The Man is Everywhere: I Was a Disneyland Grad Night Chaperone


There is no arguing with exultation.
 — Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire

Disneyland. Like many another native of Los Angeles, I have a vexed relationship with The Happiest Place on Earth.¹ A childhood spent in pure enchantment during every trip to Disneyland gave way to an adulthood plagued with guilty doubts about that special Disney brand of child consumerism and corporate greed. My love of fine graphic design dates, I think, to an appreciation of the gorgeous layout and palette of the precious book of Disneyland tickets. And what of Grad Nite, the annual Southern California ritual where the park is closed down to all but newly-minted high school graduates for a party that lasts all night long? My beloved then-boyfriend Michael and I had a divine Grad Nite, and kissed on the Matterhorn bobsled as it hurtled around on this crazy, blatantly artificial mountain, with fireworks exploding in the night sky. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes and no regrets; even though I grew in time to recoil at those dimwitted Disney Princesses incapable of solving their own problems-mooning around until some fey-looking guy in tights showed up on a horse to fix everything!-I could never deprecate the pleasure of the saturated candy colors of Alice in Wonderland melting slowly into my brain, one lazy weed-scented afternoon in an old theater in downtown Long Beach.

So last week I chaperoned my daughter Carmen’s Grad Nite at Disneyland. When I emailed Michael to tell him so, he replied, ‘Isn’t that when we got high on the sky cars? Don’t tell Carmen!’ (Which I can’t even remember, but probably? We never did get so very stoned back then, truth to tell, on the weak pot that came in “lids,” which meant a plastic baggie full of mainly carpet sweepings, roughly the size and texture of a sofa cushion. They don’t even have the Disneyland Skyway anymore, allegedly because of some engineering mishap or other. I have my own theories about that. The shenanigans that went on up there, as we dangled along between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland-were truer words ever spoken?)

Once you have a kid, the relationship to Disneyland becomes still more complex. Kids love that freaking place. One of the many Lucite-framed photos on my mom’s refrigerator is of me at Disneyland, with my then-four-year-old nephew Max riding piggyback. Even now, every time I see it, I think that whatever is responsible for the radiant expression on that beautiful little mug (his, I mean) just can’t be wrong. And then Carmen has always been very keen on Disneyland, far more so than her step-siblings ever were. She may be a card-carrying indie chick who was voted “Biggest Rock Star” by her graduating class, but even now I don’t think anything outside of a live performance by The Mighty Boosh could keep her away from Disneyland.

I have a number of friends with kids who resisted completely, who 100% refused, who HATE Disneyland and all things Disney and make a big point of saying so and wouldn’t buy one single “cheap, plastic, commercial, ugly, sexist…” I know, I know. But that is a somewhat biliously high-minded position to have to be holding so fiercely for years on end. With everything in life as flawed and compromised as it is, shouldn’t we let our children, encourage them, even, to take their pleasures where they may be found? Within reason, of course: today’s steady diet of Skittles may become tomorrow’s steady diet of meth, so you have to watch it. But still. There’s little enough pleasure in this world.

Grad Nite started in 1961, just a few years after Disneyland opened. It’s a very complicated business to arrange, with all sorts of extra security precautions and elaborate paperwork, dozens and dozens of chartered buses from all over California and even as far away as Arizona, and so on. Our kids, on fire with the excitement of their graduation ceremony that afternoon, departed from school on three buses, each with a few wary chaperones on board. We had all kinds of stuff we were supposed to read to them about throwing out all their drugs and booze in the parking lot, OR ELSE. They were all way too wound up to give a damn what we said, naturally. I wandered through the bus, handing out colored wristbands and exhortations to simmer down, would you for pete’s sake. One kid was yelling very loudly about that South African artificial vagina dentata condom-thing. “It will cut your balls right off!” he shouted, suddenly catching my eye and shooting me a guilty look.

“Oh, I read all about that,” I said. “Indeed, you’d best watch yourself. It’s a dangerous world. “

“I love and respect women!” shouted Vicki’s boyfriend, whose name escapes. Great big kid. They look like adults but they’re just not, is the thing. “All women! Except Vicki!” Vicki, sitting next to him, rolled her eyes at me in a matey way.

Vicki is a tennis prodigy; in elementary school a gawky, shy giantess, and now a most elegant figure, surpassingly graceful, with the same tender, gentle expression as always. I hugged her so tight, reflecting maybe for the last time. These kids won’t have such a lot of opportunity to see one another again, maybe. “Well I love Vicki,” I said. “And I have, since she was a little girl. “

Once you get to Disneyland for Grad Nite, they make you take everything out of your bag or backpack and pop it into a clear plastic bag a bit bigger than the airport kind. Then you must be patted down with great thoroughness, kids and adults alike. An attempt was made at the gates to deprive me of my cigarettes; though there are smoking areas in the park, the rules are different for Grad Nite. I’m a far-from-heavy smoker and can certainly do without for a few hours, but I panicked anyway, just at the sight of all that peremptory authority. “I’m about a thousand years old!” I shrieked at the security officer, a stern-looking Russian woman in heavy makeup. She called over a “supervisor,” who turned out to be a boy about half her age. “She’s trying to take away my cigarettes!” I bawled. “Chaperones are okay, it’s okay,” he said. “But you’ll have to smoke outside the park.”

