Monday, January 30, 2012

The Grad Nite Distinction

I ordered The Queen for my DVD binder collection, and received it last week. After putting the DVD into one of the remaining sleeves in my second DVD binder, I noticed a paper insert with the chapter titles and a list of the bonus features, and on the other side, ads for Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington ("Now On DVD"), and Venus, starring Peter O'Toole ("Coming Soon To DVD").

It reminded me of a distinction I'm proud to have: I attended my Grad Nite at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in 2002, and I chaperoned Meridith's Grad Nite at Disneyland on June 7, 2007 (I still have the original ticket). But Meridith got the better Grad Nite, though no complaints from me because I got a better Grad Nite through her Grad Nite.

Since I had essentially grown up at Walt Disney World for many years, the one thing I was excited about was bringing along the movies to to be shown during the drive there. In 6th grade, on the end-of-the-year trip to then-Disney-MGM Studios, someone brought Tom & Huck and Cool Runnings. I remember those two, since they came one after the other from 5:30 in the morning until we got to Orlando a little past 9, but I think that The Sandlot was also shown, possibly on the way back. I just remember that every long school trip seemed to include The Sandlot, though that didn't seem to be the case on the 8th grade end-of-the-year trip to the Magic Kingdom, with Men in Black and Mousehunt shown on the way back. But again, I think The Sandlot was part of that, because surely something had to be shown in the morning, and that might have been it.

This time, I was in charge. I brought The Emperor's New Groove, because it's criminally underappreciated, and Toy Story and Toy Story 2. The Emperor's New Groove got some good reaction, though not many of my classmates were paying attention to it, but I did like that I heard one of them laugh loudly after the spider ate the fly and the fly, screeching for help beforehand, said, "Too late."

After putting Toy Story in the VCR and fast-forwarding through the previews, I had to use the bathroom at the back of the bus and while in there, I heard the entire bus sing along to "You've Got a Friend in Me." A great Disney movie (Disney-Pixar in this case) turns us all into kids again, which, to me, is the best way to explore life.

Stopping at Fort Drum for a long break to eat and stretch, I remember that there was a Revenge from Mars pinball machine from which I won a free game, and it was as if the rest stop was prepping me for disappointment. Once at the Magic Kingdom and back in Tomorrowland, my favorite part of the park, I found that the Tomorrowland Transit Authority was closed, because they probably didn't want rowdy teens throwing things down from up high, and Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress was closed, because they probably didn't want rowdy teens damaging the Audio-Animatronics that would be exposed to them. To make it worse for me, the CD jukebox that I loved hearing my favorite songs from throughout the Tomorrowland Light & Power Arcade during a visit in 2000 was shut off. Space Mountain, my favorite ride, was open, but it was a 75-minute wait, so I only got to ride it once. Plus, I had no idea then that that would be my final time at the Magic Kingdom, at Walt Disney World entirely. Our last visit was on July 9, 2003, in Downtown Disney, the day Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl opened in theaters, which I remember very well because Mom and Dad dropped Meridith and I off at AMC Pleasure Island 24 as soon as we got there from South Florida. Dad was presenting at a business education conference, and this was all the time we had. I wanted to see The Curse of the Black Pearl there because it was being digitally projected, and I wanted to know what digital projection was all about. It was in its infancy then, blurry at times, but they were getting there.

We didn't go to the Magic Kingdom on that final visit. No time. I may go back to Florida, to Walt Disney World in the years to come. I know it's changed (I keep up on the latest news out of Walt Disney World), but I want to make up for that utter disappointment. Because of predicted idiots (and there's always a few in every crowd), I lost out on two of my most favorite attractions in Tomorrowland. I hope they're still around whenever I return, though I intend to bring an mp3 player with me, with the Tomorrowland Transit Authority soundtrack I remember, because the current one is garbage, giving nothing but advertisements for all the attractions the average visitor already knows about when they walk into Tomorrowland.

I became a chaperone for Meridith's Grad Nite when I went to Valencia High with her one morning to talk to the teacher in charge of it. It was the one rare time I got up early since I was long done with classes at College of the Canyons, and I hadn't yet reached that long stretch at The Signal, where I eventually became interim editor of the Escape section after the eminent John Boston left after 30 years of service to the paper. I had a lot of time on my hands.

The teacher was fine with me being a chaperone. I asked in April, so I had until June to wait. When it came, that one night, that glorious Thursday night, was everything I had hoped for, and even with the strict rules given about not screwing around, making sure to be back at the bus by 4:30 a.m., and coming to us chaperones if there were any problems, I felt this immense freedom around me, like the earth had sagged in total relaxation, encouraging the same in others. Mom and Dad dropped off Meridith and I at the school, and while Meridith waited for friends, I hung out in the office of the PE teachers with the other chaperones, idly listening to the conversations going on, appreciating how beneficial it is to just be an observer. This was going to be a good crowd. A few looked like veterans of Grad Nite, and knew exactly what they were doing. This would be my first and last Grad Nite as a chaperone because after Meridith, what reason would there be to do this again? I wouldn't have the connection I did by her being in the school, and it wouldn't make much sense otherwise. Besides, it only mattered to me that I got to do this for her Grad Nite.

Someone hung up big signs against a cargo container sitting nearby, with letters to show where each student should line up to get their Grad Nite ticket. A-C last names lined up at the far left and so on. I passed out Grad Nite tickets and joked with the chaperone next to me, who had actually seen Airplane II: The Sequel! I thought I was the only one, and more than that, he liked it too! So we were trading quotes as we passed out the tickets.

