Disney’s Spectacle of Dancing Lights: By the numbers

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is one of the most popular holiday events at Walt Disney World.

Each night at dusk, the lights are turned on at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It is impossible to take a picture that shows the magnitude of Disney’s dancing lights display. It completely covers the buildings in the theme park’s Streets of America section. So, to try to give you the big picture, here are some of the numbers that go into making this display.

1,000 – The number of lights this display started with when Jennings Osborne put some lights up outside his Little Rock, Arkansas, home at his daughter’s request. When the exhibit grew into millions of lights, it drew too much traffic to his neighborhood and was moved to Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida.

16 – The number of years that the spectacle has been lighting up the night at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where it was first displayed in 1995.

5,000,000 – The number of individual lights now in the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights display.

350 – The number of miles the strings of lights would cover if laid end to end.

40 – The approximate number of “hidden Mickeys” in the lights display. Disney designers add Mickey shapes to the display, and many guests try to find them all.

%Gallery-108574%1 – The number of black cats in the Christmas light display. When the Osborne family’s lights were transported to Walt Disney World, a cat from the family’s Halloween display wound up with the Christmas stuff. Each year, the Disney designers put the cat in a different location in the display for guests to find.

66 – The number of machines used to make the “snowflakes” that fall periodically during the display, according to Studios Central.

5 – The number of songs the Christmas lights are programmed to “dance” to. This year’s songs include “Christmas is Starting Now” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

3 – The number of “Phineas & Ferb” characters heard in the audio track that plays on the Streets of America. A bit with Phineas, Ferb and Dr. Doofenshmirtz has been added to the Spectacle of Dancing Lights this year.

21,000 – The approximate number of hours that Disney employees work to install the display.

53 – The number of nights that Disney’s dancing lights display can be seen this holiday season. It runs through Jan. 3, 2011.

Top 10 holiday sights to see at Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World is known for building theme parks and resorts that are larger than life. So it should come as no surprise that Disney goes all out during the holidays. It’s enough to have anyone humming “White Christmas,” even if it is 80 degrees outside.

Many of the holiday festivities start this week at Walt Disney World – yes, Disney skips directly from Halloween to Christmas. Here are my Top 10 sights to see at Walt Disney World during a November or December visit:

Snow on Main Street U.S.A.
It only gets cold enough for a flurry every few years in Orlando, but you can see snow at the Magic Kingdom on select nights each November or December. The flakes fall during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, a special event that includes a holiday parade, Christmas fireworks and treat stations dispensing free hot chocolate and cookies.

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
Millions of lights twinkle in time with holiday music during this dazzling presentation at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Entire buildings are covered in lights, and more lights form Santa and his reindeer and other familiar favorites. The shows happen nightly after dark in the park’s Streets of America section.

Minnie’s Christmas cookie parade float
Minnie Mouse’s float in Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade delights the eyes with giant Christmas cookies and candy. But this “must-see” is a “must-smell,” too. Be sure to get a whiff of the cinnamon scent the float emits as it rolls by during this afternoon parade at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Santas with an international flair

In Epcot, the World Showcase pavilions show off traditional décor – and traditional jolly old elves — from their home countries each holiday season. Don’t miss a visit with Pere Noel in France or Father Christmas in the United Kingdom.

Stars on parade
The Walt Disney World parade shown on TV each Christmas Day is actually taped during a few days in early December, and Disney recruits members of the public and park visitors to be part of the audience for the taping. The 2009 parade audiences were treated to musical performances by stars including Kris Allen, Yanni and Nick Cannon. This year’s tapings are scheduled for Dec. 3 and 4.

Giant gingerbread
Disney’s pastry chefs work overtime during the holidays, creating larger-than-life masterpieces that are amazingly edible. Take a tour of the resorts to see their handiwork: a gingerbread carousel with chocolate horses spins at Disney’s Beach Club, toy soldiers guard the perimeter of a gingerbread gazebo at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn, and a 17-foot gingerbread tree towers over the fourth floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. If all that gingerbread sharpens your sweet tooth, stop by the life-sized gingerbread house at Disney’s Grand Floridian, which doubles as a bake shop selling cookies, peppermint bark and – you guessed it – gingerbread.

Towering wilderness
While Walt Disney World is home to more than 700 Christmas trees each December, the beauty at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is a consistent favorite of Disney visitors. Shooting up more than 60 feet in the center of the lodge’s lobby, the Christmas tree is adorned with 60,000 lights and décor that suits the national park theming of the resort, including ornaments made from antlers. In fact, Disney’s Imagineers designed the Wilderness Lodge lobby with Christmas in mind, even installing power outlets in the floor where they would be needed for the tree.

Christmas-y campsites
While Walt Disney World decorators string more than 8 million Christmas lights around the resort, guests at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground also get on the action. It has become an annual tradition for many families to camp at Walt Disney World during the Christmas holidays, and they bring their celebrations – and their decorations – with them. Take a spin through the campground after dark to see the creative ways these Disney visitors light up their tents and RVs.

Cinderella’s Holiday Wish
Each night at dusk, Cinderella appears on stage at the Magic Kingdom to ask for a special holiday wish. With a wave of her Fairy Godmother’s magic wand, the princess’s castle is lit up with sparkling holiday lights. The glittering castle makes a great back-drop for a family photo.

Surprising treats
Holiday surprises also abound at Walt Disney World’s restaurants. Keep your eye out for special holiday menu items, such as chocolate Mickey waffles on the Crystal Palace breakfast buffet or a frozen Dole Whip dessert colored a Christmas green at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.

