The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

One of the wonderful things to do when visiting Orlando during holiday season is visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios and take a look at the fabulous Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

The story of how the lights came to be is quite fascinating;

Jennings Osborne, along with his wife Mitzi, founded a medical research facility in 1968 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The business’ success allowed the couple to eventually purchase a large estate outside of town in 1976 and four years later, in 1980, the Osbornes welcomed little Breezy into the world.

In 1986, Breezy made a very simple request of her parents for Christmas … to decorate their home in lights. Jennings gladly complied, stringing 1000 lights around their home. “Each year after that, it got bigger and bigger,” Osborne would later recall. So big, in fact, that Osborne purchased the two properties adjacent to his own and expanded the display into them.

By 1993, the display had over three million lights and some of the more prominent features included:

* an illuminated globe, with Little Rock and Bethlehem marked, mounted in the back yard;
* two rotating carousels of lights, placed on each end of the estate’s circular driveway;
* a 70-foot-tall Christmas tree of lights with 80,000 lights in three colored layers, mounted atop the home’s kitchen; and
* a canopy of 30,000 red lights over a section of the driveway
The lights were a wildly popular attraction, both in Arkansas and around the world, as news crews often visited to film the display.

The display was, however, not as popular with some of the Osborne’s neighbors. They claimed that the display created massive traffic jams near their homes, and in 1994 they filed suit to have the display turned off. Ultimately, Osborne agreed to several conditions on the display, such as a set schedule for when the lights would be turned on and hiring off-duty police officers to help the neighbors enter and exit their properties.

Much as generosity spurred the creation of the display, another act of generosity may have spelled its doom in Arkansas. After a family arrived just after the display had been turned off for the night, Jennings agreed to switch the lights on for them, in violation of the court order and netting him a $10,000 fine. The neighbors returned to court, which sided with them and ordered the display turned off permanently. Osborne appealed to both the Arkansas Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, where Justice Clarence Thomas refused to hear the case.

The story of the light display’s court case brought national attention, including offers from several cities to host the display but it was Walt Disney World project director John Phelan who contacted Osborne’s attorney about moving the display to the Orlando resort, and eventually discussed the potential move with Osborne himself.

Osborne was intrigued by the offer, but initially understood that Disney wanted to put the display on another residential street in Orlando. What Phelan actually offered was to install the display on “Residential Street,” a backlot section at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park (then known by its original name, the Disney-MGM Studios). Being a fan of the resort himself, and realizing where the display would go, Osborne accepted Disney’s offer. In 1995, the display was set up on Residential Street as “The Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights,” becoming an immediate success.

Residential Street was visited using the backlot tour’s tram vehicles. When the light display was in place, however, the tram tours would stop before sunset, allowing guests to walk amongst the displays. Initially the display was purely the original lights from the Osborne estate, but in subsequent years the display was augmented to its current size of over five million lights. The display’s Disney caretakers have also added a number of hidden Mickeys into the lights.

The display is made up of over 10 miles (16 kilometers) of rope lighting connected by another 30 miles (48 kilometers) of extension cords. The extension cords and lights are held together using two million ties. It takes 20,000 man-hours to install the display each holiday season, starting in September. The lights are turned on at dusk each night, starting in mid-November and running into the first week of January, and require 800,000 watts of electricity.

In 2004, the park began construction on a new arena for its upcoming Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show, that opened  in 2005. Part of the construction included the demolition of Residential Street, thus necessitating another move of the display. The solution was to move it to another part of the park, the New York Street set (now known as the Streets of America). As part of the move, the Studios added an artificial snow effect to the display, made up of 33 snow machines that use 100 gallons of fluid per evening.

In 2006, the park added over 1500 dimmer relay circuits and control switches to the display to enable the lights to switch on and off electronically and this remains in place today. The switches are choreographed to a musical score during which the lights “dance” to the music. After each performance, the lights remain steady for about ten minutes before “dancing” again to another selection; other holiday selections play during the intermissions. The “dance music” selections include:

* “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

Admission to the display is free with admission to the park, and it’s a MUST SEE if you’re visiting Walt Disney World over the holidays. Here’s some video…

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