Five Things I Miss About a WDW Christmas

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Even though it is December 26, the day after Christmas, I have learned that, at Walt Disney World, Christmas lasts until just after the beginning of the New Year. The decorations are still up, the holiday entertainment still performs, and yuletide merchandise can still be purchased.

However, over the last two decades, several treasured experiences at WDW have disappeared never to return. When I mention them to my peers, they nod their heads and smile knowingly and fondly. However, for a newer generation, these magical moments have long been forgotten.

I'm not just talking about the large stage show in front of Cinderella Castle with Scrooge McDuck ("A Sparkling Christmas Spectacular") or the smaller Disney character show that took place in front of a large chimney ("Mickey's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas") that lasted 23 minutes.

I am remembering the spectacular WDW Christmas traditions that lasted for decades.

5. Lights of Winter

After more than a decade from 1994-2008, in 2009 when Walt Disney World did not install The Lights of Winter at Epcot, it was announced that it had been officially and unexpectedly retired.

The Lights of Winter was a series of canopy archways of 30,000 dazzling colored lights, running along the bridge walkway from Future World to the World Showcase Plaza that would be synchronized to a selection of holiday music. The immersive, towering experience delighted guests who loved walking under the arches of dancing lights.

The reason given for its removal was antiquated technology ("tech to operate the lights is obsolete, prompting us to retire the lights" stated the official Disney Twitter account) even though several sections had already been updated in past years and, in fact, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights had recently undergone an overhaul to bring it up to modern technology.

A special pin was released in 2017 with Mickey, Minnie and Pluto celebrating the Lights of Winter giving fans the hope it might return. It didn't.

4. Jolly Holidays Dinner Show at the Contemporary

"Those Jolly, Jolly, Jolly Holidays! Those Holly, Holly, Holly Jolly Days! All the decorations! Many celebrations! Many happy faces! Cozy fireplaces! Let the bells ring out now! Everyone sing out now!"

The Jolly Holidays Dinner Show at Disney's Contemporary Resort was performed from 1992 through the 1998 Christmas season when it was discontinued. Shows were held at 4:15 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets were $62 ($35 ages 3-9) including tax and gratuity.

The Fantasia Ballroom was converted into an immersive theater-in-the-round setting for a dinner show with more than 100 talented performers in a musical extravaganza.

Besides the raised main stage, there were several smaller stages on the outer perimeter of the decorated tables that seated groups of hungry guests for the holiday dinner show.

Performers spilled out into the audience, as well. The show took place at "Holiday Village," where the patriarch of the town known simply as "Papa" (and looking a bit like a grey-bearded Sebastian Cabot with a deep gravely voice and originally portrayed by Streetmosphere actor Michael Marzella) recalled his memories of the holidays.

Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and Chip 'n' Dale cavorted with perky singers and dancers. The Country Bears dropped by to perform a tune before they went back out into the snow to play. There was even a short version of the Nutcracker Suite featuring the dancing hippos and ostriches from Fantasia.

Of course, some scenes and costumes seemed to have been borrowed from other shows at the park including the tap dancing horses for the sleigh ride, the marching toy soldiers and Santa Goofy making an appearance.

In addition, guests enjoyed an all-you-can-eat feast of fresh-cooked turkey, honey-baked ham and other holiday treats. It was a hugely popular show, often completely sold out even at the premium price, although significant changes were made in its final year that did not please everyone.

3. Country Bear Christmas Special

The Country Bear Christmas Special was a special holiday edition of the popular Country Bear Jamboree attraction that premiered simultaneously during the 1984 holiday season at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. It featured new costumes, settings, songs and re-programmed movements for the Audio-Animatronics bruins. The last time it was performed at WDW was in 2006.


Country Bear Christmas Special was last performed in the Magic Kingdom in 2006

Liver Lips McGrowl dressed as Elvis with a Christmas tree shaped guitar. Teddi Barra attired in ski gear had a cast on her leg. Terrence in white fur looking like a polar bear was next to a shivering penguin encased in ice. The Disney Archives still has that penguin and it still works.

Big Al dressed as Baby New Year. Even Buff, the buffalo on the wall, wore a Santa Hat while his deer companion Max had a red light bulb on his nose and goofy moose Melvin had a string of Christmas lights hanging on his antlers.

The songs with a country western twang included:

WDW officially stated that the show would no longer be offered because of the fear of disappointing guests because of the extended time to install and remove the overlay so the attraction would be down. The explanation was that WDW entertains guests who save up three to five years to visit and often they are international guests so they would be upset not to be able to experience the traditional attraction.

It is the same explanation that WDW uses to answer why neither the Haunted Mansion nor "it's a small world" undergo a holiday transformation as they do at Disneyland Park that supposedly must have something new to entertain the annual passholders who represent the core of its attendance.

2. Glory and Pageantry of Christmas

For more than 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s, the Disney Village Marketplace (now known as Disney Springs) ushered in the season with a performance of The Glory and the Pageantry of Christmas that featured a re-creation of the manger scene while a narrator read the Christmas story and hymns were sung. It was presented at 6 p.m., 7:30 p.m., and 9 p.m.

It was literally a traditional "living nativity scene" enactment that was originally performed at the open-air pavilion known as the Captain's Tower (now Pin Traders), but soon moved to the larger venue of the Waterfront Dock Stage. The shopping area nearby was decorated to suggest a re-creation of the little town of Bethlehem.

