Grad Nite-mare

by David Koenig, contributing writer

This Thursday, May 10, Disneyland hosts its first Grad Nite of the year—in an all-new format that has long-time cast members worried about what might happen. After a half-century of perfecting the program, Team Disney Anaheim is making huge changes to expand the events while reducing their impact on regular day guests.

The traditional Grad Nite plan was based on an old-school timetable: Most visitors spent a full day at Disneyland, so figured they got their money’s worth by the time cast members gently began clearing them out at 6:00 p.m. That would leave the park with a couple of hours both to make sure all non-grads had left the park and to search all the lockers for any contraband that grads had stashed for that evening.

Grads were then to arrive, as a group, via bus or other school-requisitioned vehicle, and enter the park, again as a group, after a rigorous search and pat-down. They would then be prohibited from leaving the park until the event ended, between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m.

Although Grad Nites are notorious for mischief, the park’s time-tested system allowed Security to maintain the safest environment possible.

But today’s resort deals with drastically different attendance patterns and guest habits. Nowadays, Disney must cater to its base of close to a million annual passholders, who—unlike the day guests of old—prefer shorter visits, often popping in during the week, after they’re off work or school. Every May and June night that the park now closes early cuts it off from thousands of regular customers.

To remedy the situation, Disneyland began cutting back on the number of Grad Nites it offered each year—to the point where last year it offered only eight (seven on Thursdays, one Wednesday). This year, however, the resort is trying to have it both ways—it’s increased the number of Grad Nites to 20 (including five Fridays), but will start them as a “mix-in” with regular day guests and passholders. Grads will receive a parkhopper pass that allows them to arrive at either park at any time that day, as well as a wristband that permits them to remain in Disneyland after the day guests are herded out at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. An hour later, the gates will close and no one will be permitted to leave until 3:00 a.m.

Disney is marketing the changes as a win-win for regular guests and grads. Day guests don’t get kicked out hours early, and grads—although the private portion of their event is marginally shortened—have the option of spending a full day in the parks and they can parkhop.

Yet, hearing of the changes, one Security old-timer rattled off a laundry list of concerns:

  • How easily will Disney personnel be able to differentiate grads from guests?
  • Experience has shown that not all grads wish to remain in the park all night. “If a grad decided he or she wanted to leave the park, they would be able to meld in with the ‘day crowd’ and exit fairly easily,” he speculated. “They could pre-plan and meet friends who are not attending Grad Nite and leave the area completely.”
  • If a grad did leave, even with innocent motives, he or she could find himself or herself locked out. “Knowing this,” he wondered, “would some young adult be on the street, maybe alone, most of or all night?”
  • Security cannot intensively search arriving grads or the guest lockers without invading the privacy of the regular guests, making it easier for attendees to smuggle in drugs, alcohol, etc.
  • And, he asked, “what liability does Disney assume if a grad who is able to leave gets injured, assaulted, ends up in Tijuana, or any variety of circumstances?”

The park has made some adjustments to address such concerns. First, searches at security checkpoints leading to the esplanade will be toughened slightly, extending to jacket and coat pockets. But don’t expect pat-downs, since grads will be sharing the security line with tens of thousands of day guests. Second, schools are being encouraged to have grads arrive as a group, by bus, van or chaperone-driven car—but there’s no way to enforce this request. All schools can do to make sure grads arrive en masse is to withhold distributing the wristbands until they’re about to enter the park. And, third, in hopes of separating as many grads from day guests, the park will stage a grads-only performance of Fantasmic! a half-hour after the private party portion of the evening begins/a half-hour before the gates are locked.

We should know in just a few days if Disneyland was successful in throwing out a half-century of Grad Nite wisdom to better serve modern audiences. “In-park guests will probably spend more, so I can understand the reasoning,” the officer conceded. “But 50 years of tradition is difficult to overlook—although it happens all the time and they go against the playbook. I’m a traditionalist… there’s nothing like the original Disneyland when, indeed, it was the Happiest Place on Earth.”

Home of the Brave

The planned meet & greet/activity area for Pixar’s upcoming Brave will be located at the planter across from "it’s a small world," beginning the middle of this month. The area, adjacent to the parade gate, currently features a sea serpent topiary, which is expected to return by Christmas.

The red-haired heroine Merida—the theme parks’ first face character from a Pixar film—will pose for photos, sign autographs, and lead children in shooting arrows at targets. Ever since the idea of having a miniature archery range for guests was first proposed, it has been up to the Safety and Entertainment departments to devise a way to pull it off with no threat of injury. Will we see Nerf arrows, perhaps?

As soon as the Fantasyland Theater goes under construction, the other princesses will relocate nearby, to the old Light Magic viewing area along Small World Mall, as they await the opening of the new Princess Fantasy Faire at the old Carnation Plaza Gardens, in February 2013.



  1. By RStar

    While Disney is known for thinking outside of the box, and bucking traditions once in a while, I think this may well be a mistake. I usually don't fault Disney for making changes, but when safety is sacrificed for the bottom line, I take exception. As a parent I know how I would feel. Grad Nite use to be a very well controlled event that you could feel safe about, as long as your child was well fairly well behaved. I don't understand how the Disney lawyers didn't get involved with this one, and I have a feeling it will change back in the future.

  2. By hbmetzfam

    My question is, what is going to happen on June 14th? There is a grad night scheduled, but DCA is closed. Looks like regular attendees as well as grads will be getting the short end of the stick on that day.

  3. By schnebs

    David, this plan for Grad Nites was only intended for this year, wasn't it? IIRC, next year the Grad Niters will be only at DCA... and I assume that after the problems they'll have with this year's events, the park will probably be locked down again.

  4. By David Koenig

    The tentative plan is to repeat this system (or as much of it works) next year, including the mix-in, but just at DCA. If that comes to pass, most of the potential drawbacks would remain. However, you're right, if there are big problems this year, it should be easier to close DCA early multiple nights in May and June 2013 vs. Disneyland.

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