Disney World’s annual tradition of sending high school graduates off into the real world with an all-night party in the Magic Kingdom is coming to an end. The seniors who attend Grad Nite 2011 will have the unique distinction of becoming the final group of high school students to dress up, join their friends and thousands of other seniors on a variety of classic Disney rides, and rock the night away to the sounds of some of the memorable (and sometimes laughable) bands of their generation.
To date myself, the performers at my Grad Nite included Samantha Fox, New Kids On The Block, and Information Society. None of these bands would have the longevity of groups such as Paul Revere and the Raiders, who played at Disney World’s first Grad Nite in 1972 and performs at this year’s Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Nonetheless, we children of the ’80s stared with awe as the frontman for Information Society belted out “Pure Energy” with multi-colored, teased-out hair.
Disney’s official reason for canceling Grad Nite is that the Magic Kingdom has become busier in the springtime, making it “challenging to schedule special events during April and May,” according to the Disney Parks Blog. Disney has announced that the company will offer special discounted tickets to groups of high school seniors who can visit the theme parks any time of year.
Kudos to Disney World for offering discounted group tickets to high school seniors. As magnanimous as this gesture might appear, however, it cannot compensate for the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime celebration marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, a rite of passage for graduating seniors that has continued for nearly 40 years. The tradition will continue at Disneyland, where it originated in 1961.
Canceling Grad Nite at Walt Disney World, a company famous for its meticulous record keeping regarding historic park attendance, might have more to do with maximizing profits in a weak economy than scheduling conflicts. In recent years, the Magic Kingdom has hosted more family-friendly special events in the evening hours, including the Pirate & Princess Party, which is held on select evenings in the winter and spring. On these nights, the Magic Kingdom closes early so that daytime guests must exit to make room for guests who purchase special event tickets. In other words, Disney reaps the profits from both daytime and nighttime ticket purchases.
Disney World has used the same strategy to facilitate Grad Nite for decades, but hordes of high schoolers are not as simple to accommodate as throngs of girls in princess gowns and miniature Captain Jack Sparrows. Who can blame Disney for favoring such lucrative family events over Grad Nite, which involves the exchange of mostly family groups for hormone-filled teenagers who take over the park for the night?
Yet Grad Nite is about more than making money. For nearly 40 years at Disney World and for 50 years at Disneyland, the event has provided high school graduates with a safe, alcohol and drug-free way to say farewell to friends and classmates before moving on to college or careers. Racing through Tomorrowland in a suit or dress with thousands of other seniors is a feeling without compare.
Disney World’s Grad Nite has faced competition from celebrations at other Orlando and Tampa-area theme parks and water parks, which might be another contributing factor to its demise. Although the real cause of Grad Nite’s cancellation is clouded, one thing is certain: The absence of the original Grad Nite celebration marks a sad moment for teens around the country. Disney executives should ask themselves, “What would Mickey Mouse do?”