Every year around the holidays, my heart longs for an old Disney favorite that falls squarely in the good ‘ole days category. It was a holiday tradition for many that would see families traveling from around the world to experience something unmatched in theme park holiday—the Osborne Family Lights.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios played host to the annual seasonal event, which saw the backlot area of the park lit up with millions of lights that covered the Streets of America and came to life every ten minutes to “dance.” How did this wonderfully peculiar holiday showing come to be? Well, that is what we are diving into for this month’s Brief History of Disney.
The Osborne family, Jennings, his wife Mitzi, and daughter Allison Brianne, affectionately nicknamed Breezy, became fixated on decorating their home on a large estate with thousands of lights around the holiday season. The practice originated in Breezy’s request to decorate their house at only six years of age in 1986. Over the years, they purchased two more estates on the adjacent blocks and the display extended to the neighboring sites. By 1993, the area held more than three million lights and included special features such as a canopy of 30,000 red lights over an area of the driveway. Another prominent feature was the 70-foot (21 m)-tall Christmas tree that displayed three colored layers of more than 80,000 bulbs.
The lights attracted many to the area, often covered by television crews and media outlets around the holidays as the attraction grew. However, not everyone in the Little Rock, Arkansas area was on board with the seasonal display. Those living on what became the business street in the neighborhood experienced multiple disruptions, including traffic issues and congestion. By 1993, Osborne’s ever-expanding lights were lit for 35 days of the holiday period from sunset to midnight, reportedly causing six neighbors to file legal action to end the disruption. Apparently, the family responded by enhancing their display with more lights, a move than could seem combative, to say the least.
As the story goes, the county court reined in the chaos, limiting the extravaganza to a 15-day showing limited between the hours of 7 pm and 10:30 pm, an outcome that the Osbornes were unsatisfied with. The family took the matter further to both the state Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, losing both appeals in their fight for the light display to continue uninhibited. Osborne later erected a much smaller display that appeased locals and wasn’t considered a public nuisance the way the original had been. According to the lawsuit details on Justia, Osborne was sentenced to “ten days in the county jail, with ten days suspended,” on top of a fine.
So, what’s the connection between this inspired family and Disney? We are getting to that part now. The story had made headlines around the country as onlookers chose sides in the debate between festive cheer and creating a chaotic nightmare for local residents. One man whose attention was captured was Disney’s own John Phelan, Walt Disney Worlds’ project director, who contacted the Osbornes to discuss the future of their creation. Disney had hoped it would install the light show in the backlot of then-named Disney-MGM Studios, now Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Luckily, Osborne was a Disney fan himself and needed little convincing, which led to the 1995 creation of the”The Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights”
The lights became the holiday event of the season, with families like mine traveling from all over the world to take in the majestic feel of such a large-scale display. Disney added to the enchantment too, with new features each year, including the addition of relay lighting controls that allowed the lights to “dance” to music at certain intervals.
September 11, 2015, saw the announcement from Disney that the upcoming holiday season would be the final year for the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. The final performance was scheduled for January 3, 2016, an evening I was lucky enough to have flown down from Manhattan to be a part of with my kids. There was such electricity in the air; it was hard to believe that Disney wouldn’t continue with such a wonderful tradition. Disney then extended the showing for an additional three nights before the lights turned off for the very last time.
After the exhibit’s closure, Disney donated parts of the lighting display to local charity Give Kids The World and is currently used for the” Night of a Million Lights” event that raises money for the village to fund the continued work of hosting wishes and caring for guests. The area the lights once occupied was soon cleared, and work began on what we now know as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
If you remember your first, or last trip to see the Osborne Lights, tell me about your experience in the comments below.
Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.
Join Zoë as she lets you in on all the tips, tricks, anecdotes, and embarrassments that arise from her family adventures.