At Disney World, Grad Night Ends

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This weekend marks the end of an era for hundreds of thousands of former high school students. Each year since 1972, Disney World in Orlando, Fla., has opened up its theme park for graduating seniors for a weekend of festivities and concerts catered just to them. But that ends over the weekend.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A decades-long tradition comes to an end this weekend at Walt Disney World in Florida. It's the last time high school seniors from around the country will descend on the theme park for the all-night bash known as Grad Night.

From member station WMFE in Orlando, Nicole Creston reports.

NICOLE CRESTON: For two weekends each spring since 1972, Disney World has closed the Magic Kingdom early to all but seniors - for a night of rides, concerts and dance parties.

(Soundbite of Grad Night festivities)

Unidentified Man: Seniors: This is your night, your party, your kingdom.

CRESTON: But Disney World says this year's Grad Night will be its last.

Professor DUNCAN DICKSON (Theme Park Expert, University of Central Florida): The translation is that it's a difficult event to manage.

CRESTON: That's theme park expert Duncan Dickson, of the University of Central Florida.

Disney officials wouldn't talk on tape, but Dickson explains Disney World looked very different when Grad Night started, and so did its crowds.

Prof. DICKSON: We had a very high summer season; we had a very high Christmas season; we had a very high spring break-Easter season. And Grad Night filled a period that we were down. May used to be a nasty month.

CRESTON: But now, it's tourist season year-round. Plus, Disney World has more attractions, and more lodging for people coming to see them. There are about 20,000 hotel rooms full of families who don't want to hear the Magic Kingdom is closing early - for Grad Night or anything else. So the Class of 2011 is the last.

Orlando senior Rebecca McLaughlin and her friends went last weekend. She says it was a rite of passage.

Ms. REBECCA MCLAUGHLIN: Like a celebration that everyone there is graduating.

CRESTON: Her friends Kelly Thompson(ph) and Allison DeLong(ph) say they feel sorry for underclassmen who won't get to go.

Ms. KELLY THOMPSON: I spent my last four years of high school like, anticipating, like, senior events like Grad Night. And it's, like, our friends who are juniors and sophomores can't look forward to that.

Ms. ALLISON DELONG: It's a thing, like, you finally get to do as a senior. Like, oh, I finally get to go to Grad Night.

CRESTON: And a night like that sticks with you.

April Flinta(ph) went in 1994. She now lives in Maine and is disappointed her 12-year-old son won't have the same opportunity when he graduates.

Ms. APRIL FLINTA: One last get-together with friends, you know, a last blast at the end of the year. And he's going to miss out on that. It's kind of sad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CRESTON: Grad Night will continue at Disneyland in California, and there are other theme park options, like Grad Bash at Universal Orlando. But for thousands of students, it just won't be the same.

Ms. CRESTON: For NPR News, I'm Nicole Creston in Orlando.

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