The many Disney Parks around the world celebrate the winter holidays with lots of different and fun holiday events. From a holiday makeover of ‘it’s a small world’ to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, the Disney Parks have all sorts of amazing experiences to make the holidays magical and memorable.
However, one Christmas tradition at Walt Disney World has sadly been absent the past few years, and many yearn for its return: the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios. The Osborne Lights brought magic to the holidays at Disney World for two decades, and the show’s full history goes back even farther.
Here’s the scoop on the Osborne Lights, and why so many Disney visitors still hold the lights dear to their heart.
Beginning with a Girl’s Christmas Wish
The rich history of the Osborne Lights started in 1986 in a small suburban home in Little Rock, Arkansas. That year, six-year-old Allison “Breezy” Osborne asked her parents, Jennings and Mitzi, if they could decorate their home with Christmas lights. They initially just strung 1,000 lights around their house, but they had so much fun, they decided to do it again the next year and add more lights. And each following year, they added more and more lights. Then things really took off when the Osborne family purchased two neighboring houses, allowing them to further expand the light displays. By 1993, the Osborne Christmas Lights comprised over 3 million lights.
The wide range of light decorations included a 70-foot-high Christmas tree, a 65-foot-high wall with angels, 30,000 red lights splayed out over the driveway, a huge globe illuminating Bethlehem and Little Rock, and much more. The light collection was so bright, the Washington Post reported that pilots could see the light when flying above the house. With all the cool features, the light display had become famous worldwide, with people traveling from long distances to view the Christmas lights. News companies even made trips to do stories on the one-of-a-kind displays. But the lights would soon become even more famous in a lawsuit, one that would end the lights in Arkansas and lead them to becoming part of the Disney World magic.
A Lawsuit and a New Home
The Osborne family’s Christmas lights had become a spectacular extravaganza each winter, but its incredible popularity disrupted the neighborhood. Neighbors disliked both the exceptionally bright lights and the heavy traffic (it could take hours to complete normally five-minute grocery trips during the winter holidays). In 1991, an issue with the power breaker for the lights even caused the whole neighborhood to go dark. Therefore, in 1993, a half-dozen neighbors filed a lawsuit to limit the number of lights that the Osbornes could display. Ultimately, in 1994 the Arkansas state Supreme Court confirmed the ruling for the Osbornes to cut down on their light show. Despite the Osbornes’ attempt for an appeal, they lost the court case and faced the challenge of taking down their amazing light display.
But that was when Disney, having heard the news about the world-famous Christmas lights being shut down, stepped in. In 1995, Disney offered a deal to Jennings Osborne: if he gave the lights to Disney, they would be displayed in full glory around Christmastime at Hollywood Studios (at that time still called MGM Studios). A large portion of MGM Studios consisted of areas for the Backlot Tour, including Residential Street, which featured many suburban houses that appeared in TV shows and commercials. While Jennings initially thought his lights would just appear on a regular street in suburban Orlando, he was eager once he understood the details. “Never in my wildest dreams did I really think I’d see our lights at Disney,” he shared in an interview.
A Traditional (and Spectacular) Neighborhood Christmas Display
The new set-up for the Osborne Lights was perfect, solving many of the previous challenges with the Christmas displays. Due to Disney World’s isolation from Orlando, Disney could use all the lights they wanted without getting any complaints from neighbors. Yet the Backlot Tour’s fluid replication of suburbia made it seem like you were part of a small-town neighborhood, observing the local holiday decorations. And Disney had the sheer manpower and resources to keep the complex lighting systems operating each year, though Jennings assisted for the first few years.
To celebrate the first opening of the Osborne Lights at Disney World in 1995, Disney hosted a comedic performance where power company and movie crew members feuded over rights to light up the neighborhood, before a kid from the audience helped turn the stubborn light switch. This show regularly happened each year while the lights were on Residential Street.
Disney fluidly replicated much of the Osbornes’ original set-up, impressing even Jennings. “They reproduced almost everything as we had it in our yard,” he noted. But that was only the beginning. Disney World added in many new decorations, including Disney-themed ones (even some hidden Mickeys), and spread them out along the entire street, reaching a total of over 5 million lights. The light strings alone were over 10 miles long, and the necessary extension cords would have stretched over 30 miles together. From November to January each year, Disney World guests at Hollywood Studios could take a nightly stroll down Residential Street and admire the amazing Christmas light extravaganza.
Mixing Music with the Lights
While initially the Osborne Lights just consisted of the light displays, Disney recognized that music is another key part of the holiday spirit. Therefore, Imagineers found a way to combine lights with music for a remarkable experience. In 2006, Disney used relay circuits to dim and switch the lights on and off at will, letting them choreograph the lights to music. The lights would change merrily with the beats of the songs.
In between the choreographed songs, the lights would temporarily return to normal; during these intervals, guests could also hear footage from the WJBO radio as well as some of their favorite Disney characters. Buyable Made With Magic light-up items likewise synced with the choreographed lights and music. Many visitors embraced the lively music and danced right along with the choreographed lights. 2006 was also when the lights were renamed the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, a name that would last for the rest of its time at Disney World.
