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Grad Nite: Disney calls it a day

05 May 2011 by By Dewayne Bevil, Orlando Sentinel

The party's almost over for Disney World's Grad Nite. Its final after-hours event tailored to high-school seniors is Saturday.

Britney Spears performed at the 1999 edition of Grad Nite at the Magic Kingdom. (WALT DISNEY WORLD / May 5, 2011)

Britney Spears performed at the 1999 edition of Grad Nite at the Magic Kingdom. (WALT DISNEY WORLD / May 5, 2011)

Since 1972 — the first spring after the Magic Kingdom's grand opening — teenagers have taken over the theme park for concerts, roller-coaster rides and other late-night shenanigans on evenings reserved for them. Disney announced in March that the event graduates with the class of 2011.

That news wasn't well received in local high schools, said Kevin Cantor, who attends Orlando's Dr. Phillips High School.

"I'm with the class of '12, so, of course, we were really mad that we can't go," said Cantor, 17.

"It's a part of the graduation process. It's right before you graduate, and it's right before prom, too. It kind of gets you to realize you're about to graduate and you really need to have fun before you get out into the real world," he said.

The event's memories resonate for years. The decision to end Grad Nite is "horrible," says Melanie Mucario-Bingham, 35, of Orlando, who attended almost 20 years ago.

"It's a rite of passage," she said.

She remembers having fun on the rides, socializing with people from other parts of the country and dressing up to meet the event's dress code when she went with her classmates of Lake Mary High School in 1993.

"The fact that the park was closed to the public made it very enticing," she said. "They made a big deal out of it, and they made it feel like you accomplished something, that graduating from high school was a big deal, and this was your reward."

Increased theme-park attendance during spring has made it difficult to schedule the event, Disney said after pulling the plug. Next year, the company will offer the "Disney Senior Class Trip" deal to Florida school groups: a special one-day, one-park ticket for $55 valid anytime during the year.

"We hope the Disney Senior Class Trip will spark the beginning of a new tradition for the next generation," Disney World spokeswoman Andrea Finger said Wednesday. The new program will emphasize personalization and offer more flexibility to seniors, she said.

Universal Orlando will continue to throw a similar event called Grad Bash, which this year included both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios theme parks.

Disney's Grad Nite has featured big-name musical acts that stand as snapshots of their particular eras. Performers have included Kool and the Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band, Peaches and Herb, Run-DMC, Miami Sound Machine, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Destiny's Child, Ne-Yo and dozens of others.

The musicians were a draw, but the after-dark aspect also appealed.

"To be able to be with all your friends at the park after hours was such a cool experience. It was definitely a bonding experience," said Crystal Haslacker, 37, of Orlando. She traveled from Brandon to attend Grad Nite in 1991, the year she graduated from Bloomingdale High School.

"I remember as a sophomore and junior being so envious of all the seniors getting to go to Grad Nite. And then as a senior, counting down the days," Haslacker said. "It was a big deal."

Through the years, the event acquired a rowdy reputation, with rumors of students trying to sneak in alcohol — a definite Magic Kingdom no-no — and miscellaneous misbehavior on attractions. Cantor, the Dr. Phillips High junior, said he heard that a Grad Nite participant slipped out of a car on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster but was snagged and escorted out of the Magic Kingdom this past weekend.

"There are always stories of people jumping off the rides and running around the attractions. That's kind of par for the course for teenagers," Mucario-Bingham said. "A big ride to try to escape out of was Haunted Mansion."

Youth programs such as cheerleading competitions and soccer tournaments might be more profitable for Disney, said Kevin Yee, an author and blogger for the MiceAge website, devoted to Disney theme parks.

"It encourages people from around the country to visit Disney World and drag along their families, and they make a whole week out of it," Yee said.

And closing the Magic Kingdom early for four key nights for Grad Nite festivities isn't always a popular move, he said.

"If the park's closing at 7, that's a pretty inconvenient thing for your visitors from afar," Yee said.

The cancellation doesn't upset him.

"I'm 41. No, I don't feel sad now," he said. "If I were 19 or especially if I were 17 … I'd feel cheated."


Grad Nite facts


Walt Disney started Grad Nite at Disneyland in 1961. The event will continue in California.

The Magic Kingdom's Grad Nite was born in 1972, just months after the theme park opened in October 1971.

Disney World's Grad Nite took a one-year break from the Magic Kingdom. In 2009, it was held at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

The final performers at Grad Nite include Pete Wentz, 3OH!3 and Taio Cruz.


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