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How the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights made its way from Arkansas to Walt Disney World

How the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights made its way from Arkansas to Walt Disney World

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Picture this: It's late June of 1995. And the folks in charge of Disney-MGM Studios are racking their brains, trying to come up with some sort of signature holiday event for that theme park.

"The Magic Kingdom had Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and Epcot had its Candlelight Processional," John Phelan, show director for Disney Creative Entertainment remembered. "We wanted to stage something similar at the Studios, give people a really strong reason to come out to that theme park during the holiday season. But we just couldn't come with a workable hook for this proposed seasonal show."

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Until Bruce Laval (who - at that time - was Executive Vice President of Theme Parks at the Walt Disney World Resort) came into work one day and mentioned something that he'd seen on CNN the night before. Which was this brief news story about how the Arkansas Supreme Court had just ordered that some homeowner in Little Rock couldn't put up his over-the-top holiday lights display this year.

 "So Bruce says to me 'Maybe we could do something with this. I think you should give this guy a call,'" Phelan continued.

So John then picks up the phone and eventually gets ahold of the Arkansas Research Medical Testing Center. Which is the business that Arkansas philanthropist Jennings Osborne owned.


The 1993 version of the Osborne Family's Christmas Lights Display in Little Rock, AR.
Photo by Danny Johnston / Associated Press

"It was a relatively quick phone call," Phelan recalled. "Jennings didn't quite understand what I was proposing. So he told me to put it in letter form and then send it to his attorney. So I did that and then I headed out for my annual vacation."

And when John got back into the office two weeks later, he found this huge box sitting on his desk which was full of Christmas lights, press clippings, candy canes and cookies.

"Jennings' attorney had gotten my letter and - realizing that client was a huge Disney fan - immediately forwarded my proposal to him," John laughed. "And when Jennings realized that it was THE Walt Disney Company that was looking to display his family's holiday lights at MGM ... Well, that's when Jennings insisted that I immediately come on down to Little Rock and see what he had to offer."


The view from the street of the Osborne Family home during 1993's holiday season.
Photo by Danny Johnston / Associated Press

And that's how - just a week or so later -- Phelan found himself standing in Osborne's driveway with Disney-MGM's technical director, as Jennings then took them on a tour of all the storage sheds that he used to house his three million holiday lights. As these two WDW employees then tried to get a sense of what the Osborne Family had created could then be successfully translated to Residential Street on the Disney-MGM Studio backlot.

"You have to understand that Osborne - in an attempt to silence his neighbor's complaints about his family's annual holiday lights display - had actually purchased the houses on either side of his home. And each of these houses then had storage sheds in their backyards that were just crammed full of Christmas lights," John continued.

And as Phelan and his assistant looked over all of the elements that Osborne had collected over the past 9 years - the 70 foot-tall Christmas tree, the two rotating carousels, the 100 angels with flapping wings, plus the steam train which was driven by Mickey Mouse - and then heard the story about how this holiday lights display had gotten started (i.e. Back in 1986, Jennings' then-six-year-old daughter, Breezy had asked her father if they could please put some Christmas lights on their house. Osborne responded by draping their home with 1000 red lights that holiday season. And things kind of snowballed from there ... ), John kind of got a vision of what Disney could do with the Jennings Family's holiday display.


Another angle of the Osborne Family Home on Cantrell Road in Little Rock, AR during
the 1993 holiday season. Photo by David Gottschalk

"You have to understand that most of this stuff was the kind of holiday lights that you'd buy at your local store. Just 50 to 100 bulbs to a strand," Phelan explained. "But if we were to use all of these elements to decorate the houses on Residential Street and then kind of recreate what Jennings had done in Little Rock, MGM would then be home to the ultimate Americana Christmas display."

So the Walt Disney Company quickly cut a deal with Osborne. And the next thing you know, four 18-wheel Mayflower Moving Vans loaded with Christmas lights are headed back to Orlando. Where - for a while there, anyway - it was pretty touch-and-go whether this display would actually be up in time for the 1995 holiday season.

