10 Facts About The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

It’s hard to deny that nostalgia plays a major role in the holidays. Just picture it: Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas.” A triple dog dare to lick a frozen flagpole. Jimmy Stewart finding Zuzu’s petals in his pocket. Or just the smell of hot cocoa and peppermint. 

Nostalgia is a huge part of Disney fandom as well. We may sing and dream of that great, big, beautiful tomorrow, but we also pine for attractions and shows from yesteryear. When it comes to the holiday season, it’s safe to say that The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is one of the most beloved and most missed Walt Disney World Holiday traditions. It may be beyond our power to return it to the parks, but we can offer a loving tribute!   

Thank you to Mike Billick and Garry Rollins for the amazing photos!!!



A Family Affair

In 1986, a young girl named Allison Osborne, known as Breezy to the family, asked her father to decorate their home for Christmas. Little did she know that her father Jennings would go on to create such an elaborate display that it would one day catch the eye of Disney. 

That first year the house was decorated with 1,000 lights. Over the next seven years it would continue to grow, drawing thousands of visitors to their quiet neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. By 1993, the family was using 3.2 million lights for the display, including a glittering 70-foot tree.



If It Pleases the Court

While hordes of curious visitors were enthralled by the spectacle, there were some people who were somewhat…less enthusiastic. The massive flow of traffic that the display created began to annoy Osborne’s neighbors, who decided to take the issue to court.

The judge ruled in favor of the neighbors, ordering the family to reduce the number of days that the lights were operating, and limiting the hours from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. The Osbornes appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, and when that didn’t go their way, took the case all the way to the nation’s Supreme Court. Jennings argued that limiting his light display was a violation of his first amendment rights to religious freedom. SCOTUS did not agree. 



Welcome to the House of Mouse

With his last legal option behind him, Jennings might have just thrown in the towel altogether. Lucky for all of us, John Phelan, Walt Disney World Project Director, approached Osborne about bringing the display to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then known as Disney-MGM Studios). A deal was struck, and the show made its Orlando debut in 1995. 



What’s In a Name?

The show was known as The Osborne Family Festival of Lights when it opened. It did not become the Spectacle of Dancing Lights until 2006 when 1500 dimmers were added that allowed the lights to “dance” to an array of classic holiday songs. 



Location, Location, Location…

From 1995 until 2004, the Osborne Family Festival was located on the park’s Residential Street, a back-lot portion of the park. However, this area was eventually repurposed to hold the Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show. The lights were moved to New York Street (later known as the Streets of America). Along with a new location, the show was given fake snow, adding to the sense of wonder experienced by Guests. 



Let’s Run the Numbers

So, we’ve established that Osborne’s home display had 3.2 million lights by its last holiday season in Arkansas. That number grew to 5 million at Disney. But what are some other stats about this Christmas wonder of the world? 

It contained ten miles of rope lighting and 30 miles of extension cords. It took 20,000 man-hours to install. In his 2006 interview, Phelan stated that 30 technicians began working on the project each August. He also indicated that a crew of two took care of the lights year-round. The display also included 100 angels, two large carousels, and the enormous tree that was once at Osborne’s home.  According to Phelan, the lights also drew about 800.000 watts of electricity.



I’m Going to Graceland…

Though Osborne’s home display ended (sort of) when it moved to Disney, Jennings continued decorating other locations. He designed lighting arrangements for the City of Little Rock and Elvis’s mansion Graceland. He would also eventually make a 100,000-light display at his home that formed the image of the American flag.



Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

In the fall of 2015, Disney announced that the coming holiday season would mark the end of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Fans worldwide continue to mourn the decision, hoping that the company will one day bring it back.



The Spirit of the Season

In 2006, John Phelan spoke of the moment he knew that the display was something special. He stated, “I always tell the story of the very first time, 11 years ago, when we turned on the lights. I was walking down the street and, of course, it was filled with Guests. I’m behind this family. It’s a mother walking next to her about 10- or 11-year-old son, and she gets under the big red canopy, which you’ll see on the street, and, of course, the Christmas music is playing and all that sort of stuff. And she suddenly stops in her tracks and she just looks down at her son, and it was just the way that she looked at him, and the way then she said, “Merry Christmas.” And to me, I know this may seem very simple, but to me, it was just the sound of her voice; it was the look she gave him. I knew it was the very first “Merry Christmas” that she said that year; it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. And something clicked inside of me and said, that’s what these lights are all about. It kind of creates a feeling in you that sort of spills out into the Christmas spirit….”



Friends in High Places

When Jennings Osborne passed away in 2011, an obituary noted, “Mr. Osborne had ties to state and national politicians and was known for supplying pork dinners for many public gatherings.” Those pork dinners must have been mighty tasty because he could count President Bill Clinton among his many admirers (though his philanthropic work may have played a part too). 

The former commander-in-chief even issued a statement, which read, “Jennings had a big heart and gave so much to so many people throughout his extraordinary life. From personally providing holiday cheer through his light shows to helping families get back on their feet after natural disasters, Jennings’ capacity to give was truly awe-inspiring.’’


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