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Theme Park Grad Nights Lure Millions Into Safe, Sober Celebration

Patterson Jaffurs and classmates graduate June 5 from Santa Barbara High School. After the ceremony, many of the students headed for the PTSA-sponsored Disneyland grad night party. Photo by Craig Jaffurs

It’s high season for grad nights, and Patterson Jaffurs will be among millions of high school seniors not drinking and driving to the party.

The 18-year-old Santa Barbara High School honors student will instead join his classmates as they board chartered buses to motor south to the mecca of grad nights, where teenagers — and parents — rely on an alcohol-free celebration.

“We’re going down to Disneyland and get back somewhere around 5 a.m. the next day,” said Jaffurs, a straight-A student planning to study computer science and engineering this fall at Santa Clara University. He said he’s only heard about it from other students, but if someone were caught sneaking in booze, “I think they’d go to Disneyland jail, or get kicked out.”

The Anaheim amusement park is likely the largest grad-night center in the U.S. Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., is another big grad-night draw, and some students prefer it for its trademark legions of roller coasters. But Disneyland security is legendary, and it is certainly among the oldest grad-night hubs. Since 1961, it has hosted more than 5 million graduating students, said Disneyland spokeswoman Lisa Greathouse.

Apart from amusement parks, high school PTAs everywhere have come to throw simple to elaborate grad night parties with a primary motive: to entice students with the most fun around to prevent underage drinking and drunk driving. Both seem to come with big celebrations of any kind and for any age (even Mother’s Day sees an uptick in DUIs). But teens have the highest rate of traffic mortality.

Related: Grad Night Safety Tips for Teens

And with graduation coming on the heels of prom, spring is the most perilous time of year for teens on the roadways, officials say.

“Teens in general have the highest number of driving deaths in the months of April, May and June,” said the California Office of Transportation Safety’s Chris Cochran. Because graduation days span several weeks depending on the state or school district, there is no law enforcement classification for graduation or prom celebrants, although both are considered dangerous drunk-driving nights for teens.

“Grad and prom night [are] two of the earliest driving nights for new teen drivers, and the younger they are, the more dangerous their driving is,” Cochran said. “The first six months of driving, those are the deadliest six months of their lives; it gets a bit better if they start driving at 17. But that’s why prom and graduations are [a focus]…. They are bigger teen driving nights.”

Thus, Santa Barbara County high school seniors have been going to Disneyland grad night for decades, said Kate Parker, president of the Santa Barbara Unified Board of Education and mother of a graduating senior. Active in the Parent-Teacher-Student Association (PTSA) that organizes grad night, Parker also is involved in a more recent effort to keep students from drinking and other risky behavior, such as going unsupervised to hotels, riding with a drunk driver, using drugs or having underage sex.

Prom Night ‘Bigger Problem’

“We actually have a bigger problem now with prom night,” said Parker, who was among the many volunteer chaperones at a recent prom after-party that 600 students attended. But Disneyland grad night is a tradition that students look forward to all year.

“We think it’s effective — keeping kids towing the line so that they can participate,” Parker said. On graduation night, the reasoning goes, students will measure behavior such as drinking to avoid jeopardizing their grad trip the next day.

“They know they are not getting on that bus if they’re in bad shape,” Parker said. “So doing the party the day after graduation at Disneyland works out great for us.”

For students like Patterson Jaffurs, avoiding alcohol is not tough. “I don’t even consciously avoid it. I just don’t do it.”

But legions of other teens do choose unwisely, as the statistics show. So graduation night parties were born decades ago to entice celebrating seniors out of large, unsupervised parties.

“This year, we are hosting hundreds of schools over 17 nights in May and June,” Disneyland’s Greathouse said this week.

The Anaheim theme park and its adjoining California Adventure attractions offer the Disneyland Resort Grad Nite private parties, featuring dance clubs with DJs, and typically stay open into the predawn hours. The Santa Barbara convoy will leave the park at 3 a.m. and be home by 5 a.m.

“Disneyland has just great security and it’s so experienced at it that our administrators have never felt there was anything that came close to those standards,” said Parker, mindful of not just alcohol but any potentially dangerous behavior. “The kids really want Disneyland. There’s no other activity that comes close to that kind of appeal for them. So they’re motivated to stay out of trouble.”

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