"These lights didn't actually arrive on property 'til November 4th. Which is why we then had to have three teams of technicians working 'round the clock for three weeks straight to try and get all of those lights up along Residential Street," John said. "Jennings even sent four of his own guys down to help us out that first year, show us how the bigger pieces like the carousel went together."


Walt Disney World lighting technician Dan Summers
prepares toy soldiers for the Osborne Family
Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All
rights reserved

On the night of November 24, 1995, WDW officials threw the switch and the first Guests walked down Disney-MGM's Residential Street and experienced the Osborne Lights. And right from that very first night, Phelan knew that they had a holiday hit on their hands.

"I was standing behind this family who were standing under that huge canopy of red lights which Jennings had created. And I watched as the mother in this family turned to her young son and said 'Merry Christmas,' " John explained. "And you just knew - from the sound of this woman's voice - that this was this Mom's very first 'Merry Christmas' of the holiday season. That being surrounded by the Osborne Lights like that had just filled this woman with the holiday spirit."

And given the overwhelmingly positive reaction that the Osborne Lights got from WDW Guests during the 1995 holiday season, Disney-MGM quickly made plans to make this display a perennial. And with each new edition of the Osborne Lights, Disney's techs kept just what Jennings did. Which was add a few more lights every year until this display was eventually made up of more than 5 million lights.


Photo by David Roark. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And when Residential Street gave way to Lights, Motors, Action! ... Well, we just told our Guests that - just like the Osborne Lights got too big for Little Rock - MGM's holiday lights display outgrew Residential Street. Which is why we then had to move it to the Big City," Phelan continued.

And every year, Jennings and his family would come on down to Disney World so that they could once again enjoy all of the lights that used to decorate their homes.

"That was part of our deal with the Osborne Family. Jennings didn't want any money for the use of his lights. But he and his family would always come down to Disney World December 23rd through January 1st. And we'd then treat them to a suite at the Grand Floridian. And Jennings and his family would come over to the Studios for one night of their visit. And we'd then have this special ceremony where Jennings & Breezy would turn on the lights for that night," John recalled.


In a 2006 photo, Mickey Mouse and Jennings Osborne join the captains of the University
of Arkansas football team to turn on the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The Osborne Family's visit for the 2011 holiday season is going to be especially poignant, given that Jennings passed away this past July.

"We've made a point of working a couple of tributes to Jennings into this year's version of the Osborne Lights. Like the single all-white angel who flies over the Streets of America's central square and that flat-screen we've set up in one of the storefront's windows which tells the whole story of how the Osborne Family Lights made the trip from Arkansas to Walt Disney World," Phelan stated. "But there's just no way that you can replace someone who was as kind and as generous as Jennings Osborne was."

Which brings me to John's favorite Jennings Osborne story. Which was when he asked one of the technicians who worked on the original Little Rock, AR version of this holiday display why they positioned their red-canopy-of-lights so low to the ground.


Photo by Gene Duncan. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And this tech explained to me that Jennings wanted to give people the feeling that they were actually inside the lights. That they were completely surrounded by the holidays, which would then hopefully fill them up with the holiday spirit. And that's what we now to try to do every year at Disney's Hollywood Studios," Phelan concluded. "Especially with our Streets of America version of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. We try and completely surround our Guests with the holidays. Just like Jennings Osborne used to do back in Little Rock with the original version of this display."

So how many of you JHM readers have made a special trip to Disney's Hollywood Studios just to see the Osborne Lights? More importantly, how many of you have made a holiday tradition out of searching this display for Mitzi's purple cat?

Special thanks to the nice folks at Pixie Vacations for sponsoring today's JHM column.

 

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  • Saw the lights for the first time last year...simply amazing. Now that I hear it was the last time that Jennings saw the lights as well, it makes it that much more special.  A true Disney masterpiece and definitely worth at least one viewing if you haven't seen it. It truly embodies the spirit of the season.

  • I LOVE going to see the lights at Disney Studios, they are truely a sight to behold. I agree if you can you need to see them at least once.  You can't help but feel the spirit of Christmas when you are there. We were at WDW on Christmas day last year truely wonderful!

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