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Grad Nite Loses Its Luster

All-nighters at Disneyland are a rite of passage in California this time of year. High schools from up and down the state, indeed some from out of state, send their seniors by bus, weary of their studies, to revel in the adolescents-only environs of the Magic Kingdom.

It’s called “grad nite” and it has been an icon of both the park-and California for many years. It’s a symbol that high school seniors have made it and deserve a party all their own, one their parents can sanction and one in which they can participate with abandon.

My high school seniors got back this morning from their much vaunted, greatly anticipated trip. Graduation was today at Adolfo Camarillo High School, where I teach, in Ventura County, CA. We’re about 85 miles north of Anaheim and our kids participate every year. I was especially close to this year’s seniors and they knew of my love for Disneyland. They also knew that at 44, with a 9-year old at home and second career as a writer, I wouldn’t be joining them. I can stay up late…but not all night.

So, I was anxious to get their report this morning. The past few years have seen students complain more and more about Disneyland’s indifference to the crowds who show up on grad-nite and the frustration with the high cost, low value of the experience. This year proved and set in concrete that view. Grad-nite is no longer fun, no longer a good idea and no longer worth the money.

I spoke to more than a dozen seniors today and all of them related their stories. Busses arrived at the park around 11:30, the official start-time of the event. But so many busses were on hand, that students were forced to wait in lines, on the busses themselves for more than an hour. The system in place at the park involves a Disneyland Cast Member boarding each bus and providing students with a wristband. One group I spoke with didn’t get their wristbands until close to 1:00 A.M.

Once they were off the bus, they entered the line to get in the park and again, the crowds were so large, they didn’t get inside the gates and onto Main Street USA until close to 2:00 A.M. Their bus driver gave them instructions to be back at their bus by 5:00 A.M. This left the kids three hours to “have fun” in the most crowded place on earth. Disneyland has allowed more and more schools to participate in grad-nite and the result is a park so crowded, that simple moving from one ride to another is an exercise in frustration. The kids say they cannot walk with their friends and talk. There is no room. If they are to stay together, they have to hold hands, or agree to meet at a certain spot and then go.

The cost for each student? $115.00. Now, this includes transportation, yes, but still, it’s a high price to pay. Seniors at our school shell out $115.00 for Disneyland, $120.00 for prom (per person), $100.00 for a yearbook, and the list goes on.

The point isn’t how much money they have to spend, however. The point is how much value each student gets for what they paid.

“It really isn’t worth it to go to Disneyland,” they said today. “It’s so crowded. We rode on three rides, got some food, and headed home.” Others talked about the large list of things they weren’t allowed to bring in to the park. “You couldn’t bring in Advil, but you could buy it there. You couldn’t bring in water, but you could buy it there. I mean, I’m willing to spend my money at Disneyland, but they seem to just want to take it from us and not give us much in return.”

I’ve been teaching for 19 years. I chaperoned grad-nite back in 1995 and even then, I said to my colleagues, “this is amazingly crowded and it hardly seems worth it to me.” Apparently, it’s gotten much worse.

As I said, I spoke to more than a dozen seniors today. Of those dozen, not one had a positive comment about grad-nite. Not one. The only positive comment I got about Disneyland was from the student who didn’t go last night. “No way,” she said. “I didn’t go to grad-nite. I’ll wait until later this summer or fall and go then on my own. That way, I can have my own time and more fun.”

I hope the folks at Disneyland are paying attention. Grad-nite isn’t fun anymore. I’m sure it’s a fine moneymaker for the Mouse, and that’s just fine. But if the idea is to offer entertainment value for the money being shelled out—that stopped, it seems to me, years ago. I will be encouraging my seniors from here on not to attend. Save your money, kids. Go to Disneyland on your own time. Tell your schools to stop participating. When the Magic Kingdom loses its magic to teenagers—it’s time to change something.

