The Spectacle of Dancing LightsFor all we strategize, discuss, proclaim and declare, a plan can have a way of evolving, much like an amphibian crawling from the water and adapting to a life on land: it happens over time.

That’s how we wound up at Walt Disney World, Florida, at Christmastime, after stating repeatedly over the years that we would never ever do such a thing.


Because major holidays (and the temperate months coinciding with vacation time) are “peak” season, meaning crowds are at peak capacity and prices are at peak rates. Plus, that’s typically when families organize themselves into one giant collective and glut the Disney universe. Why would we want to subject ourselves to that?

Intellectually, we’d made a very conscious decision never to do such a thing. Yet things have a way of happening, one little seemingly insignificant moment at a time…

A memorably insignificant moment

We were standing at the end of the dock in front of the Contemporary Resort and just happened to luck into a perfect view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks display. Reflexively, Mark’s arms wrapped around Amy and we were instantly one with each other and the sparkling lights in the sky. Perfection. And the couple beside us was a mirror image—just younger—and when it was over, the four of us reveled in the happenstance of our position. Then the girl began crooning about how great the holidays are at the Magic Kingdom to the extent of showing us her iPhone pix taken at the Magic Kingdom on New Years Eve: visual proof of fireworks and fun on possibly the busiest Disney day on Earth. We voiced our hesitancy where Disney, the holidays and crowds were concerned, and the couple was quick to assuage that while yes, it’s more crowded, it’s so-ooooooo worth it.

“Interesting,” we both commented at various points well afterwards. Clearly it was still on our minds. “Yes, but that would be stupid and ridiculous,” practicality and sensibility always interjected.

The germ of an idea proves contagious

That was in September, when the parks are decorated for Halloween and the autumnal season. The thought of seeing the Disney parks decked out for the high holidays had gotten into our heads that night on the dock and it wasn’t going away. By time we were on the plane back to L.A., we were fantasizing about Christmas at the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT and… oh yeah, a little thing known as the Osborne Lights at the Hollywood Studios.

Hint of Light

The Studios’ Backlot is strung wall-to-wall with tiny LEDs that promise a bright future for all who stay past sundown.

In fact, we’d seen the Osborne Lights (formally titled, “Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights”) on our last visit, but only in their non-illuminated, you’re-not-really-supposed-to-notice state. Yet Amy happened to notice. In fact, every facade along the Streets of America were lined with rows and rows of tiny, tightly-packed LEDs. She called Mark’s attention to them, and we both marveled at what an experience it would surely be to see them all lit up. Really, it was unimaginable. Hence…

Little moments of wistful yearning evolved into hypothetical discussions that gradually formed the nub of a plan.

It was the coldest winter on record

Our second morning in Walt Disney World, on the second day of December, the young maple tree in front of our balcony at the Wilderness Lodge formed the letter “C” it was being blown so hard. Amy’s heart sank. She never liked the wind, and it didn’t help that the temperature had dropped 20 degrees overnight to a toasty 50-something. Mark stood beside her, behind the safety of the sliding glass door, and knew everything she was thinking. “You know we can’t go home,” he apprehended, and Amy stayed silent. She knew of course he was right, and also that they couldn’t just spend the day inside until the wind died down. Bummer. But the show had to go on.

Luckily, we’d packed some cold-weather gear, just in case, and Amy had fortuitously grabbed a scarf as we were leaving for the airport. Still, had we only known just how cold it would get—and for how long—we would have packed very differently. But how could we have anticipated that? We were going to Florida!

Not to be daunted, we headed off, by Disney bus, to the Animal Kingdom, whose African-themed Christmas tree in front of the entrance was about as holiday-y as the park got. That was fine. The previous day at the Magic Kingdom, the one warm day all vacation, was a holiday sight to behold, even in the daylight. We were all the more looking forward to EPCOT, where we expected every country in the World Showcase to be uniquely attired in festive holiday garb.

