July 27, 2012

Remembering Jennings Osborne at Walt Disney World by John Phelan

Remembering Jennings Osborne at Walt Disney World

posted at the Official Disney Parks Blog on July 28th, 2011 by John Phelan, Show Director, Disney Creative Entertainment

Jennings Osborne, the creator of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, passed away 1 year ago. His creativity has influenced many guests, cast members and fans of Walt Disney World, and that includes me.

"I had the opportunity to work at the Spectacle of Dancing Lights (Dec. 2008 – Crowd Control) in the night that the Osborne family was there to see the display. It’s was an amazing night and I was shocked with the news, last year.! :( Now, the lights have one more special meaning to all of us!"
- Marcio Disney

Jennings Osborne and Mickey Mouse

Christmas time and the holiday season at Walt Disney World can be a truly wondrous time, so many sights and sounds to fill you with the Spirit of the Season. Back in 1995, I was part of a creative team charged with developing such a holiday experience for Disney’s Hollywood Studios (called the Disney-MGM Studios back then). I remember sitting in a staff meeting when I was told that a vice president had seen a brief news report about a businessman in Little Rock, Arkansas who had a Christmas lights display so big that his neighbors took him to court to have it turned off. He fought it all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court and lost. I was asked to contact him and find out if he would like to bring his display to the Studio and put it on Residential Street on the backlot. I tracked down his business phone number and gave him a call. Little did I know that was the beginning of a 16 year magical holiday ride for me, the Studio and millions of our guests. 

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights has become a holiday tradition to rival any experience at Walt Disney World. The display was the vision and passion of Jennings. In 1986, his daughter, Breezy, asked for some Christmas lights. He put up 1 million. When his next door neighbors complained, he bought their houses and put lights on them, too. With the support of his wife, Mitzi, and to the delight of Breezy, the display was THE holiday experience in all of Arkansas and beyond….until he had to turn it off. And that’s when Disney stepped in and Jennings could say, “I’m going to Disney World!” As it turned out, Jennings, Mitzi and Breezy were huge Disney fans and had visited the parks many times. 

Indeed, they bought the nativity scene that is in the display to this day at the Italian Pavilion in Epcot. All the original icons are still part of the display: the giant globe, the 100 flying angels, the twirling carousels, the flying Santas and reindeer, the red canopy of lights, the 70 foot tree and all the other figurines of elves, snowmen and carolers.

"As Mr. Phelan’s [the man who wrote this article] daughter, I can say that the lights definitely changed my life. Once that call was made that fateful day 16 years ago, our family holiday traditions became entwined with the Osborne lights. Dad would disappear into the planning of the Spectacle around November and we wouldn’t see him for weeks. But then we’d meet on the opening night of the display whether it was Residential Street or New York Street or the new renamed Streets of America and he would just be glowing with pride. Sometimes the Osbornes would be there that night, sometimes a little later, and they too would always be aglow with pride and excitement.It was always magical. 

After so many years of seeing the lights you would think the magic would wear off. But still, that initial moment when they throw the switch and the lights turn on sends tingles down my spine and brings a tear to my eye every single time. My favorite pieces were always the Blue Angel Squadron or Flock as I used to call them. Just seeing them all light up simultaneously would take my breath away. 

I had the opportunity to meet and thank Jennings, Mitzi, and Breezy many times over for allowing my father to work on such a wonderful project and for enfolding my family in so much holiday and year round love. It’s something I’m truly proud to have been touched by and will never ever forget. The news of Jennings’ passing broke my heart, but his story and gentle smile when he looked around at those lights that lit up millions of people on the inside with the spirit of Christmas is something that lets me know he’ll be remembered for a long long time."
 - Mo, Mr. Phelan's daughter

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.” As he used to say to me, “John, I like creating memories that people won’t soon forget.” 

I think that was his 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.” 

"I met my wife at WDW on November 20th, 2005. On November 22nd, 2005, we kissed for the 1st time under these very lights. The display has always been special to us… a place of wonder and love. Thank you, Jennings, for your warmth and love of the season. You achieved your goal… you touched the hearts of millions."
- Shaunnon

May we all be Christmas lights that shine for all the world to see. Thanks, Jennings. I will miss you, big guy!

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