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It's official: the Lights of Winter (LoW) display will not return to Epcot, effective immediately. Speculation had been building for some time that the LoW were not coming back, as they are usually visible by now in a staging area, if not actually installed in their location between Future World and World Showcase.

For those who might be missing the context, the Lights of Winter were a highly visible part of the holiday decorations at Epcot. They weren't static displays; the lights on them changed and pulsed, and they were synchronized to the music.

The Christmas music at the LoW was always played loudly and boldly, and it set a tone that was incomparable. To walk under the pulsing arches was to be instantly bombarded by the spirit of the holiday (admittedly, there may have been those who would have preferred something more subtle, but not me). Like the best Disney experiences, it was transformative and, to coin a phrase, transportative – it "took you away" from the here and now, and filled you with emotions, memories, longing, joy… always some emotion, never no emotion. Bland was not an adjective I would have ever used to describe this experience.

And yet bland it must have seemed to Disney. The official DisneyParks Twitter feed broke the news on Wednesday afternoon:

Note: The Lights of Winter at Epcot has been enjoyed for years. But tech to operate the lights is obsolete, prompting us to retire the lights

And then moments later also tweeted:

Debuting at this year's Holidays Around the World at Epcot is a new gospel choir, D'Vine Voices - Nov. 27 through Dec. 26.

That was followed immediately by a post on the official DisneyParks blog, but not as an original post. It was a comment made on an existing post about the "weekly roundup." In that original post, the holiday decorations at all the parks was discussed, but the dozens of comments by viewers wanted to know only one thing: where was the mention of Lights of Winter? Was it not coming back? The official comment by Thomas Smith (who runs the social media for Disney) was:

Yes... the Lights of Winter canopy has been enjoyed for years. But the technology to operate the lights is obsolete, prompting us to retire the lights and find a new experience.

Fan reaction has not been very accommodating of Disney's rationale. Most are calling it an excuse, and a lame one at that. A Facebook group protesting the removal sprang up instantly: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=info&ref=nf&gid=178991681021

If the technology is obsolete, most are saying, why wouldn't Disney just update it? The Osborne Lights at Disney's Hollywood Studios were plain-vanilla incandescent lights, but Disney folded in LED lights that are brighter, last longer, and more environmentally friendly. This was done on a small scale last year, but in a big way this year. Rather than point to obsolete tech, Disney did something about it, so the reasoning applied to the LoW feels more like an excuse.

In fact, it feels like more traditional budget-cutting. Granted, the official blog and tweet did mention "a new experience" – presumably this is the gospel choir. It would be premature and unfair to compare the choir and the LoW since we haven't even seen the choir yet, but I suppose comparisons are inevitable.

If the choir doesn't "match up" and promote the same awe as the Lights of Winter had done, we will effectively have had a Decline by Degrees. For those new to this concept, in a nutshell it's the corporate version of boiling a frog – if you do it slowly enough, the frog never notices and hops away. In this case, the action being taken is cost-cutting. Usually it's pretty invisible things: the broken arm on the Tom Sawyer Island windmill that stayed amputated for two years, for instance. Or a classic example in the menu at the Columbia Harbour House, where the chicken tenders became nuggets, offering less volume overall, and then added insult to injury by using a ton of breading and almost no chicken. The price never dropped, but in the meantime, you've got much smaller portions of actual meat: the classic Decline by Degree. Such things are usually not noticed directly by visitors, but taken in conglomeration, many may think "something is wrong" or "Disney is more expensive than usual" without being able to put a finger on what exactly has changed.

For some visitors, the lack of Lights of Winter will be like that. It will feel less warm and welcoming as you approach the Christmas tree this year, but visitors may not know exactly what was missing. First time visitors, in fact, will obviously perceive nothing amiss. But that doesn't mean the experience hasn't been watered down.

