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
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
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But tech to operate the lights is obsolete, prompting us to retire
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the technology to operate the lights is obsolete, prompting us to retire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:
If the technology is obsolete, most are saying, why wouldn't Disney just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
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
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
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
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
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,