and Osborne decided how each house should be decorated.
So how many lights are there now? Well, no one really knows, but there is a lot of confidence in saying that it's over 5 million. Of course, there is more to the Osborne lights than the lights alone. To put the display together and run it every night involves the use of extension cords, connectors, dimmers, and of course snow fluid. I'm sure very few guests realize that the lights they see are very similar to the lights they use on their own homes. There are no more than 100 lights on each strand. Each building along the Streets of America has its own circuit and within that circuit are 36 additional circuits. There are relays in place that are adjusted in very specific increments to make the lights dance accordingly.
But it's not easy to set all this up. It takes 25 technicians working for 15 weeks to get all the lights up. The last official word from Disney claims that it takes 35 miles of electrical cable to power this huge display of lights.
Once the lights are up they need to be programmed to synchronize with the music. Synchronization is a painstakingly long process whereby a programmer sits in the middle of the Streets of America and for several weeks gradually programs each individual building and each individual circuit within each building. Eventually it all comes together as the official "light board computer" runs the show.
However, work continues during the holiday season. Every night after park closing a team of technicians goes around looking for dead lights and inspects the buildings and corrects things before the night is out. All the lights are tied and insulated from such metal objects as the building catwalks to reduce and eliminate the shorting out of the light strands. Also to prevent weather from interfering all the connectors have plastic shrink-wrapped "boots" on them to keep moisture out.
Guests who view the lights can look for some interesting things within the display. For instance, back in 1995 when the lights were unpacked a Halloween cat display was discovered. It somehow got thrown in with the Christmas lights but it didn't matter. It was still used and every year this cat is placed in a different spot -- can you find it? Also, there are hidden Mickeys embedded into these 5 million plus lights. How many? Well, officially we never really hear the exact number, but you can be sure to find somewhere between 25 and 35 hidden Mickeys and perhaps more.
This year the Osborne Lights will be displayed November 10, 2009, through January 4, 2010. The lights are turned on every night at 6 p.m. When is the best time to view the lights? Crowds are lowest during the showing of Fantasmic. The lights do stay on a bit after Fantasmic, but not for long.
So as I plan my December trip you can be sure that I have already picked out one particular night to spend some time on the Streets of America and marvel at The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, which all began 23 years ago when a 6-year-old girl wanted some Christmas Lights on her house.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mike Scopa has been a huge Disney fan for as long as he can remember. He first visited Walt Disney World in 1975 and has returned many times (how many? he's lost count!) since. Mike is a contributor to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Cara Goldsbury's Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World, and has served as keynote speaker for the 2006 and 2007 MagicMeets. He is also co-host of the WDWTODAY Podcast and writes a
regular blog, The View from Scopa Towers, for AllEars.Net:
Other AllEars® articles by Mike Scopa: http://allears.net/btp/mikescopa.htm
Read Debra Martin Koma's interview with Jennings Osborne from several years ago here: http://allears.net/ae/issue167.htm
Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights: http://allears.net/tp/h_osb.htm
Photos and History Blog: http://tinyurl.com/ygue2nm
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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.