(A version of this article was shared with Pirates & Princesses and published on December 2, 2023.)
One fateful day in 1986, a young girl asked her father if he could please decorate their house with lights for Christmas. Dad said “yes.” But this was no ordinary dad. This was Jennings Osborne, a wealthy entrepreneur, businessman, and big-hearted philanthropist. What started as a 1,000-light private home display eventually grew into a multi-million-light spectacle in one of the largest theme parks in the world. Come take a walk and absorb the sights of the “Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights” in this edition of Dearly Departed Disney.
A Glimmer of Light in Little Rock
Jennings Osborne – an Arkansas native born in 1943 – lived his whole life in his beloved midwestern home state. He graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in business and biology, and in 1968 he and his wife Mitzi founded the Arkansas Research Medical Testing Center.
With the success of his business came a good amount of financial freedom. Osborne used his financial flexibility for good, becoming a noted philanthropist throughout Arkansas and beyond. As a philanthropist, he regularly hosted charity barbecues and sponsored fireworks shows around his home state. In hindsight, it comes as no surprise that he would take the subject of Christmas decorating quite seriously (and generously).
When Osborne’s daughter Allison (nicknamed “Breezy”) asked him to decorate their Little Rock home with lights, his initial 1,000-light investment proved to be just the first flicker in an enormous illuminated Christmas journey. Over the next seven years, Osborne’s display grew in size and detail. And with that increased scope came increased popularity.
By 1993, the Osborne home – with its 3 million lights – drew the attention of holiday sightseers from all around the region, and news crews came from far and wide to report on the spectacle. The Osborne estate boasted an illuminated globe (with both Bethlehem and Little Rock proudly marked), two rotating carousels of lights, a 70-foot-tall, 80,000-light Christmas tree, and a 30,000-light canopy over the driveway. For 35 glorious nights during the Christmas season, the Osborne family’s display was lit from sunset until midnight.
However, not everyone was cheerful about Osborne’s excessive Christmas spirit. Six neighbors collaborated to file a lawsuit, claiming that traffic congestion in the neighborhood made simple trips to the local store take two hours. In addition, they warned the court that emergency vehicles could not get down the street in a timely fashion while the lights were lit and attracting thousands of visitors.
How did Jennings Osborne respond? By adding more lights to his display. Osborne even bought the houses on either side of his own, so he could decorate them as well!
Osborne’s arrogance wasn’t well received by the neighbors and local court officials, and during the 1994 Christmas season the country court ordered Osborne to limit the display to 15 days, allowing illumination from 7:00 PM to 10:30 PM. Osborne appealed the county court’s decision to both the Arkansas Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, but he was unsuccessful with both appeals. The Osborne family was Grinched even further in 1995, when the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered his display to be scaled back almost entirely.
Christmas Comes To Walt Disney World
Just when it looked like the Osborne family’s Christmas wonderland would be melted like April snow, the Walt Disney Company stepped in. The story of Osborne’s court case brought national attention, including offers from several cities to host the oversized display. Walt Disney World project director John Phelan contacted Osborne about moving his festive display to a residential street in Orlando.
Osborne liked the idea of his display living on, but wasn’t sure how Disney would avoid the same issue he faced in Little Rock. Of course, what Osborne didn’t understand was that Disney was not simply proposing to put the lights on any old residential street – they wanted to put the lights on their “Residential Street” – as in, a specific area of the Disney-MGM Studios theme park.
With that confusion ironed out, the Osborne family agreed to donate their display to Disney. Initially christened “The Osborne Family Festival of Lights,” the display debuted at Disney-MGM Studios on November 24,1995, and was an immediate smash hit for the 1995 holiday season.
Residential Street, which hosted the spectacle, was only open to guests riding the tram portion of the now-extinct Studio Backlot Tour at the time. But during the holiday season, the tram tours would stop by sunset, so guests could stroll down Residential Street on foot admiring the glow of the holiday season.
Initially, the Disney display included only the original lights from the Osborne estate. But over the years, Disney’s display grew, just like it had back in Osborne’s Little Rock estate. The total number of lights used in the display eventually topped out at over five million. In addition to the lights, Disney’s decorators tucked in dozens of Hidden Mickeys throughout the display.
At the height of its splendor, Disney’s version of the Osborne Lights included over 10 miles of rope lighting and 30 miles of extension cords, fastened together by over two million ties. The seasonal task of decorating took Disney a total of 20,000 man-hours.