21 thoughts on “Grad Nite Loses Its Luster”

  1. I live in Florida & was happy to attend Grad Nite this year as a senior, I don’t compleatly agree with you. I shelled out $121 & honestly had what I consider one of the most amazing nights of my life. yes the wait to get in was very long but once in, the park wasn’t crowded at all & my friends & I had time to ride every single attraction, eat, watch fireworks, shop & even made it to one concert. maybe the Magic Kingdom in Florida offers a better experience than in California but either way it was an amazing experience and every single senior at my school can agree.

  2. Even in 1984 grad nite uncomfortably crowded. (and probably not worth it except tickets cheap back then)

  3. there are a few things that i have to bring up that i have an issue with. first off, the check in for grad night starts as early as 6pm, so the schools have the opportunity to be there early and yes you will have to wait on your bus before the event begins, but you will be there on time. there are many schools that come to the resort, so every minute you arrive after that time, your wait will be extended. a large majority of the schools arrive after 10, and im sure they have a long distance to travel, but punctuality makes a big difference.
    water and many other beverages are allowed in the park, as long as they are sealed and in the clear plastic bag provided.
    there is also a blast off event that happens prior at disneys california adventure, so that adds an additional few hours, along with the fact that very few schools participate in it.
    so i think you are wrong to blame disney for the fact that these kids didnt have fun. there are plenty of opportunities to be punctual and get the most of the event. and on a side note, i have been inside the park during a few of these grad nights and the crowds are no worse than a normal saturday. maybe these kids cant ride space mountain over and over again with no wait, but it seems like poor planning on their part if they were only able to enjoy 3 attractions.

  4. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Losses and Gains

  5. I chaperoned grad-nite this year, my school went on thursday the 10th. All of the kids had a positive review of the event. We all were in the park by mid-nite (some earlier). The park was crowded, but according to the students that added to the atmosphere and excitement. I personally enjoyed myself and felt that it was a great event. California Adventure being open also helped to ease the over crowding

  6. I went to grad nite 4 years ago, and my friends and I did not enjoy it. It was certainly crowded and uncomfortable (especially with all the snogging going on). It just didn’t feel “magical.”

  7. Grad Nite in Florida in 1993. Yep, had to dress up in business casual to get in back in the day, and the park was about as crowded as a slow night for a hard ticket event. Every ride I did was a walk-on (including the Tomorrowland Speedway), and my friends and I had the dubious honor of being the only people on It’s A Small World at 3 AM. (Totally scary experience, I tell ya!)

    I do wonder if there is a quality difference between east coast/west coast or if things have changed over the years.

  8. I remember when I Disneyland Grad Nite in 79. We had to wear suits and got a free picture and other goodies. We were just in Lynwood so it wasn’t that far and the park wasn’t crowded at all. My nephew from Vegas went last year and his class had fun. Maybe the students could contact Disneyland about the overcrowding.

  9. Look, the FL v. CA argument does not apply here because FL is just bigger and more spacious! Grad Nite is not the way I would want my kids to celebrate graduation if the trend of grinding and sneaking in drugs is what they’re supposed to do that night. Too crowded and too expensive!

  10. I work for gradnights in the park all night yes its crowded and things cost a lot but the pre party at california adventure and the time to come on property is ok its just the buses have so far to come that they arrive late that’s not are fault and there is slot of grads that misbehave drink smoke pot fight in the park that’s why they are not allowed to bring in certain items but they find away and onto the damage they do to are park that’s one reason they pay so much we got to fix what they destroyed then there are the grads that are really a joy to get along with.

  11. The difference in WDW and Disneyland is just space and people. There are way more schools and kids in a smaller area in So calif than there are in the vacinity of WDW. There is also a whole lot more space at WDW than there is in californias park. Its that same old supply and demand thing. Disneyland may just need to be a little more generous with the numbers of people and groups they allow into the park on any given nite. Obviously easier to deal with smaller crowds. I have been to Disneyland 100’s of times and I have no fun when the park hits its max occupancy so I go home. I do however have the luxury of being able to go any day of the year that I would like to.