It was such a popular and dignified show that guests did not mind standing in line for hours for a chance to see it. "The Christmas Story" narrated by Kevin Miles (whose deep baritone voice could also be heard in venues like Epcot's Voices of Liberty and Magic Kindgom's Dapper Dans) and interspersed with Christmas songs, was a simple but memorable experience.

Mary and Joseph approached the manger and she revealed a child wrapped in swaddling clothes. The shepherds appeared. The angels appeared, rising up from behind the manger. There was a total cast of 36 performers.

The narration told how the shopkeepers of the village brought gifts including cheese from the dairyman and breads from the baker. Sadly, one little orphan child had no gift to bring. To the strains of the song Little Drummer Boy, a small child walked up to the manger and encouraged by Mary, played his drum.

There was no official announcement of the reason for the show's cancellation, but there were rumors that it had grown so popular that large audiences caused logistical challenges. There were also some grumblings that the show was not substantially increasing sales at the nearby shops.

1. Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is now an extinct tradition at Walt Disney World. It lasted from November 24, 1995 to January 6, 2016 and delighted thousands of guests for two decades.


The Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights ran until 2016 at Hollywood Studios.

Walt Disney World officially described the experience 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 multicolored 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 was indeed something that needed 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 a hugely successful businessman.

In 1980, his only daughter, Allison Brianne who went by the nickname "Breezy" from her middle name, was born. Her father, as might be imagined, was extremely busy with his business and so was not always around.

When Breezy was 6 years old in 1986, he asked her what she wanted for Christmas that year, expecting her to reply some type of popular toy or maybe even a pony or a visit to Walt Disney World.

Breezy said 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, Jennings extravagantly decorated the outside of the house with over a thousand 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, Jennings#39; home was located on one of the busiest streets in Little Rock, Arkansas and as the fame of this display spread, it resulted in severe traffic problems as visitors clogged the street to experience the illuminated spectacle.

Jennings' light display resulted in complaints from his neighbors about the disruption 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 thirty-five 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 over a month each year.

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. Jennings ignored the ruling and was fined $10,000.

Jennings 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," Jennings 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."

John Phelan was a respected and beloved show director for Walt Disney World 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 television 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 then-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.

Laval assigned Phelan to see what could be done.

The Osborne family were huge Disney fans and had visited Walt Disney World many times. Jennings 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.

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 100 bulbs to a single strand.

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

Jennings 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 "on the Mouse" 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 Jennings and his daughter Breezy to turn on the lights that evening.

When the four 18-wheel Mayflower Moving Vans arrived at Walt Disney World on November 4, 1995, and the lights were unloaded, 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.

Jennings 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.

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.

The lights for display were all converted to energy-efficient LED lights beginning in 2011 making the lights not only environmentally friendly, less expensive in terms of electricity but also brighter. Of course, there were dozens of hidden Mickeys as well throughout the display

Glow With The Show Mickey ears were introduced in 2013 that changed color along with the lights. Santa Goofy was also part of the experience for several years.

Unfortunately, because of his many acts of generosity and his failed attempt to start a new business after he sold his initial one, Jennings died more than $3.5 million in debt and all three of his houses were eventually sold at auction.

Even though Jennings was ordered to remove his massive light display on his home (and the first year that happened he installed one 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.

January 6, 2016, was the last day the lights glowed because the entire area was being demolished for the construction of the new land Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. There were rumors the lights might be relocated to some other location on WDW property, including Disney Springs, but that has not yet happened.

 

Comments

  1. By Dave1313

    Late reader here (catching up after Holidays! ), but that was really interesting!

    Of all of these, I had only actually experienced the Osborne Lights, unfortunately only for it's last 2 years. I hope someday they find some way to bring it back. I think there have been a few good discussions about the challenges on MP threads before. IMO, the SOA area was unfortunately unique in it's ability to easily host the show (at least in final years) without seriously impacting any big attractions or restaurants ability to operate.

    The Country Bears one was something I was not aware of. That looks like it must have been quite fun!

    IMO, the reason for dropping it (or not doing the HM or IASW overlays at WDW) is a cop-out by Disney. It's not like it's hard to know the rough shut-down periods when overlays are installed. It's pretty much like clock-work at DL for IASW and HM. Any decent planning could avoid that time to not visit if they want to see the normal versions. Not that I'm complaining, but WDW did do the Jingle Cruise overlay again this year, but I understand they did not at DL. So maybe it's becoming more of wanting to identify the overlays with one particular park?

    I could see an argument that for IASW and HM that the layout at WDW doesn't work as well in terms of the exterior decoration of the facades. HM is sort of in a corner with not as much visible from the walkway as there is for DL, so I'd have to agree it wouldn't be easy to make it as elaborate as DL. Many of the details are small enough that it would be hard or impossible to see them from the further distances from which you can see more of the HM at WDW. IASW would be fine on the inside (assuming the lack of dry floor space around the displays that exists in DL could be worked around), but obviously the abbreviated internal facade at WDW doesn't hold a candle to the grander nature of the original at DL.

    Sorry, I went a little deeper than I intended with the other overlays discussion. I would love to see the Country Bears Christmas overlay return though!

    The Epcot Lights of Winter sounds like it was pretty good too. That would seem to be something relatively easy to implement with newer tech, but I'd guess with the rumors (maybe rumors isn't right - maybe "non-specific announcement"? ) regarding updates of the whole area from Future World to the World Showcase Plaza, it wouldn't make sense to invest in it right now if the area is going to be changing significantly in the not too distant future.

    Thanks again for the history lesson!

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