It all began Christmas 1986 – Jennings Osborne’s six-year-old daughter, Breezy, instead of asking for toys or dolls, asked him to spend time decorating their house in Arkansas with some Christmas lights. The display began as a 1,000 red lights, but by 1993 it had grown to a 3.2 million light spectacle.
Unfortunately his neighbors didn’t find the lights wonderful. Even after his attempts to quiet them by buying the houses on either side, Jennings was sued by six of them and was in the end was ordered by the Arkansas Supreme Court to shut down the display. In a December 1994 issue of the New York Times, Jennings said, “I do this to make people happy. 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.”
A dream come true, in 1995 Jennings received a call from Walt Disney World show director John Phelan. He proposed a grand idea to move his show to a new home in Disney-MGM Studios. While brainstorming about a Christmas event for their newest park, someone brought up Jennings’ story. Jennings refused to accept payment for his decorations, so he and his family spent Christmas each year at the parks experiencing the lights once again. The Osbornes were already Disney fanatics, already having many Disney references in their home’s display.
John Phelan explained, “That was part of our deal with the Osborne Family. Jennings didn’t want any money for the use of his lights. But he and his family would always come down to Disney World December 23rd through January 1st. And we’d then treat them to a suite at the Grand Floridian. And Jennings and his family would come over to the Studios for one night of their visit. And we’d then have this special ceremony where Jennings & Breezy would turn on the lights for that night” (Jim Hill Media).Four 18-wheelers full of decorations were packed at Jennings’ house and sent off to Orlando. His collection included many things you can find in the current display. Pieces like the wing flapping angels, spinning carousels, the giant globe, Santa with his reindeer, figurines, and the 70 foot tall tree. Just like Jennings, Disney continued to add to and improve the display each year. It now contains over 5 million lights.
Many secrets are hidden within the lights. If you have a chance this Christmas season, spend as much time as you can searching for the little details. One of my favorites is the snowman flying a kite. It’s a tribute to Jennings flying a kite with his future wife Mitzi on their first date. Have you ever noticed the single white angel circling the globe? It was added in memory of Jennings Osborne after he passed away in 2011.
In a tribute for Jennings on the Disney Parks Blog, John Phelan wrote, “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… He was a great proponent of committing ‘a random act of kindness.’ As he used to say to me, ‘John, I like creating memories that people won’t soon forget.’ ”
Phelan concluded by describing Osborne’s motivation as a memory maker. “I think that was [Jennings’] driving force, creating memories. I remember standing underneath the red canopy with him one year. I asked him how he came up with the idea for it. He said, ‘I want the people to feel like they are inside the lights, looking out at the world.’ ”
The lights contain many other hidden tributes. A University of Arkansas razorback is back near Light Motors Action for the Osborne family’s favorite team. Personally, I love the purple Halloween cat. It accidentally got mixed up when the Christmas decorations were packed at the Osborne house for Disney. Every week or so it moved around in the display.
The Disney Parks Blog announced in September that this will be the final year of the Osborne Lights. “In order to prepare for some incredible experiences comng to the park, including the recently announced Toy Story Land and a Star Wars themed land, we will not be able to present The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in the future. Our heartfelt thanks go out to the family of Jennings Osborne for letting us share their family tradition year after year. And thank you to all of you for being part of the spectacle with us. Here’s to making more memories in this, the 20th and final year” Its final day of operation will be on January 3rd 2016.In an email statement with the Orlando Sentinel, Breezy Osborne-Wingfield commented on the closure of the spectacle, “My greatest childhood memory was able to live on for an additional 20 years and it was also able to be experienced by so many-something you can’t really put into words unless you’ve walked under that incredible glow.”
What was your favorite part about the Osborne Lights? I always loved how beautiful it all was and will miss experiencing its magic.