Secret History of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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William Jennings Osborne died in July 2011 at the age of 67 after complications of heart surgery. He collected knives, bullwhips and ventriloquist dolls.

This year, his legacy of Christmas lights, showcased at Disney's Hollywood Studios for two decades, will also pass away to make room for new expansion at the park. Just like the removal of Epcot’s Lights of Winter archway, Disney is hoping that bright shiny new things will result in guests eventually forgetting, over time, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Walt Disney World officially describes the experience of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights on its website:

"Marvel at millions of glittering lights perfectly synchronized to holiday music. Share in an awe-inspiring seasonal treat for the entire family. Brilliant multi-colored bulbs wrap the buildings, changing hues and brightness throughout the show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

"As joyful music surrounds you, a sea of twinkling lights form twirling carousels of heavenly angels, toy soldiers, a spinning Earth, and even Santa and his trusty reindeer. It’s something you have to see to believe!"

It is indeed something that needs to be seen and experienced as there is no way of describing the feeling of being completely immersed in brightly-colored ever-changing lights in the cool night air of Orlando during the Christmas season.

William Jennings Osborne, who preferred being called Jennings, was born in 1943. A microbiologist by training, he founded the Arkansas Research Medical Testing Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1968 with his loving wife, Mitzi. The Center conducted human trials of new drugs, like Viagra and Motrin, for pharmaceutical companies. (They sold the company in 2004 for $24 million.)

The business became very successful and they bought a large estate in the middle of the town in 1976 on Robin Wood Street, a busy four-lane road.

In 1980, they had their only daughter, Allison Brianne, (who went by the nickname Breezy from her middle name, even as she grew into adulthood). Her father, as might be imagined, was extremely busy with his business and so was not always around. In 1986, when Breezy was 6, he asked her what she wanted for Christmas, expecting some type of popular toy on maybe even a pony.

She replied that she wanted to spend time together with her often-absent dad hanging lights on the outside of the house for the holidays. Jennings realized that he was missing the most important part of his life, spending time with his young daughter. That Christmas, Osborne extravagantly decorated the outside of the house with more than 1,000 Christmas lights to the joy of the entire family.

Every year after that, it became a tradition and Jennings kept adding more and more lights. However, his home was located on one of the busiest streets in Little Rock and, as the fame of this display spread, it resulted in severe traffic problems as visitors clogged the street to experience the illuminated spectacle.

Osborne would stand out on the front lawn with his family handing out candy canes ("more like candy LOGS. They were huge" one person told me at Disney who had lived in Little Rock and saw the spectacle) to those who dropped by to see the lights. Osborne was a large man himself and if he had wanted to he could have appeared intimidating, but his gentle smile dissuaded any thoughts of fear. Because of his size, he was something described as looking like Santa Claus.

His light display also resulted in complaints from his neighbors, so he bought the two houses on either side of him and every holiday season filled the outside of them with lights as well. By 1993, the display was lit for 35 days from sunset to midnight.

Eventually six neighbors filed a lawsuit claiming that traffic congestion made even short routine trips to a nearby grocery store a lengthy and difficult journey, that unwelcome gawkers trampled their lawns and flower beds and that it was impossible for emergency vehicles, like fire engines and ambulances, to get down the street. In the suit, the neighbors claimed they were prisoners in their own homes for more than a month each year.

He reviewed the complaint and added 3 million more lights that covered more than 600 feet, including 30,000 red lights in a canopy over part of the outdoor driveway. He did hire four off-duty policeman to assist neighbors leaving and returning to their homes.

Osborne never revealed the cost of the display, which required the care of a full-time engineer, or his electric bill, which was obviously enormous. Arkansas Power and Light said that in the single month of December, the Osborne decorations consumed as much electricity as the average Little Rock home did in an entire year, and when Osborne flicked on his switch in 1991, he blew out a power-company transformer and blacked out the entire neighborhood. Ever after, Osborne was assigned his own transformer.

So bright at night was the Osborne's 22,000-square-foot home, reported The Washington Post, "that pilots could see Mr. Osborne’s house from 80 miles away". Hovering above the main house, which was swaddled in light bulbs, was a gigantic electric globe with the words "For God So Loved the World" and a Nativity scene. There were special lights to illuminate the location of the cities of Little Rock and Bethlehem on the globe.

The Pulaski County Court issued an injunction that the display could only be lit for a maximum of 15 days and only from 7-10:30 p.m. Osborne ignored the ruling and was fined $10,000.

He appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds and lost. He took his appeal to the United States Supreme Court in 1994 where Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas refused to halt the order. In 1995, the Arkansas Supreme Court declared that the display be shut down completely.

"I do this to make people happy," Osborne told the New York Times newspaper in December 1994 to try to rally support. "It just makes me so sad that a few people could ruin something that so many enjoy. Every day is Christmas to me and I want to take everybody along."


