The History of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

From the Walt Disney World News and written by: Michele

Remembering The Clark Griswold of Arkansas

Jennings Osborne was known for his extravagant Christmas Display of lights. What began in 1986 as a 1,000 light Christmas display for his six year old daughter kept getting bigger and bigger every year until in 1993 it reached into a 3.2 million-light festival that brought news crews and visitors by the thousands.

In his yard was two 80-foot Christmas-tree-shaped masts, a calliope, a carousel, a giant illuminated globe, a steam engine driven by Mickey Mouse, and a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year sign in letters six feet high. The lights were on for 35 days to allow the greatest number of visitors to travel to see them. From Thanksgiving to new Year’s Day, as many as 30,000 visitors snarled traffic to his house on Cantrell Road in Little Rock.

In fact, his display got so big that local pilots said they could see his Christmas display from 80 miles away! It was so big that the power company had to assign Osborne his own transformer because he blew out the lights in pay off his neighborhood after he turned on his display.

Later in 1993, six neighbors filed a class action lawsuit claiming that his decorations were a public nuisance and he should take them down. The county judge agreed and told Osborne that he had to cut down the Christmas display time down to two weeks and only 3 ½ hours at night from 7PM to 10:30PM.and then forced him to remove most of his decorations.

Jennings Osborne appealed the county court’s decision to both the Arkansas Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, the latter of which saw Justice Clarence Thomas shoot down Osborne’s claim that his “religious freedom” was being violated. In 1995, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered his display shut down entirely!

Just when it looked like the Osborne’s version of Christmas would be cancelled permanently, the Walt Disney Company purchased his 3 million light display and sent four semi trucks to Little Rock, Arkansas to pick them up. The Osborne Family Festival of Lights, the display debuted at MGM Studios for the 1995 holiday season and was an immediate smash.

The lights quickly became a mainstay of the park during the holidays, and quickly began to evolve. Over the years, Disney added more and more lights, eventually topping out at over 5 million lights (and dozens of Hidden Mickeys).

In 2006, the display was rechristened The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, thanks to the addition of 1,500 dimmer switches that allowed the lights to “dance” to various Christmas and holiday songs, including “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12-24)” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and ”Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano. The show saw a final massive tech upgrade in 2011, when the traditional lights were all replaced by LEDs.

While his lights became a holiday institution at Walt Disney World, Jennings Osborne continued to irritate his neighbors back home in Arkansas. In the early 2000s, Jennings installed 100,000 lights that formed “an American flag and spelled out “God Bless America and George W. Bush.” Despite several instances of vandalism, the display stayed up until 2008.

Jennings Osborn passed away in 2011, but his light legacy remained at Walt Disney World in Orlando and was considered the Top 10 Christmas Display of Lights in America.

In September 2015, Disney announced that the upcoming holiday season would be the final one for the Osborne lights, as the entire Streets of America section of Hollywood Studios was set to be removed as part of the preparation for the land that eventually became Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights evolved from a request from a young girl to her father to decorate for Christmas to a beloved Walt Disney World institution, only to become a casualty of theme park progress. The Lights gave their final Walt Disney World performance on January 3, 2016. Appropriately, their final “dance” was set to the “Mickey Mouse Club Alma Mater” song.

Following the end of their run, Disney donated the vast majority of the lights to the Give Kids the World Village charity complex. They are currently used for the group’s ”Night of a Million Lights” event, and used to raise money for the village to continue its mission of hosting wishes and their guests.

Jennings Osborne, may he always be remembered as the Clark Griswold of Arkansas who’s legacy still remains 35+ years later.

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(This post falls under the Fair Use Act of 1976 for media publication.)

Michele

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