I was out of town last week when it opened, but the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights returned recently to Disney Hollywood Studios, and it’s as impressive as ever. There is speculation (based on an insider leak?) that this may be its last year, the idea being that one of the upcoming expansions (Monsters? Star Wars? Could it be Cars Land? None have yet been announced) will take the place of the entire cityscape. With nothing confirmed, we’re stuck hypothesizing. My bet is that, given the history of this display, it won’t “glow away forever” the way Epcot’s Lights of Winter did.

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We could start with the monstrous popularity of this display. Lights of Winter at Epcot (a series of arches with integrated Christmas lights that “danced”, arch by arch, to music in the area between Future World and World Showcase) was arguably a background decoration. Granted, it was a loud, impossible-to-miss, and in my opinion, impossible-to-not-love decoration, but a decoration nonetheless. Disney never marketed it as a must-see attraction, and it’s doubtful that many made a pilgrimage to see it. The Osborne Lights, on the other hand, HAVE been marketed heavily by Disney, and people DO make annual visits just for these. The place is always crazy crowded. Disney assuredly knows of the crowd’s fondness for this display, and wouldn’t dream of giving so many people a reason to stop annual visits. Besides, the excuse given for removing the Lights of Winter (“it’s obsolete technology”) just wouldn’t fly here. The Osborne Lights are anything but obsolete.

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In fact, it’s worthwhile to pause for a second to reflect on ways the Lights have had upgrades over the years, coming with enough regularity that it almost seems like one innovation per year. And those innovations are ADDITIVE, meaning they keep the previous ones and the whole thing just gets more advanced and intricate each year.

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Consider: when the display was first given to Disney and installed in Residential Street, it was essentially static. The static nature persisted in the Streets of America set at first, but then changes began almost yearly after that:

  • Dancing. Disney wasn’t the first in the world to make Christmas lights dance to music (several popular online videos showed home samples), but theirs is one of the biggest.
  • LED Upgrades. Light by light and string by string, the collection was painstakingly upgraded (I think over a two year period) to LEDs rather than traditional incandescent bulbs. This obviously saves electricity, but also made the lights brighter (and they can do more tricks too – see below).
  • Canopy Dance. Like the famous downtown area of Las Vegas, which sports an electronic canopy overhead between buildings, the canopy on San Francisco street was made to dance in a way different from the other dancing lights. Because these rows of lights are closely arranged in straight lines, it’s possible to use computer control to tell each bulb what to do individually in split-second increments, meaning you can create designs, patterns, and even pictures in the canopy.
  • Dimming. With greater technological control comes smaller advances, like the ability to dim the lights during the dancing sequence, rather than just blinking on and off. This adds greater visual depth to the dance. When the dancing first began, there was no dimming of the lights; they were just on and off.
  • Color Switching. Buildings were strung with one color light at first, and that’s how the building stayed during the entire season (I think they rotated what colors went where at first). One year we saw a building with red, blue, and purple strings all overlapping. It was obvious in the daylight that this one had more strings, but at night it looks like the building was able to change colors. I’m not positive on this, but it seems like they might accomplish this now with LEDs on single strings.
  • Snowing. I’ve seen Disney create artificial soap-bubble “snowfalls” since 2001 at Disneyland, but the effect didn’t make it to the Osborne Lights for several more years. It’s a really good fit here.
  • Santa Goofy. I think it was only a few years ago that a PhotoPass opportunity cropped up in the middle of the Lights, taken with Goofy dressed as Santa. This always has long lines.
  • Videoscreens. A few of the windows near the Chevy sign on New York Street became viewscreens showing cartoon animation of holiday topics (snowfall, snowmen, etc). This effect remains confined to one building on the street, so it functions more as a surprise discovery for most visitors than an effect which “takes over”.
  • Glow with the Show ears. What’s new in 2013 are the Glow ears, and they work pretty well as a kinesthetic addition to the dancing lights. The entire buildingscape (and most of your field of vision) is already dominated by lights flickering on and off to the beat of the music, and having that effect extended to the bottom part of your field of view – the people around you – works pretty well. The Glow ears fit in here better than most places at WDW, actually.

Looking at that list of investments and upgrades tells us a few things. First, Disney has thrown serious money at this thing (and gotten big attendance gains to match, we have to assume), so they are unlikely to ditch it entirely.

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Second, there’s obviously been a commitment over the years by management – even rotating management – to keep this experience fresh and exciting. The almost-annual upgrades tell me that managers would react the same way the crowds would if told the Lights will not return.

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Assuming we accept this logic, we can predict the Lights won’t be retired if/when Star Wars (or whatever?) moves into this area. Rather, they will be displaced. So the only question is where.

  • Animal Kingdom seems the least likely. It just wouldn’t fit anywhere thematically, and they have no buildings to attach it to.
  • Magic Kingdom could be one possibility – deck out Main Street with the Lights? This is the park with the most holiday decorations already. And it could make the Very Merry Christmas Party even more hard to pass up. But I’m thinking the Lights would pose a crowd control problem. Main Street is ALREADY a bottleneck; this would make it impassable.
  • Epcot somewhere? I guess they could maybe build metal structures to replace Lights of Winter. I would like this personally, and the walkways are wide enough to handle the crowds.
  • Elsewhere in DHS? You’ve got Hollywood Blvd and Sunset Blvd as obvious candidates. Hollywood would have the same problems as Main Street, but Sunset is an interesting possibility. They’ve got the backstage overflow walkway (you may have taken this from Fantasmic some nights) to give a way around the Lights. But it would ruin the period theming this street has. There was always something industrial about the Streets of America that made it OK in my book to add lights. That would be less true of Sunset.