Where’s the Kitty?
There were lots of fun little things to search for each year at the Osborne Lights, from Hidden Mickeys to much more. And Disney found ways to add new surprises each year. These changes and additions were aimed at both park guests and Jennings Osborne himself, who would come with his family every year to walk through the lights. He and his family even got to wear special cast member badges when they came, and they would light up the displays on some nights.
One such change year-to-year was the annual hunt for light display of a purple-trimmed black cat. Said cat light display came with the original lights sent by Jennings to Disney, and Disney initially had trouble figuring out where it went. As it turned out, the cat was had actually meant for a separate Halloween display at the Osborne home. If anything, Osborne found the whole mix-up amusing, and he let Disney keep the cat.
Because it lacked a specific place in the lighting plans, Disney staff instead moved the cat around each year. Not only was searching for it fun for Jennings, but it also enthralled curious guests, too. In 2014, Disney even started changing the cat’s position daily. Similarly, new Hidden Mickeys would be added over the course of each year. In these different ways, the Osborne Lights were always changing, making every visit into its own adventure.
Secret Magic in the Lights
To make the Osborne Lights even more magical, Disney Imagineers whipped up unique glasses that guests could wear. Sort of akin to 3D glasses, these glasses altered your vision of the lights so that you would see angels and snowflakes. What’s more, if you took the glasses home with you, you could discover that the glasses let you see similar effects on other Christmas lights.
A Change in Location
However, new developments in the Backlot Tour area forced Disney to move the Osborne Lights to a new setting. In 2014, Disney World replaced the Residential Street area of Hollywood Studios with the now-defunct Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show. But luckily, Disney found a new place for the lights: in the Streets of America section of the park, replicating the cityscapes of New York, San Francisco, and other great metropoles. The lights were reworked to spread across the different buildings, creating a new but still fun experience.
While the new approach to the Osborne Lights took away some of the sentimentality of walking through a neighborhood lights display, Disney still found new ways to keep the experience fun. For starters, they created a snowy effect using a system of artificial snow machines. Each night, the fake snow required a hundred gallons of fluid from over 30 snow machines. This made it feel like you were walking through a winter wonderland, helping immerse you in the holiday spirit. Also, Disney characters would make appearances, such as a Santa version of Goofy, who turned on the lights. In 2011, all lights were switched to LEDs, and the lighting controls were upgraded; plus, the canopy was enhanced so the lights could switch between over 16 million colors.
Lots of Fun References
Across both incarnations of the Osborne Lights, Disney World added in many “Easter egg” cameo references to various things. For instance, since Jennings rooted for University of Arkansas’ Razorbacks football team, a razorback hog display was mixed in with all the lights. Another playful tribute to the Osbornes was in the “WJBO” radio station broadcasting the music – initials standing for William Jennings Osborne.
The decorations also contained callbacks to Christmas films, such as A Christmas Story with its infamous leg-shaped lamp. Disney even created an “Osborne Electric Co.” window display to pay tribute to the Osborne family. The window display featured fake TVs showing pictures of the lights, such as Jennings posing with Mickey.
The End of a Tradition
However, everything changed for the Osborne Lights in 2015, as Disney made plans for two new, immersive areas at Hollywood Studios – Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. To make room for these considerably large new areas, the entire former Backlot Tour area would be demolished, along with Streets of America. So now, sadly, the Osborne Lights had nowhere left to go at the park.
Jennings Osborne died several years before in 2011, though he had many wonderful years visiting Disney World and his lights before then. It’s a shame that these light displays, with such colorful decorations and a rich history going beyond Disney World, are no longer found at the parks.
As the final year for the Osborne Lights, winter 2015 at Hollywood Studios was bittersweet yet spectacular. Disney included over 90 different hidden Mickeys in the final set-up, making it a truly remarkable experience for visitors. Themed shirts, cups, and other memorabilia commemorated this last season for the lights.
To make things even more wonderful in the lights’ swan song, Disney also offered a special dining package: the Merry & Bright Dessert Party and Dinner Reception. This actually consisted of two separate options, with both of them letting you dine in a reserved spot by the lights. The dessert party offered holiday specialty beverages and desserts, and guests also got to take home a special, roll-up blanket. For the dinner reception, diners were treated with a holiday buffet feast, with shrimp, turkey, and more; diners also received special keepsake boxes with lightbulbs commemorating the Osborne Lights.
Though the last day for the lights was supposed to be January 3, 2016, the celebration was extended at the last minute to January 6 instead. And with that, following the final songs of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “”Mickey Mouse Club Alma Mater”, the proud tradition of the Osborne Lights came to a close.
Even though the Osborne Lights have been gone for several years, many Disney and holiday fans fondly remember the unique light displays and wish for them to come back someday. The question is, where? There is not much room left for them at Hollywood Studios now, so would another park be able to display them? Disney’s Imagineers are clever and resourceful, so perhaps one year, Disney will give us a special Christmas present and bring back the lights.
What’s been your favorite holiday tradition with Disney? You can let us know in the comments.
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