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Remembering Jennings Osborne at Walt Disney World

posted 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 on Wednesday and we extend our condolences to the family. His creativity has influenced many guests, cast members and fans of Walt Disney World, and that includes me. In fact, I consider the years I worked with the Osborne family the highlight of my career.

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.

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.”

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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22 Comments

1

Banks on July 28th, 2011 at 8:56 pm

I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Jennings, Mitzi, & Breezy when I worked crowd control at the lights in 2008 as a Cast Member. I had seen the original display when I was a kid in Little Rock, so to be able to work at the display years later was amazing! He heard about that and took the time to meet me and talk to me about Disney and the lights. I continued to keep up with them through Facebook over the years, and I was completely shocked when I heard the news Wednesday. My heart is with Mitzi, Breezy, & their family at this time.

RIP Jennings Osborne, you were an amazing & caring person, and will be missed greatly!

2

Scot on July 28th, 2011 at 9:03 pm

I kne mr osborne thru a website called planet christmas. I remember when his ordeal was on going and many of us supported him and we were astounded and how lucky he was to be abloe to continue his passion at the happiest place on earth. Be at peace Jennings. and know that your display will go on forever at Hollywood studios. God be with you Osborne family at this time of loss. may you find comfort in the one whom Jennings celebrated every year.

3

Marion on July 28th, 2011 at 9:50 pm

The Osborne lights are the highlight of my trip. What a wonderful gift that he gave me, my childhood. Mr. Osborne and Walt Disney can look down and see the joy that they have given. Thanks. God bless you an dour family.

4

Marcio on July 28th, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Just like Banks above, 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 lights. It’s was an amazing night and I’m shocked as well! :( This year, the lights will have a special meaning to all of us!

5

Dan on July 29th, 2011 at 12:08 am

Jennings has inspired us all with his beautiful display at the Studios. It’s a gift that immeasurable. I see Children and Adults just glow with joy when they see what has become of the display Jennings and the Osborne Family started years ago. It truly warms your soul with Christmas Spirit the moment you immerse yourself in the light displays. I feel that THIS was what encouraged all the crazy displays you see on YouTube, and now at peoples homes, and I truly hope that his legacy lives forever. God Bless you and your family for your ever-lasting gift that shows the Spirit of Christmas.

6

Trina from PA on July 29th, 2011 at 7:43 am

Our family is going to Disneyworld in December. It will be our first time there for Christmas, and one of the big things we have been looking forward to seeing are the Osborne lights. We will absolutely think of Jennings Osborne when we go. To all of Jennings’ family and friends, may you find peace, strength, and comfort to help you get through your days as you miss Jennings. What an awesome man who you can all be so proud of….I bet he can see those lights glowing all the way up to Heaven :-).

7

Paul on July 29th, 2011 at 8:07 am

It is a truly amazing thing that Jennings Osborne created for his family and now the World. We are AP Holders and are fortunate to see the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights each year. May his legacy live forever and God Bless him. RIP Jennings!

8

Victoria from VA on July 29th, 2011 at 8:10 am

I’m so sorry to hear this. He really created something spectacular; no one who has ever had the treat of seeing the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights will ever forget it. My deepest sympathies to his family.

9

Laura from KY on July 29th, 2011 at 8:14 am

I’m so sorry to hear this! We were lucky enough to see the Osbourne Lights back in 2006. It was the highlight of my trip. I would love to head back to the Studios in the future to experience the spectacle again so I hope that WDW continues this tradition for many years to come. They are always stringing the lights when we are there in October but its just not as much fun as seeing them bright and twinkling! Thanks Jennings Osbourne, for making a magical place even more magical during the holidays! You have touched millions of people over the years. God bless and rest in peace.

10

Jim from OR on July 29th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Never knew he was ordered by the Arkansas courts to no longer display it there…so glad Disney saw the opportunity to have this done there…have seen it being put up during one trip and I made sure to go in December to see it complete…truly spectacular and is something I think everyone should see…this was a true American patriot and I appreciate his gift to the country…my condolences to his family on his passing…

11

Mo on July 29th, 2011 at 11:25 am

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.

12

Todd on July 29th, 2011 at 3:32 pm

To his family and friends, I am so sorry for your loss.

