By Dewayne Bevil, Orlando Sentinel
4:54 p.m. EST, March 9, 2011
This spring will see the last Grad Nite celebrations at Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World announced Wednesday.
Disney World says the increase in theme park attendance in the spring has made scheduling the after-hours, separate-ticket event for high school seniors increasingly difficult. As an alternative, Disney will offer Florida school groups a special one-day, one-park ticket for $55 valid any time during the year.
"Over the years, we've signficantly increased the frequency and types of programming offered specifically for students," Walt Disney World spokeswoman Andrea Finger said. Sports competitions, performing art workshops, festivals and educational programs give students access to Disney "virtually any time of the year," she said.
Live performances have been a hallmark of the event. Musical acts have included Britney Spears, Miami Sound Machine, Katy Perry, Oingo Boingo, Ne-Yo, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, Paramore and Boys Like Girls.
Set for the 2011 and final version of Grad Nite are Pete Wentz, Taio Cruz, and 3OH!3.
The Magic Kingdom event began in 1972, the first spring that the theme park was open, and has continued there annually with the expection of a one-year stint at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2009.
"Attendance has varied throughout the years, but that being said, Grad Nite has remained a rite of passage for high-school seniors over the years, and we have been pleased with the attendance," Finger said.
The announcement caught some Grad Nite "alumni" off-guard.
"It was a little shocking, but without knowing their full reasoning I can kind of look at it and go 'That kind of makes sense," said Matt Cross, an Orlando resident who attended the Magic Kingdom event in 1988. "I think today's high school students don't look at it as as big a draw as maybe it was 20 years ago."
He said he understood the move from a business standpoint.
"That's a chunk of money that Disney loses from their normal resort guests, having to shut down Magic Kingdom," Cross said.
But he has fond memories of the experience, which included performances by Exposé, Run DMC, Michael Bolton and others. He said he remembers being in the Haunted Mansion attraction — and being able to hear Run DMC playing at the foot of Cinderella Castle at the same time.
Heidi Tandy of Miami Beach also was there in '88, but she was "rabidly avoiding the musical talent," she said. (She found Bolton to be "unenthusing.")
Her memories of Grad Nite revolve around her classmates.
"To go on Peter Pan or go into 'it's a small world' and sing at the top of your lungs because no one is going to get angry at you is really a fantastic send-off to your childhood, especially for Florida kids who grew up going to Disney World," Tandy said.
She regrets that her son won't have that chance.
"I would have loved to send him off to his own Grad Nite at Disney World, maybe with the pin I have that says 'Grad Nite' '88 on it," she said.
Bonnie Upright of Jacksonville has similar regrets for her daughter. She attended Grad Nite in 1987 (musical guests: Wang Chung, Ready for the World, Glass Tiger).
"It was one of my favorite high-school memories," Upright said.
For years, a strict dress code was adhered to for Grad Nite. Tandy said girls weren't allowed to wear dresses that exposed their shoulders. And Upright said the buzz — perhaps urban legend — indicated that Disney had ways of dealing with improper behavior.
"[The rumor was that] There was an underground Disney jail you'd be taken to for the night if you misbehaved or were drinking somehow or behaving inappropriately with the opposite sex," she said.
Disneyland Resort in California will continue its Grad Nite program.
Universal Orlando has a similar event for high-school seniors called Grad Bash, which is held at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks.
"Right now, we are focused on making this year's Grad Bash great," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said Wednesday. "But I can say that Grad Bash is a very popular event for us and for our guests — and we don't see that changing anytime soon.