  12. I live in Southern California (about 30-40 minutes east of Disneyland) and I graduated in 2008. I had heard some stories of the crazy lines for rides, the insane crowds, but I bought my ticket anyway because, hey, I love Disneyland. Two days before Grad Nite (which ended up being right after graduation, which genius planned that?) I had a change of heart and got my ticket refunded. I’ll never truly know if I missed out on the experience; some friends had a great time, others, not so much. But I figured, if it’s anything like Disneyland in the summertime it’s not worth my time or my parent’s money.

  13. Our school went to grad nite on the first night this year. We paid extra to go to DCA first which was the highlight of grad nite. It wasn’t crowded, and we got to walk around freely without constantly bumping into people. Then we went into Disneyland which was totally chaotic. Everyone I talked to agreed that if they created more dates and didn’t allow so many people in, it would have been worth it. Plus it is waaaay too long. We were ready to leave by 3. Then when it was over, we were left on our own with absolutely no guidance as to what to do next or how to find our bus. Horrible experience.

  14. Back in the day I worked Grad Nite as much as I could just because I was curious if the stories about bad behavior were true. Nothing happened, though. Veteran cast members have stories to tell, but they act like their one or two incidents is reflective of the entire event.

  15. I went in 2000 to Disneyland and it was definitly beyond crowded, so crowded that we weren’t able to do much. With exceptional service from cast members and hanging with good friends I still had a great time, well worth it…..then again if it’s even more crowded now, it should probably be fixed by Disney.

  16. I would like to see Disney open some all-nighters at Disneyland to the general public. Maybe create an annual event on the Summer Soltice (longest day of the year)that goes all night. I think people would really get into it. Anybody agree?

  17. I went to Grad Night at Disneyland in 2004. My school drove 6 hours on a bus and arrived around 9pm, easily parked the bus and walked to the entrance of California Adventure (since it was open from 10-12 if we wanted to go there and then over to Disneyland) If I remember correctly we were even given vouchers to get fries. We all had to dress in business casual. Everyone was dressed nicely. Of course the rides had lines, but nothing seemed overly crowded. I had a great time. Maybe it was the day we went for Grad Night, since my school ended before most schools in Southern California.

  18. this was my first year at gradnite. i love disneyland but wow that was a mess. we came all the way from AZ and thank goodness gradnite wasn’t the only place we went. i too was really close to this senior class and when they decided to go to cali for their senior trip myself and another teacher (we’re both crazy disney fans) jumped at the chance to go. we were at the second gradnite for the season and i had been a little worried when i saw early on it was sold out back in March or April. to the person who said we all should be there at 6pm so we are first is crazy and never has rode a bus with 52 17-18 year olds before! we were there by 10:30 got into the park by 12, after walking what seemed like forever. my time at the park was pretty good because of an injury i had a few months before and a student with a knee problem, we used a handicap pass and got to most of the rides. other kids in our group weren’t so lucky, some got stuck on a ride for two hours, some rode only a few rides. as to the behavior of all grads there, for anyone who has taught this age group, you wouldn’t of been surprised but there was some shady stuff going on. on the plus side i’ll give the first aid dept. an “A+”. we had a problem with one student and they were awesome! one thing i couldn’t belive was that they made us all walk from the park to the buses with no tram service, between my swollen ankel and my student’s swollen knee it’s a wonder we made it. if we go next year i think i’ll ask the travel agent to add in the blast off event, sounds like they had more fun there. and a note to disney–don’t let so many schools in and add fastpasses man!

  19. gradnite 2010 was really packed. but my school was chaper so it was worth it. i got in around 10:30pm but i had to wait 90 mintues to be the first person on space mountain because they didnt open up the rides till 12. its packed and not worth waiting for rides but the clubs r fun. find the power 106 hip hop club and u shud have fun. its a grindfest but really fun. the main club to me is boring cuz its like a rave. everyone is just fist pumpin. waiting is gay and crowdedness is gay but other than that its pretty fun. but atleast go on 1 ride while your there

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