In 1999, the Osborne Lights were located on Residential Street, and a lot less showy than they are today. Photo by Stephanie Wien.

John Phelan was a respected and beloved show director for Walt Disney World (WDW) Entertainment when, at a staff meeting, Bruce Laval, then-executive vice-president of WDW Theme Parks, talked about the news story he had seen on CNN the previous night about this amazing Christmas light display that was "glowing away."

He thought it might be a good promotional device to drive increased attendance at the Disney-MGM Studios park, since Magic Kingdom and Epcot had annual Christmas events that had done so.

After all, there were already a series of more than 700 feet of house facades on Residential Street on the backlot that could be used as the framework for the decorations, as well as extending it onto Washington Square and New York Street.

Phelan phoned Osborne’s business number but, after a brief conversation, he told Phelan to write up a proposal and send it to his attorney.

The Osborne family were HUGE Disney fans and had visited Walt Disney World many times. Osborne was excited at the offer, not only because his display would survive, but that it would be at Walt Disney World where millions—not just thousands—of people could enjoy it.

At first, Jennings had misunderstood and thought Disney was going to use the lights to decorate some local residential street in Orlando, but brightened even more when he learned the truth that it was going to be inside the park.

Phelan flew up to Little Rock to find that there were massive storage sheds in the backyards of the three houses Jennings owned filled with decorations. Phelan soon realized that some changes would have to be made because all the lights were the type that a person could just buy in a local store and were roughly just 50 to a 100 bulbs to a single strand.

Phelan also discovered that Osborne had gotten offers from several cities to house the light display, but he had turned them all down in favor of Disney.

Phelan became a good friend of Osborne and his family. He even had WDW cast member nametags made for them to wear when they attended the traditional lighting of the street.

Osborne never received any money for the use of his lights. His family would usually come down to Walt Disney World for about a week or so near the end of December and be put up as Disney’s treat at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa to visit the parks. The family would come over one night to Disney MGM Studios where a special ceremony was held for Osborne and his daughter Breezy to turn on the lights that evening.

"John, I like creating memories that people won’t soon forget," Osborne told Phelan. "I want the people to feel like they are inside the lights, looking out at the world."

Phelan wrote on the Disney Parks Blog in 2011 at the time of Jennings death:

"Now, you may think that a man who creates such a spectacular display on his house would be an extrovert and over the top. Jennings was the opposite. He was a quiet man although there was certainly a twinkle in his eye. He and his family came to Disney every year at Christmas time. He would spend hours on the street, talking to guests and chatting with the crew.

"The local press in Arkansas is calling him a great philanthropist, and indeed, he was. He donated holiday light displays to over 20 towns in Arkansas. He decorated hospitals, museums and the local zoo. He threw giant charity barbecues that fed 2,000 people at a time or more. He was a great proponent of committing ‘a random act of kindness.'"

"A random act of kindness" was the motto of the Osborne family and they aggressively practiced it.

When the four 18-wheel Mayflower Moving Vans arrived at Walt Disney World on November 4, 1995, and the lights were unloaded, Phelan discovered that there was a figure of a cat with an arched back outlined in purple.

Phelan contacted Osborne to try to identify where it fit into the overall Christmas display, and if it were perhaps a tribute to an Osborne pet. An amused Jennings replied that it was actually part of his Halloween lighting and he had shipped it by accident.

Phelan kept the cat and had it re-lit in a holiday style. Each year, the Walt Disney World lighting crew hides it somewhere in the display without letting Phelan know its location, thus making him go and find it.

There was a very short window of opportunity to string the lights for that holiday season. Three different teams of technicians worked around the clock for three straight weeks. Osborne even sent down four of his own people to help out especially with the bigger pieces like the carousel.

As a preface to the lights going on for the first time on November 24, 1995, there was a short 15-minute performance every evening titled "Lights! Camera! Christmas!" written and directed by my brother Michael Korkis. It was his first directing assignment for Walt Disney World Entertainment after many years as a Streetmosphere Performer, portraying old time cowboy star Kid Rawhide with a gigantic twirling lasso, and Nick Tracy, fabled lawman Dick Tracy’s brother at Disney MGM Studios.

The premise for the show was a movie director and his crew filming a scene for a holiday movie in Washington Square with all the guests gathered there being used as extras for the film, so they had to be coached to audibly respond appropriately for their cues since a camera on a crane was visible.

Two men from the power company show up and threaten to turn off the power since the permits hadn’t arrived yet. A funny argument ensues with the utility workers finally agreeing to allow the show to go on. However, the massive power switch refuses to light the lights.

Fortunately, a young child from the audience, who is filled with the spirit of Christmas, is chosen to come up on stage and with the encouragement of the guests is able to flip the switch so that the lights magically come on. Yes, the phrase "random act of kindness" was in the script to convince the utility workers.