I was fortunate enough to see this display, and to bring my family during a very rainy week. Even in the rain, this was a wonder that none of us will ever forget. It created something more than lights, and was the highlight of our trip. I hope I will have the chance to see the display again.

Jennings Osborne definitely achieved his goal of creating memories for others, with wonderful and abundant success.

13

Amy on July 29th, 2011 at 5:27 pm

I was lucky enough to see the Osborne’s lights both here in Little Rock and during our many holiday trips to Disney World. I got chills every time I saw them, and said a silent prayer of thanks to the man who made it all happen. Thanks again, Jennings, for all you gave to us.

14

Alison on July 29th, 2011 at 10:11 pm

I was lucky to meet Jennings and the Osborne family this past Christmas. His lights have been a wonderful addition to Disney, and have been a highlight of my family’s Christmas (and many others) for years. Thank you for bringing smiles to so many. You will be missed!

15

MITZI on July 30th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

HI SWEET JOHN,
OUR HEARTS ARE BROKEN, AND THE TEARS ARE FLOWING, BUT
WHAT A LOVING TRIBUTE.. WE TOO HAVE ENJOYED EVERY MINUTE OF THIS
WONDERFUL JOURNEY.. YOU GAVE US A FANTASTIC TASTE OF THE MAGIC OF DISNEY.. AND WE WILL NEVER FORGET IT.. KNOW HE IS SO PROUD OF YOU AND ALL OUR GREAT FRIENDS AT WDW. OUR LOVE TO MICKEY AND MINNIE.
WE LOVE YOU..MITZI & BREEZY

16

Nicole from ND on July 31st, 2011 at 1:25 pm

I cant believe the news. I don’t know him or his family but they are in my prayers. His creativity with Christmas lights is amazing! I got to go see it all at Disney last year and didn’t want to leave. I’m a huge Disney fan and a n even bigger Christmas buff! His loss is a sad one. Your memory will live on at Disney in the lights and in our hearts!

17

Tiffany on July 31st, 2011 at 4:13 pm

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is always the highlight of our holiday trips to Disney World. I never make it through it without tearing up at how beautiful it is.

Thank you to Jennings and the Osborne family, and to you John, for bringing something so “spectacular” to life at WDW.

18

Shaunnon from GA on August 2nd, 2011 at 10:55 pm

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.

19

Joan on August 3rd, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Mr. Osborne and family are such an inspiration! Thank you for sharing your wonderful Christmas lights and also thank you for all your charity work. I truly hope to see another angel next to Ga-Ga’s when the lights come back again this Christmas season.
What a perfect combination… The Osborne Family and Disney, sharing love and kindness and inspiration… thank you, thank You, THANK YOU!!

20

Melissa on August 3rd, 2011 at 4:33 pm

I met Mr.Osborne 2 to three times and he was a wonderful caring man and the world lost an angel on earth but he is now an angel in heaven,my twin daughters age 5 now just fell in love with him and have cried their eyes out because of his passing.Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and family.rip and thanks for the Christmas magic!
Melissa,McKenna and MiKayla

21

Jan on August 4th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I was very fortunate to be able to see the Osborne lights in Little Rock before they were taken to various locations. We would take the Cantrell exit off of Interstate 430 to see the lights. You might be in traffice for a long time, but it was well worth it. Mr. Osborne would give out candy canes, not your typical candy canes, more like candy logs. I’m also a big Arkansas Razorback Fan and he would always have his tent ready @ the game to serve a huge plate of food and of course a candy cane too. I have also been able to visit Disney World and enjoy the Christmas lights there also. I’ll never forget the time the Razorbacks played Michigan in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando. The Osborne family had a house decorated with Razorbacks on the backlot tour and the people from Michigan didn’t understand why. My family & I explained the reason to several people that night. It was GREAT!! The lights are amazing & I get so excited when they announce the lights are from the Osborne family from Little Rock, AR. I want to shout “Hey, I’m from Arkansas.” Please continue the awesome tradition!! I’ll be there in December!! GO HOGS GO!!

22

Sean from MA on August 5th, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Is there any other story better than a father trying to make his daughter’s wish come true?

Disney may have “… it all started with a mouse.”

The Osboune Lights has “It was all for my daughter.”

RIP Jennings. I had the priviledge of seeing your display last December. Little did I know that my last trip would be the last display that you took part in. I am honored to have witnessed your girl’s dream and you hard work.

22 Comments