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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.