Looking Back at the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
You know gingerbread houses and gingerbread cabins and Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! You know Jingle Cruise and Haunted Mansion Holiday and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. But do you recall the most famous Disney holiday presentation of all?
As the 12 Days of Christmas approach, let’s take a stroll down memory lane by celebrating the lost greatness of Disney’s legendary holiday lights display. Let’s take a look back at The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, a holiday tradition that we all miss.
The Government Once Shut It Down
Long before the Dancing Lights show found a home at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it was an actual Christmas display at someone’s home. Jennings Osborne, a medical entrepreneur, granted his daughter’s wish to add lights to their home.
The “spectacle” started with a modest 1,000 lights, a number you might top with your own decorations. However, Osborne kept adding to the display. In a seven-year period, the Osborne home had morphed into a three-million light presentation.
No home, even a mansion like the Osbornes owned, could host that many lights. The family went so far as to buy other homes in the area to add more room for lights. And Jennings relished this opportunity, as the workaholic got to spend this time with his daughter, Breezy, who helped him decorate.
The situation did get a bit out of hand. Some complaining neighbors speculated that the Osborne house was visible from outer space. Imagine trying to sleep anywhere near that street. Since Osborne had built this display for his daughter, he stubbornly ignored requests to dial it down a bit.
Eventually, the neighbors sued. It was one of the strangest free speech court cases in history, one that still gets referenced in legal papers today. Ultimately, Osborne lost in the Arkansas Supreme Court and then the United States Supreme Court, where the Justices refused to halt a court order.
The United States government told the Osborne family that their holiday lights were too gaudy and distracting.
Disney Negotiations Were Strange
You may sympathize with Jennings Osborne. All he wanted to do was create a memorable lights display for his daughter. A court ruled that what he’d done was illegal. So, he had three million spare Christmas lights in storage and couldn’t use them. I suspect that he’d planned the mother of all yard sales that year, but fate intervened.
The Walt Disney Company, like many people in the early 1990s, had watched the court battle with interest. Disney wanted to bring the Osborne display to its relatively new park at the time, Disney-MGM Studios. Unfortunately, they didn’t relay the message clearly.
Osborne, who felt like the entire world was against him at the time, understood that Disney wanted to transport the spectacle to a residential street in Orlando. What the company actually wanted was to host this pageant of lights at Residential Street, one of the backlots at Hollywood Studios.
The businessperson believed that Disney just wanted to swap its location to a random place in a different city/state. In reality, park officials coveted the lights show as an anchor park attraction during the holidays. Osborne loved Walt Disney World and would have readily agreed if not for the miscommunication.
Eventually, the two parties cleared up the confusion, and Disney acquired a new holiday show. Two years after the Osborne family lost its lawsuit, the Christmas lights show moved to Hollywood Studios.
What Disney Got and What They Paid for It
The price was right for Disney. The company never paid Jennings Osborne for his lights. To the contrary, all he wanted was for his family to stay at Walt Disney World during December. It was a sort of reunion with their holiday lights.
Park officials happily provided the Osbornes with free accommodations at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa for a week. Hollywood Studios even took it a step further. They started an annual tradition wherein the Osbornes lighted their holiday decorations, thereby signaling the start of the Spectacle of Lights.
Of course, a lot had to happen before the ceremony. Transporting millions of lights and decorations presented a challenge. When the government shut him down, the frustrated businessperson had angrily stuck his stuff in storage sheds at several houses. Cast members had to put everything together as intended.
Some confusion occurred. Famously, a Halloween decoration of a black cat got shipped to Orlando. Imagineers figured it was part of the show and added it into the display, which amused and delighted the Osbornes. It became a game for the cast members to hide the cat in plain sight, giving the family the challenge of finding it each year.
Facts about the Lights
Over the years, Disney added its own lights and decorations to plus the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. By its estimation, the presentation included 10 miles’ worth of Christmas lights!
To take it all in, guests wanted to walk around Residential Street. So, park officials stopped the trams that ran in this section of Hollywood Studios during the daytime.
Also, I should point out that Disney’s really good at making money. While the company paid nothing for the lights, it found a clever way to charge others. Disney persuaded Sylvania and (later) Siemens to sponsor the spectacle. Yes, someone paid Disney money for Christmas decorations that the Osbornes had given to them!
Over the years, Disney added new tricks to the lights. In 2006, Imagineers automated the startup and shutdown procedures. Five years later, many of the lights switched to LED, providing a newfound, mesmerizing brightness. At the same time, the LED decorations empowered cast members with new ways to make the lights dance in tandem.
Speaking of the dancing, you may remember the song order by heart. Just in case you don’t, here’s the playlist that provided the soundtrack for the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights:
- “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12-24)” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra
- “Jingle Bells” by Barbra Streisand
- “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra
- “Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano
- “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Elvis Presley
- “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” by Arthur Fiedler & Boston Pops Orchestra
- “Nuttin’ for Christmas” by the Plain White T’s
- “Christmas is Starting Now” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
- “Winter Wonderland” (Original arrangement by Dan Stamper)
- “What’s This?” by Danny Elfman
Disney also rotated in other Christmas music. Someone came up with the brilliant idea to pretend like it was a broadcast from a fictional radio station. Hosts Arnie and Anne, who didn’t exist, would set up the action. It was very A Prairie Home Companion in the best possible way.
A Hard Choice for Disney
From 1995 through 2014, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights delighted guests with its gorgeous colors and decorations. Alas, as 2015 approached, park officials knew something that the rest of the world didn’t.
Disney was about to announce Star Wars Land at Hollywood Studios. In August, the company revealed this information. Less than a month later, Disney revealed that the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights would close for good. The park needed that space to build Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land among other things.
The 2015 holiday season became a different kind of celebration, a melancholy one wherein guests said good-bye to an annual tradition. For 21 years, Jennings Osborne’s lights entertained guests at the Most Magical Place on Earth. People felt so attached to the decorations that park officials felt obligated to extend the length of the display.
The Spectacle of Lights closed for good on January 6, 2016, almost 30 years after the family had started with 1,000 lights on their house. Rumors suggested that Disney would relocate the presentation at a later date. However, that possibility grows more remote each year.
Sadly, Disney seems content to construct new decorations and presentations rather than re-live the past. Disney fans, on the other hand, desperately miss Jennings Osborn’s millions of lights and hope that they return one day. I’m certainly one of them. How about you?