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.
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 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!