Seriously, the Man is everywhere; gone are the days when the worst consequences of casual sex would require a course of penicillin, and you could sneak a feeble joint onto the Disneyland Skyway. I clutched my plastic bag protectively. Three or four kids, over the course of the night, caught sight of my cigarettes through the plastic and tried to bum. “But I’m eighteen!” they tried. I went with: “NO.”

Sometimes they book too many kids in and there are long lines, but our Grad Nite was blissfully underattended. There was some godawful Top 40 music blaring, and there were a bunch of extra dance floors with MTV dancers performing, plus Paramore and a few local bands. Certain attractions were closed (no Enchanted Tiki Room, alas) but most all of the big rides were open, with no lines to speak of. The moment I got in, I zoomed straight onto Star Tours and just sat down without waiting even for one moment-unheard-of luxury. A rowdy boy with a thick accent sat near me, shouting at everybody, “Hevf you got a green card?! Vhere are we going?!” “ENDOR!” screamed two lovely girls in the next row, for all the world like a couple of fourth-graders. I hoped they’d all stay as happy as this forever. In fact I felt rather like a fourth-grader myself, as we whizzed so thrillingly through the ice tunnels of outer space, etc.

Soon I’d met up with the rest of the chaperones from our school, including an imposing blonde Amazon of a mom, Lydia, whom I’ve known for over a decade; she teaches third grade by day. Tiny did I realize that behind that martial façade lay a goofy little girl who, at the conclusion of our second ride on Space Mountain around 3 a.m., would be bounding up the stairs two at a time and clamoring for more. We and four other doughty parents spent pretty much the whole night on the rides.

I have to hand it to that union-bashing, chain-smoking FBI informant, Uncle Walt. Disneyland really is fun.

Our fellow-chaperone Ed, a portly, robust fellow in a red jacket who knew the exact location of every attraction and loads of park trivia, was hilariously scared of the “fast” rides. But he was braver than I when it looked like an altercation was brewing among some kids unknown to us, and he dashed right over in full Dad mode. He came back with a crazy story: he’d gone up to them saying, hey, what’s going on here? It’s OK, one of the kids says, we’re security. A kid in a hoodie.

Security? says Ed skeptically. Oh yeah? Then show me some ID. And the kid opens his hoodie, flashing an official-looking Disneyland security badge! Undercover fake kids, if you can believe. Dis-narcs.

So I text this info to Carmen, who replies, omg I think they talked to us! And I’m all @*($!! She said they’d been approached by some weird kids who said, “Hey, ya got any pills?!” And with, no doubt, the withering disdain peculiar to teenagers, “We go uh, no? And they’re all, yeah you do! Come on, you have pills! And we go, um. No. We don’t have any pills. Freak.” Which if all of this were true is it legal, even? Is Disneyland like an embassy or something, or its own country, like the Vatican?

At about 4 a.m., as Lydia and I were woozily enjoying our complimentary chaperone breakfast at the Plaza restaurant, her phone rang. One of our kids was apparently petitioning for permission to leave the park early. Oh sure, we say-Albert is leaving now; his parents sent a car service along for him, because he is off to Russia this morning. No; it’s not Albert?! Who the hell is trying to leave? They all came with us on the bus, nobody was allowed to drive to this thing on his own. So we pop down to the Main Street office they’d set up. It is full of costumed Disneyland apparatchiks also a bit the worse for wear, with slightly smudged makeup, a little shiny and sleepy. Okay, someone called us, who is this who is trying to leave early?

Here she is. A kid we’ve never seen in our lives! Tall, freckles, looking very nervous. Who the hell is she?

“If you drove yourself, how’d you even get a ticket?” I ask pointedly. They’d all been given out at school with the form-checking solemnity of passport stamps, right in front of the buses, by me and a few other parents.

So we put two, two, six and a half and three together, and eventually figure out that Alice, one of our own kids, has quite sneakily wangled an extra, unpaid-for ticket and gotten this Freckles in by totally nefarious means. So Alice is now in the deepest possible shit; I’ve known her since she was six or seven, and quail at the thought of the firing squad she will face when she gets off the bus back at school. We phone Freckles’s mom, who sounds reasonably calm. But she wants the kid home, which is Hermosa Beach. Well, fine, but the Disney people won’t let her out of there until 5 a.m. without a parent’s signature. Lydia and I tell Freckles she’ll have to phone her mom back and deal with the mess herself.

“Thanks for trying,” she said, shaking like a leaf. As well she might. Poised on the knife-edge between childhood and adulthood, where there are consequences to be faced that grow ever hairier than the occasional Time Out. Here it comes, Alice and Freckles. The first, no doubt, in a long succession of post-grad lessons.

Lydia and I exchange raised eyebrows as we leave the office. “Whatever. Let’s go on Space Mountain again.”

¹ Once ubiquitous around the park, this smug old slogan is hardly to be seen in Disneyland of the present day, I was interested to note. Maybe that is because Denmark is supposed to be the Happiest Place on Earth, as I read somewhere, though really it’s just that the people in Denmark are happy, which is another thing entirely.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and

Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.