[Image credit (gingerbread house): Flickr user M. Keefe]

Summer trips for Star Wars fans

There are several Star Wars-themed events in Alabama and Florida that should be worth the trip, so you won’t have to crash on Dagobah or invade Naboo to feel the Force this summer.

Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May 21 through June 13

This annual festival attracts Star Wars fans of all ages to Walt Disney World. There are meet-and-greets with a number of Star Wars characters, including Darth Vader, C-3PO, Luke, Leia and Jedi Mickey, who will sign autographs and pose for photos. Stars of the movies and TV series in the Star Wars franchise appear each weekend for “star conversations” and autograph sessions. This year’s guests include Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett) May 21-23 and Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) June 4-6.

Most of the action is centered around the Star Tours theme park ride inside Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The ride will be closing in September for an update, so many Star Wars fans are attending Star Wars Weekends this year to get their last ride on the original attraction before it changes.

There’s also a Hollywood-style motorcade of Star Wars characters and celebrity guests each afternoon, complete with contingents of marching Stormtroopers. And don’t miss the Hyperspace Hoopla, which often degenerates into a Star Wars character dance-off.

Star Wars Weekends are free with regular admission to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. A one-day ticket will run you $79.

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination
U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama
June 25 through Sept. 6

It’s the first Southeast U.S. showing for this traveling exhibit, which uses the futuristic robots and vehicles in the Star Wars movies to teach real-world science and engineering.

Visitors can meet C-3PO and R2-D2 and learn about how humans interact with robots in Star Wars. Then they can design their own robot in the Robot Engineering Lab. Or view a Star Wars landspeeder and actual vehicles and prototypes being designed today for space travel. In total, more than 80 original costumes and props from the six Star Wars movies are part of the exhibition.

More than 100,000 people are expected to visit the exhibit in Huntsville, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center says it will likely be sold out during peak times. Officials there suggest you buy your Star Wars exhibition tickets in advance. Day tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for kids, evening (off-peak) tickets are discounted to $20 for adults and $15 for kids.

And if you have Star Wars fans ages 7 through 12, be sure to check out the Jedi Experience overnight camps being offered at Huntsville’s Space Camp facility.

Star Wars Celebration V
Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida
Aug. 12-15

This Star Wars fan convention is sanctioned by and this year, produced by, Lucasfilm. It includes parties, autograph signings, costume events, collectible sales, panel discussions and all manner of Star Wars geekdom.

Jay Laga’aia (Capt. Typho in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith) is the celebrity host for the event. Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) is the headliner.

A four-day ticket to the Star Wars Celebration will run you $128, kids get in for $54.

Disney announces closing date for Star Wars rides at Disneyland, Disney World

Disney Parks is overhauling the Star Wars-themed Star Tours rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World later this year, and now Star Wars fans know when they can get that last ride on the original.

Star Tours will close at Disneyland on July 27 and at Walt Disney World on Sept. 8.

The original Star Tours ride puts riders in the passenger seat of a StarSpeeder 3000 spacecraft, under the pilot of a droid named Rex. The ship is supposed to be headed to the Moon of Endor, but a few wrong turns lead it into the middle of a battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Death Star.

It’s a motion simulator ride that was on the cutting edge when it launched about 20 years ago. But now, it’s a 20-year-old ride in need of an overhaul — that’s a “re-imagining” in Disney-speak.

The “new” Star Tours will be a 3-D affair, with riders joining in a high-speed pod race on Tatooine. It is expected to re-open at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland in May 2011.

Walt Disney World and the fan convention Star Wars Celebration V are holding a “Last Tour to Endor” party on Aug. 14 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. A special event ticket is required; a regular park ticket won’t get you in. The party will include Star Wars shows, a “Death Star Disco” and Star Wars-themed fireworks.

Tickets are on sale now for $75.

No lines at Walt Disney World? Theme park tests new ‘queue-less’ wait system

Walt Disney World is testing a system that would ask guests to ditch the lines and wait in a holding area at some of its most popular attractions.

Tests inside Disney’s Hollywood Studios on Tuesday and Wednesday assigned group numbers to those wanting to ride the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.

These tests appear similar to a concept for a revamped Dumbo ride in Walt Disney World’s upcoming Fantasyland expansion project. Disney has said that rather than waiting in line, guests will be invited to play carnival games and enjoy entertainment in the air-conditioned circus tent in the renderings below, while awaiting their turn to ride the flying elephants.

Studios Central says that the test at the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster worked like this: Guests were assigned the group number, then led to a tented standby area where there was a DJ and video games (such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero.) There was also merchandise on sale in the standby area, which is not surprising. This is Disney, after all.The waiting system that was tested this week isn’t a scheduled appointment to ride where you could leave the ride and come back later. You are expected to stay in the designated waiting area. Signs warned that if you weren’t there within 5 minutes of your group being called, you would lose your place in the queue.

The test also did not replace Disney’s “Fastpass” system, where you do obtain a ticket with a certain time assigned that allows you to come back and ride popular rides with less wait. Fastpass was still running at the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. But there is no Fastpass for the Dumbo ride’s current incarnation.

Keep in mind, this was a test. The ‘queue-less’ waiting system that is installed when the Fantasyland expansion is completed in 2012 or 2013 could be totally different.

I guess the advantage is the entertainment and freedom to sit down or move around a bit when you would otherwise be standing in a line. But I don’t think this system actually reduces wait times. I do think it will be a boon to parents. It’s hard to corral kids in a hour-long line. What do you think?