It's ironic that Disneyland continues to "plus" its holiday offerings, while Walt Disney World is diminishing theirs. WDW makes more than Disneyland, so there is no budgetary excuse for this. Nor is this the first holiday removal at Disney World. For several years after the Country Bear Jamboree stopped doing its makeover at Disneyland (and this became permanent when the Pooh ride went there instead), Florida's version continued to install the holiday makeover to a Country Bear Christmas Special, with all new songs, new decorations/clothing, and new animations – a whole new show. That stopped, quietly and without explanation, in 2006 (at least one unofficial Web site now claims the ulterior motive was copyright issues, especially Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but I never heard that at the time).

I suspect that had the fan community gone into an uproar, we might have seen the Country Bear Christmas come back. After all, that kind of action literally saved the Lincoln show at Disneyland. But WDW lacks the same local fan base as Disneyland, and many are not as vocal. WDW visitors may be more likely to visit once a year, and a larger percentage will just shrug off changes. That balance seems to be shifting, what with the growing population of DVC holders. Disney has in recent years made a mint off selling these timeshares, and in the process created a group of visitors who feel ownership (literally, in this case) in a way that was never true before. So the DVC owners may well approximate the mighty Disneyland Annual Passholder "lobby" – we'll have to see if this one of the times when enough fans feel the same way.

For surely there will be fans who shrug. Others may be relieved that the Lights of Winter are gone – some are posting on the message boards that the lights were in fact bland and outdated. Especially when compared to overseas parks, where the holiday decorations use newer technologies and are far more grand.

That was probably Disney's thinking, too. I doubt they anticipated any large fan reaction, and hopefully that can be leveraged to get them to reconsider about letting the Lights disappear forever. With enough fan feedback on the official blog or official Twitterfeed, it's possible they may decide to bring Lights back, or even update it.

In fact, the whole affair will be a litmus test of sorts. Why? Because this marks the very first time the official Disney social media outlets (blog and Twitter) are being used to break "bad" news. Until now, these technologies have only been used to post positive news. They've only been around for weeks, not months or years, so in one sense it didn't take long for this first "test" of their utility to come about.

In the past, corporate Disney was silent on matters like this. We didn't hear about the Country Bears Christmas show failing to return, it just simply failed to materialize. I wonder if there would have been a hue and cry if the Christmas show was abandoned in a year when official Disney social media outlets existed? One assumes so. The old way of doing business was to handle all communications through corporate Public Relations, and PR folks only talked to "official" media. The average user had no way to get Disney's ear.

Social media changes all that, and the official outlets now function like mini-PR sites, continually feeding news tidbits and generating excitement. They've now discovered the flip side of such bottom-up communication: now everyone is "press" and asking the tough questions. Smith had no choice but to eventually answer the deluge of questions about Lights of Winter; the technology essentially backed Disney into the corner of having to answer things that in the past they would have simply never been asked.

And in this way, the job of Social Media director at Disney (as well as any large company, for that matter) will probably end up looking more and more like the White House Press Secretary. You don't see much maligning of the current administration's press secretary, but that was common in past administrations (from both political parties), partly because the press secretary's job was to break difficult news and sometimes tell people things they didn't want to hear. Depending on where you fall in the political spectrum, at times over the past two decades it looked like press secretaries were evasive, kept in the dark intentionally to provide plausible deniability, or just plain disingenuous. It can't be an easy job. Selecting just the right words and the right amount of detail (not too much, not too little) must be an arduous task that I do not envy.

Excitingly, your reactions to this do matter, and will doubtless influence how the social media tools are wielded by Disney in the future. I hope they don't elect to "go silent" on bad news – props to Thomas Smith for not taking that route. More communication is better than less communication. And unlike the letter-writing campaigns of the past, which Disney felt it could ignore with impunity if it wanted to because it took place out of the public eye, this time everyone can see everyone else's letter on the Internet.

Regardless of how the communications drama plays out, I will personally miss and mourn the Lights of Winter, just as I have done with the Country Bears Christmas. And here I thought the holiday season was all about joy, not sadness.

2009 Kevin Yee


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Kevin's Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
  • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link. Kevin is currently working on other theme park related books, and expects the next one to be published soon.

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