This script’s format was inspired by the Merlin-driven "Sword in the Stone" ceremony performed at the Magic Kingdom, where, at the time, I was assisting in the portrayal of the Disney magician. My family, including Mike, came often to see me perform, and so the idea of having a child being the only one to save the day—and how well the audience reacted to that element—sparked Mike’s imagination when he was given the assignment to do some sort of ceremony for the lighting of the lights.

The script was laced with references to the Korkis family, including the name of the director C.B. Michaels that people assumed was a take-off on legendary film director C.B. DeMille but was actually a reference to Mike’s twin brother, Chris, and his mother Barbara, as well as his own name. The two clueless men from the power company were John and Jim, named after our father and me.

That show lasted until the lights were moved to the Streets of America.

When Residential Street was demolished almost a decade later in 2004 to make room for the car stunt show, Lights! Motors! Action!, the massive lighting extravaganza was reconfigured for the Streets of America. That new installation also marked the introduction of an artificial snow flake effect to herald the lighting of the lights.

In 2006, approximately 400 dimmer relay and control switches were added to the display, allowing the lights to be choreographed to a musical score. The holiday event now consisted of more than 5 million lights and was officially renamed the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Disney was not the first to use dancing lights, but its display was the largest. Disney continued to update and add more and more lights each year.

After a little controversy over the nativity scene's display, it was moved to the Italian pavilion at Epcot for the holidays.

One year, special glasses were given away where the guests could see images of angels in the lights. Again, because of a little controversy regarding religious aspects, those glasses were redone the next year so guests could see snowflakes instead. The glasses also worked on your own Christmas tree at home.

The lights for display were all converted to energy-efficient LED lights beginning in 2011, making the lights not only environmentally friendly and less expensive in terms of electricity, but also brighter. Scenes and music from the ABC holiday show Prep & Landing have also been added.

The infamous "leg lamp" from the popular movie A Christmas Story is in one of the windows, as are other unusual references. Of course, there are dozens of Hidden Mickeys, as well.

Glow With The Show Mickey ears were introduced in 2013. Santa Goofy has been part of the experience for several years now. There is an homage to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks football team, with a red razorback hog hidden among the lights since Osborne was a huge Razorbacks fan, including hosting free barbecues at Razorback games.

By the way the radio station WJBO that broadcasts music throughout the night is a tribute to William Jennings Osborne. The lighted Christmas stockings hanging on the building are for Jennings, Mitzi, and Breezy.

Osborne went on to string his lights in Little Rock's downtown River Market District and in dozens of other places, including a display at Graceland with a lighted Elvis.

Former President Bill Clinton said in 2011: "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."

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said in 2011: "I often said that Jennings was like a little boy who never had candy, but who one day bought the candy store—and found his greatest joy in giving candy to kids who were like he once was and couldn't afford it. He had the biggest heart in the world. He used it mostly for others. It finally gave out."

Unfortunately, because of his great generosity and his failed attempt to start a new business, he died more than $3.5 million dollars in debt, and all three of his houses were sold at auction.

Even though Jennings was ordered to remove his massive light display on his home (and the first year there was a lone weeping lit angel on his front lawn), he did continue to decorate the outside of his houses in a more modest fashion until his death. He and Breezy still hung some of the decorations themselves.

 

Comments

  1. By stan4d_steph

    Secret History of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights by Jim Korkis

    Take a walk with Jim behind the scenes of the Studios' holiday treat.

    Read it here

  2. By Dave1313

    Very nicely done article.

    I am relatively new to WDW and the Osborne Lights, but after experiencing them for the first time last year, I decided I needed to go back this year when it became highly likely (and then certain) that this would be the end.

    I just got back from my trip, I spent the last couple hours of the evening on Sunday and then close to the entire show hours on Wednesday enjoying the lights.

    I don't know if this element of the display has always been present or if it is a special tribute for the final year, but I highly recommend making sure to stop by the special window ("Osborne Electric") that has some photos and also a TV showing some of the history, newspaper stories, cartoons about the situation, etc. (One newspaper cartoon was a play on the "I'm going to Disney World" Superbowl ads regarding Jennings' response and agreement to move the display to WDW after the court order to stop the display at his home.) This window is in the building to your right as you face the NYC skyline facade(closest building to the facade). This window I believe was also running the video during the day when the lights were not lit (though there may be an audio component that was not running during the day).

    There is also a small 20th anniversary arrangement hidden within the display.

    Sad to see this end, but I guess the very thing that made it possible to put this display up at SoA also makes it near impossible to find a new home for the lights. The transforming of the studios over the years and the fact that there was not actually any big ticket attraction within the SoA is probably the only reason this worked without affecting any attractions or shops, restaurants, etc in a negative way.

    I'm still hoping for Disney to come up with some sort of display in the future, but I get that it's not likely. Even if without the dancing, it would be a nice tribute if they can take some of the unique elements (maybe the globe with angels, carousels, Mickey snowman, and the large tree as examples) and find a place to install them each year.

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