Theme-park fans bid emotional adieus to two long-running entertainments

Disney's Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights (photo by Adam McCabe)
Disney's Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights (photo by Adam McCabe)

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Jaws. Horizons. Back to the Future. All much-missed Orlando attractions whose closures caused consternation among theme-park fans. And as of the first week of 2016, you can add the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights and Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue to that list.

The latest two members of this morose club may come as a surprise. Why should a seasonal lighting display and a mid-grade musical spark such strong emotions upon their departure, when other offerings – such as Epcot's 3-D Michael Jackson movie Captain EO and Universal's opening-day Lucille Ball museum – melted away in 2015 with barely a tear shed? It seems nostalgia, that magical emotion that is the real pixie dust keeping Central Florida's parks packed, is impossible to predict. Every ride or show, no matter how slight, is someone's favorite, and their shuttering sometimes leads to scenes like I saw last week, with emotional guests bidding adieu to two long-running entertainments.

It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since Walt Disney World discovered Jennings Osborne's oversized Christmas lighting display and lured it from Arkansas to Orlando, much to the relief of his neighbors. Two decades later, Jennings has passed away and the residential facades at the former Disney/MGM Studios where the decor was originally displayed have long since been torn down. But Osborne's name and luminous legacy lived on along Disney's Hollywood Studios' Streets of America – or at least it did until last Wednesday night, when the spectacle was extinguished for the last time ever.

If Disney had any doubts about the popularity of the Osborne Family Spectacle, they only had to look at the Hollywood Studios parking debacle on the evening of Jan. 6. As the lights' last hours approached, I was turned away from the already-full parking lot and diverted all the way to Animal Kingdom, where a fleet of buses waited to ferry the overflow crowd across Disney property. Once inside the park, streets leading to the Osborne display were dense with slowly shuffling guests, all eager to get their last looks at the millions of colorful LED lights blinking in sync to a soundtrack of seasonal staples like "Feliz Navidad" and Barbra Streisand's over-caffeinated cover of "Jingle Bells."

At 10 p.m., an hour after the originally scheduled finale for the Osborne Family Spectacular, the curtain finally fell to the sad strains of "The Mickey Mouse Club Alma Mater." ("See you real soon!") The lights' final flicker was accompanied by a flood of tears from the emotional crowd that crammed the Studio's streets to witness the show's last seconds. By this time next year, I expect the Spectacle's old stomping grounds to be just so much dust, demolished to make way for Star Wars Land. But that doesn't mean Christmas is ruined forever; I have it on good authority that Disney will resurrect its seasonal light show with a new home and brand name before too long.

Over on the other side of town, Universal Orlando didn't inspire quite the same outpouring of anguish when it announced the closing of Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue late last year, but the show's sayonara on Jan. 5 brought BJ fans out of the woodwork for a fun final day of full houses. Universal actually extended the show's run through the peak season due to "popular demand," and added an extra show on closing day exclusively for annual passholders. It was a nice perk (especially coming on the heels of the elimination of longstanding benefits like free bottled water for premier passholders, which were stealthily curtailed starting on New Year's Day), but despite a few dozen Beetlejuice junkies arriving at dawn, hundreds of unclaimed passes for the final show were still available in late afternoon.

Beetlejuice and his monstrous bandmates were rocking & rolling at Universal since the mid-1990s, but the latest Graveyard Mash-Up incarnation of their production never completely clicked with crowds since its 2014 debut, despite an excellent cast that included top performers like Varietease's Tymisha "Tush" Harris as modernized mummy Cleo. Even so, the closing day performances I attended were filled to capacity, bleacher benches bouncing as the ebullient crowd sang along with "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Ballroom Blitz." The "ghost with the most" and his ghoulish bandmates were sent packing by a Fast & Furious ride, which crashes into USF's San Francisco area (including the extinct Disaster ride) in 2017.

As much pain as Orlando park patrons might feel right now, it's nothing compared to California fans, who are currently mourning the closure of major parts of Disneyland (including my beloved Big Thunder Ranch petting zoo) for Star Wars construction. Whether you're on the West Coast or the East, with so many attractions ending, the Force can't awaken soon enough.

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