One more point in favor of the unthinkable

It was after our WDW trip in which the holiday seed had been planted that we visited Disneyland just as the Christmas season was kicking into gear. We strolled from the Small World over to Toon Town and our jaws dropped. Every Toon building was decorated with appropriately themed and styled garlands and ornaments. Even the courtyard Christmas tree had an animated flair in keeping with its setting. And we’re not those people who go ga-ga over holiday decor (judge not), but the creativity and sheer imagineering converted us, and that’s what led us to think: If Toon Town is this incredible at the holidays, what must EPCOT’s World Showcase be like? It was one more point in favor of a holiday trip to WDW.

Christmas in the U.K.

A jolly ‘oliday installation in front of the U.K. in Epcot

So  we awoke on our EPCOT day to the now-familiar icy wind and automatically donned our layers that culminate in down jackets and beanies. Off we went for coffee in London, then onward into what we anticipated to be a multicultural buffet of holiday trimmings and traditions. Only, compared to our own Toon Town, EPCOT was disappointingly wan. Each country was perfectly decorated with complementary ornaments (which sadly weren’t for sale in the gift shops), but Toon Town it wasn’t. There were lots of clever Disney touches and charming subtleties, but it wasn’t gobsmackingly brilliant. Maybe our expectations were too high, but the hope was to experience the unique lore of each country’s holiday festivities and hopefully get an ornament at each that would not only light our memories every season, but make our Christmas tree look like we’d traveled the world. What there was was a Santa Story Time in each country featuring an “indigenous” Santa telling the story of Christmas to a group of kids. So that didn’t really work for us, and the only ornament offerings were Mickey-shaped and painted with each country’s flag. We were hoping for something a bit more authentic, so that was disappointing.

We had a plan!

It had been awhile since we’d visited the Dolphin Hotel and specifically Blue Zoo, renowned chef Todd English’s destination restaurant, whose bar area is a fun blend of modern elegance with an underwater theme. The plan was cocktails before the Osborne Lights; food after. Unfortunately, we picked the wrong evening to hit the bar. It was packed with conventioneers, all in their grey suits and stiff blue shirts. Mark asked one of them if the seat beside him was taken and was met with a puffed up, “I’m saving this seat for my boss.” Luckily, two opened up at the end, where the drink garnishes and the wait staff held position.

The Blue Zoo bar experience may have been unpleasant, but the martins were sen-sational!

A Well-lit Street, IndeedWe left light of spirit and fleet of foot and all but flew to the Studios, where, upon arriving at “Crossroads of the World,” a couple exiting the park gifted us with two Fastpasses for the Tower of Terror. Despite how cold it was, we weren’t feeling the cold. What we were feeling was excited. But… where were the lights? Where were the lights?

Seeing the lights

The crowd was humming like an active hive and we seemed to be the only still bodies. In our giddiness to get to the lights already we’d managed to forget where they were. “You’d think there’d be sign,” Mark was logical.

“Why don’t we just go towards the light?” Amy suggested.

The illuminated skies over the Streets of America made it pretty clear we were headed in the right direction, and upon turning the corner we were stopped dead in our tracks. We had arrived, and we could neither move nor breathe nor blink. There was a reason we had made this pilgrimage, and it was worth every bit of brittle anomalous energy-sucking wind to experience it.

Relaxing back at the Wilderness Lodge in rocking chairs on a balcony overlooking the festive lobby

Relaxing back at the Wilderness Lodge in rocking chairs on a balcony overlooking the festive lobby

Whatever the wonder the holiday season holds for each of us, it was met amidst the Spectacle of Lights. Tears only didn’t fall because they evaporated on contact with air. There seemed no end to the unfolding labyrinth of dancing lights and music, and amidst all that it snowed. Then the tears finally fell for it not being possible to be any happier.

The magical extravaganza eventually wound down with fresh gingerbread cookies from the Beach Club and an aged scotch that paired perfectly in the cozy fifth-floor nook of the Wilderness Lodge, where we’d settled into a couple of rocking chairs overlooking the six-story Christmas tree and the golden lobby.