The Ever Growing Osborne Lights
The Osborne Lights flourished on Residential Street for nearly a decade. But in 2003, Disney was planning the construction of a new arena for its upcoming Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show, planned to open in 2005. The construction for the show necessitated the demolition of Residential Street. Sadly, the Osborne Lights had no home for the 2003 holiday season, and never saw the light of day, much to the dismay of many festive fans. Thankfully, there was an ideal solution available, literally down the street. New York Street (later known as the Streets of America) was available to host the evening spectacular.
Rewarding fans for the year without lights, Disney added a snow effect to the display in 2004 (affectionately known by Disney Parks fans as “snoap”). A total of 33 snow machines blew sentimental snow through the air, much to the delight of all in attendance.
A major enhancement to the Osborne Lights came three years later in 2006, courtesy of sponsor Siemens (under their subsidiary Sylvania). The addition of approximately 1,500 dimmer switches gave Disney the ability to better control the lights. The dimmers were synced to a selection of holiday songs, which allowed the lights to “dance” to the rhythm of the music. Popular songs used in the holiday playlist included “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12-24” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Jingle Bells” by Barbra Steisand, and ”Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano. It was at this time that the display received a new name – “The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.”
The Osborne Lights received one final major upgrade in 2011, when the traditional incandescent lights were all replaced by LEDs, making the display just a little bit brighter (and a lot more efficient). A giant canopy of lights was added over the street as well, reminiscent of the lighted canopy over the Osborne family’s Little Rock driveway back in the 1980s.
Turning Off the Lights
After a wildly successful 21-year run, time ran for the Osborne Lights. As the complexion of Disney’s Hollywood Studios continued to change, immersive attractions and lands were increasingly replacing the “working studio” nature of the park. In August 2015, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced two of Disney’s largest theme park ventures to date – the construction of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land – both of which would be created for Hollywood Studios. Together, these lands would serve to continue the evolution of Disney’s theme park experience, but that evolution came at the expense of existing attractions like Lights, Motor, Action!, the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, and the Streets of America.
The 2015 holiday season would be the last for the Osborne Lights, with a final performance scheduled for January 3, 2016. Disney offered one last finale for the spectacle, when they extended the final run for three more days to January 6, 2016. Fittingly, the final two songs to play that night were “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Mickey Mouse Club Alma Mater.”
A Fitting End
Following the conclusion of the Osborne Lights, Disney donated the vast majority of the lights to the Give Kids the World Village charity complex. Give Kids The World Village is an 89-acre, nonprofit “storybook” resort in Central Florida. Children with critical illnesses and their families are treated to week-long, cost-free vacations to give them a bit of fun and respite from the health battles with which they consistently struggle. The Osborne Lights were used to support the organization’s ”Night of a Million Lights” event for several years, to help raise money for the Village to continue its mission of hosting wishes and their guests. The donation of the lights to such a meaningful charity is exactly the type of action Jennings Osborne himself would be proud of.
As for Jennings Osborne…
The Osborne family were big Disney fans, and they visited the parks in Orlando year after year to visit the growing display of Christmas lights that honored their family name. While his lights became a holiday tradition at Walt Disney World, Jennings Osborne continued to irritate his neighbors back home in Arkansas. In the early 2000s, Osborne installed 100,000 lights that formed an American flag and spelled out “God Bless America and George W. Bush.” The politically charged patriotic display remained lit until 2008, despite several instances of vandalism.
Osborne himself passed away in July 2011, while his namesake light display was at its peak in Walt Disney World. No one person, political ideal, or religious belief is without flaws and limitations, but it’s impossible to dispute the generosity that Osborne bestowed upon those he found in need. His philanthropy was famously over the top, and for that he will long be remembered – in Arkansas and in Walt Disney World.
The next time you take a drive by that house in your area that goes over the top for Christmas lights – including props, blowup characters, and music – you can thank Jennings Osborne and Walt Disney World for plowing the way!
Thanks for joining us for this festive flashback to one of Disney’s great yuletide treats. Please follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to explore many other former attractions and experiences from Walt Disney World, including Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. We will also visit Disneyland and other Disney destinations!
The Osborne Lights may be gone, but Disney’s Hollywood Studios still has so much holiday cheer to offer, including the newest hard-ticket event, Disney Jollywood Nights. Wanna visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios and experience some movie magic firsthand? Now, more than ever, is a great time to use professional travel planning services when planning your next Disney trip. Facts and Figment Travel Planning can help you score the best discounts Disney has to offer, at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani, or Adventures by Disney. Please start here to begin. Our travel planning services are absolutely FREE, and we can help you score the best, hardest-to-get deals to make your vacation more affordable.
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Sources referenced in writing this article include: