Last week, the Sun Sentinel ran a sad little story about the death of Grad Nite. Do you know about Grad Nite? If not, you're probably not from around here.
Grad Nite was an event instituted at Walt Disney World shortly after the park opened, in imitation of a similar event at California's Disneyland. Idea was, Disney World would throw open its gates on certain springtime nights, and the state's high school seniors and their dates would have dominion over the Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios 'til the wee hours of the morning. Usually, there was a pre-game party in Downtown Disney, and after a few hours of dancing (or trying to look inconspicuous while not dancing), kids were whisked to the theme parks, where they'd be entertained by middling pop stars and ride the rides. During my own senior year (2001), Tyrese was playing. Remember him?
Of the very few joys of attending high school in SoFla, Grad Nite was probably the greatest. Most of high school blurs together -- the entire experience feels like some kind of exhilarating, anguished, and mercifully brief dream -- but minute details of Grad Nite spring to mind with weird, greasy ease. Partially that's because my own pre-game involved not dancing, but buying 80 milligrams of Adderall from a friend with ADHD, which tends to sharpen one's perceptions. I remember that the bus ride to Orlando was fraught, at least initially: A Russian boy and I were competing for the affections of a girl with whom I was madly, crazily in love, and there had been a desperate scramble to sit next to her. I'd lost, and had to resort to diplomacy. I offered the Russian 20 milligrams of Adderall to agree to switch seats with me halfway up. A deal was brokered. The girl's name was Julia, pronounced "Hoo-lee-ah." She was from Costa Rica.
There was a feeling on that bus that this was it -- high school's last big adventure. It was wordlessly understood that the familiar faces surrounding us wouldn't be familiar much longer. We'd vanish from each others' orbits, and in our absence those faces would become older and strange. What's worse, they'd become unimportant -- irrelevant to the imperatives of our new, post-high-school lives. Across the state, buses streaked down highways full of lachrymose adolescents thinking these same inchoate thoughts. Speaking personally, I had been fruitlessly in love with young Julia for three years already, and I figured this was my final opportunity to make good on 36 months of desperate yearning. Maybe, I thought, I could grow some cojones, say something romantic, and we'd make out on Splash Mountain.
I couldn't and we didn't. But she did get doused with water on the ride's big waterfall, and seeing as it was a cold night, I gave her my jacket. She gave me a hug and a quick peck on the cheek, and called me "the sweetest man I know." This was both the first time anyone had called me a man and the first time young Julia's lips ever touched any part of my anatomy. It was also my last brush with those lips, but I couldn't know that at the time. I spent the remainder of the evening in a happy delirium -- even, at one point, dancing to Tyrese.
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The point is that Grad Nite offered a rare kind of closure for we Floridian kids. It was a chance to see our soon-to-be-non-acquaintances dressed up in natty threads (for Grad Nite had a strict dresscode, back in the day); to hang with our faculty chaperones on an almost equal basis -- to watch the teachers let it all hang out, and to have some easy, non-authoritarian fun with their charges. For kids raised in a culture depressingly short on rites of passage, it felt like an initiation into adulthood.
Well, farewell to all that. Disney World says Grad Nite's no longer economically feasible, and even in the Magic Kingdom, finances trump romance every time. By way of compensation, Disney World will now offer discounted passes to schools who want to bring their students to the park during ordinary business hours. I called up the director of my old high school -- Ms. Anita Lonstein, of Fort Lauderdale Preparatory School -- to see if she intended to take Disney up on the deal. "Probably not," she said. "If want to take kids on trips, I can do that. I don't need Disney telling me where to take them ... The appeal wasn't that it was Disney World. It was that having the park closed down and lit up, just for the kids -- it was a truly magical night. Going back during the day, with the tourists, just wouldn't be the same."
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