Your thoughts are welcome. Where do YOU think they will land, if they do move for a DHS expansion?

Theme Park Connection’s New Home

The store for theme park collectors – Theme Park Connection – has recently moved and is about to have its official grand opening on Nov. 23 (they are in “soft opening” now). In case you don’t know it already, TPC is like a Disney Store outlet facility, but not for merch which hasn’t sold, but rather for stuff that was once used inside the parks and isn’t needed anymore. Some of it is scratched or slightly less ready for onstage than Disney’s usual standards, but much of it is just surplus stuff. The prices are not bad, especially for someone who would geek out over having a piece of the theme parks in their home (which, ahem, we do in my family!)

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Now located at 2160 Premier Row, TPC is just east of International Drive in the Universal/Sea World area (about a ten minute drive). Their previous home was in Ocoee, almost an hourlong trip away from the theme parks. And they’ve upgrade from 6,000 square feet to 15,000 – a giant leap forward. There are over a million pieces for sale here: figurines and snowglobes, old Cast Member costumes and nametags, framed concept art and photos that were once on walls of Disney hotels and backstage offices, reams of books and magazines, and my favorite, decorations and props used in the park walkways, rides, shows, and parades.

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They’ve also changed one business practice. Before, some items were earmarked for online sale and never brought to the sales floor. Now, all items start on the sales floor, and only become eligible for online listing (and thus removal from the sales floor) after a week. That means there is an incentive to visit the shop in person. And perhaps even to visit frequently, because they move so much merchandise (both in sales and in terms of new stuff coming in) that they bring out literally dozens of new items every day. They not only sell stuff to you, they will buy your Disney stuff too.

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One caution for weekend visitors: the store closes earlier (3:00pm) on Saturday than most days, and is closed on Sunday.

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The grand opening of TPC is November 23, and they are planning a big event with at least one Disney Legend and other surprises–including a Disney Cruise vacation giveaway!

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Their new back offices area includes several cubicles for posting online sales, auctions, and arranging for shipping.

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A Panda Express All-You-Can-Eat Buffet… for $11?

There are lots of places to get “all you can eat” in Orlando, some fancier than others. At the very inexpensive end, you can chow down on Cici’s Pizza for about $5/person, and that is truly all you can eat. I stumbled across an “all you can eat” Panda Express this weekend, and it’s exactly as advertised. You get the regular menu, all you can eat, for $11 (drinks not included). It’s $8 for kids 9 and under. No plate sharing is allowed.

I expected something like the All You Can Eat KFC experience (I found one of those on I-75 somewhere north of here, I think while traveling to Atlanta, but there are multiple locations), where the buffet food is set out on steam tables and is separate from the “regular food” served to those who don’t want the buffet. That means a limited menu.

At the Panda Express, there is no separate steam table; you just get a handstamp and go through the regular line again and again. You are not required to get rice/noodles at any point (even the first plate) – you just say which items you want, and how large/small to make each scoop, and they will put it on the plate for you. Even the items normally requiring an upcharge fee of $1 (honey walnut shrimp, sriracha shrimp, etc) are included at no additional cost for the buffet. It would hard not to get your money’s worth. For only a couple dollars more than the 3-item meal, you get unlimited refills and a chance to try out all the different dishes. I was very happy to pay $11 for this and will do so again!

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I’m not necessarily the type of person who would relish the thought of having to face a worker every time I wanted more food. I’d hate to feel judged. But on this visit, we found the workers uniformly professional and courteous, always with the assumption that you want more food and they are delighted to help. They almost seemed sensitive to this very issue of wanting to appear non-judgmental, so *happy* were they to dish out yet another plate for you.

I soon learned why. This is apparently the ONLY Panda Express in the world to have a buffet (all you can eat) option. It’s a “test” that started a year ago and has continued ever since. The signage outside the Panda Express don’t point out how different this one is (they are not allowed to have custom signage on this part of International Drive), so it’s a little-known secret. In the middle of Saturday afternoon, we had the restaurant to ourselves!

If you want to visit the Panda Express buffet, it’s on International Drive just north of Sand Lake (there is a Chuck E. Cheese nearby). It’s probably only five minutes from Universal and ten minutes from SeaWorld by car.

I had a chance to interview the manager Jerry Weisser recently. Here’s our (edited) email interview:

1. Why did the company want to explore doing a buffet version?

A lot of people asked for the buffet since International Drive has several restaurants that offers buffet. In addition, this option will give customers a chance to try all the food that we have on the menu.

2. Why did they choose your Orlando location for the test?

International Drive is one of the top tourist spots.

3. How is the test going?

This testing is giving many customers the option to enjoy every dish that we have on the menu. Many regular customers enjoy this option.

4. Do you know of any plans to expand the test?

We’re not sure if the company will be planning to expand this option throughout the company, but what we know is as people find out that Panda Express has a location with a buffet option, they ask for more locations to offer the buffet!

IAAPA is this week

IAAPA is the theme park and amusement industry’s trade show, and it’s one of the few ones you can visit as a member of the general public (it costs a pretty penny, but is worth it if you’ve never been, to see what the industry values, and is salivating over for the next season). Find out more info at IAAPA’s website: http://www.iaapa.org/expos/iaapa-attractions-expo-2013/registration-hotel-travel

WDW Clicks

This week we bring you more pictures from Theme Park Connection, FP+ kiosks in DHS, Sid Cahuenga’s last day, new decorations in the MuppetVision queue, and some details from around the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Or visit the link directly: http://youtu.be/91-jAY7tyqc