Once we got to Disneyland and parked in the lot reserved for the buses, we found that they weren't using the trams to get people to the entrance. We had to walk. It took a good 10 minutes, and I joked around with Meridith and her friends, an easy rapport. And once in the park, we were on our own. Chaperones could be as vigilant as they wished or just check in occasionally at the Plaza Inn, where there was a buffet of cheese cubes, crackers, cookies and brownies for them, as well as the option for either dinner or breakfast from the counter service, and the soda machines were available too. This was where I found most of the chaperones, obviously veterans. They'd done this for years. No need to change what's worked all this time.

Already, I was making up for my crappy Grad Nite just by the amenities alone. But being a Disney nut, I couldn't stay at the Plaza Inn all night. I went on the Haunted Mansion, my favorite ride at Disneyland, once, then went to Tomorrowland, where the theater for Honey, I Shrunk the Audience had only me and about 10 other people in it. They still ran the film.

I liked Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, mainly because of Eric Idle as Dr. Nigel Channing. It was becoming disturbingly dated before Captain EO returned, and I doubt it'll be back after Disneyland feels it has had enough of Captain EO, but it was an excellent respite from the crowds inside the park.

After 2 a.m., I went back to Plaza Inn to get breakfast, a scrambled egg-and-sausage platter that was pretty good. Minute Maid orange juice was in one of the spigots of the drink dispensers, and it's the worst orange juice I've ever tasted, severely watered down and an affront to the oranges used to make it. But that's a minor quibble compared to the complete relaxation I felt. There were no problems from any of the kids, none had reported to the First Aid station, and the night was good.

The reason that paper insert in the DVD case for The Queen reminded me of my distinction is because we chaperones received an additional flyer that detailed the amenities available to us, such as the food, and, in the Main Street Opera House, a caricaturist drawing Disney characters for us (You had to write your name on a sign-up sheet there), and showings of Deja Vu and The Queen. Both had been released on DVD earlier in April, and both were released by Disney, so what better movies for the adults?

In the Opera House, I was disappointed to find that the sign-up sheet for the caricaturist was already completely filled up. No room for me. However, the conversation I had with a couple who were both teachers, who had been chaperoning Grad Nite for many years, made up for that. Inhibitions always lower as time drags on and people become more tired. What I liked most about this couple was honesty you don't readily find in Southern California. The wife told me about past Grad Nites they had chaperoned and entertaining incidents, as well as where she and her husband were teachers. It was one of those conversations where the atmosphere and the company matter more than the details. For a little while, you're connected as a few people in the same position, in the same place, just passing the time enjoyably.

I think I still have that chaperone paper somewhere. All I found on my nightstand today was the guide map, which also listed where the dance areas were, as well as the times for the "Grad Nite Explosion!" fireworks. I don't remember what time they started Deja Vu, but The Queen was being shown at 4:15, which I tried to stay for, waiting inside the theater as the end credits for Deja Vu rolled. But all of us belonging to Valencia High were expected back at the buses before 5 a.m., and I had to do my part in shepherding out the students who I knew to be part of our crowd. Plus, the main souvenir store on Main Street was so dense with people that waiting to pay for anything was nearly impossible. Meridith couldn't get what she wanted to get because of it, because we had to get going. In hindsight, I wish we had stayed and waited because this was Meridith's one chance to do this, at this time, in this instance.

Whereas I had been on an air-conditioned charter bus with TV monitors in the ceiling and a VCR attached for my Grad Nite, Meridith's Grad Nite went with regular school buses. So getting back on board to go back to Valencia High, there was no movie; just the silence of the deadly tired.

These four and a half years later, I still think about that night. There's a play in there somewhere that I'm gradually drawing out. I want to write about that electric feeling throughout the park, so I've been thinking of what situations would make the best drama. Perhaps loaded conversations of some kind. After all, at Grad Nite, the future isn't far behind, graduation from high school and all that; a seismic shift into a world hitherto unimagined while in school.

And I also still think about the chaperones. I was a chaperone just that one time. I'm sure many of the people I saw, perhaps even the couple I talked to, are still doing it, still screwing up their body clocks for that one night. It's only once a year, but it's still a lot to do for just once a year. I remember seeing chaperones also sprawled on the floor in the lobby of the Opera House, sleeping. Those are undoubtedly the ones who have done it before. They've seen it all, and there's nothing new about it.

It's the kind of night I want to replicate somewhere in my writing, that utterly wonderful freedom (yes, despite the rules in place) where I felt like I could wear the Mickey Mouse costume if I asked earnestly enough. I could have skipped past Splash Mountain if I wanted to, counted all the big globe lights lining the walking paths (I lost count), subtly listened in on snatches of conversations around me, which I did while having breakfast outside at the Plaza Inn, though it was so damn cold by then. At 2 in the morning, the air bites at you.

I like to live in between fantasy and reality, taking in each as I see fit. Reality is for the paychecks I receive, the research that is to be done for my next book, and eventually the writing of that book. Fantasy is for the ideas that are still in my head, such as that new novel I want to write one day. I hadn't spent so much time in my head in years as I did today, working out the preliminaries in my head of how I want to tell this story. It's a lot of fun in there, so much space I have to walk around and see the sights as they come, such as that main character for this novel right in front of me. I don't know him well enough yet, but I hope we'll get along easily.

Meridith's Grad Nite doesn't rank as somewhere I like to hang out in my mind, but for just a whiff of inspiration when I need it, it's perfect. It brings me back to growing up for a time at Walt Disney World, where my writing life started before I even knew that I was going to be a writer. It seems that everything in one's life creates such strong roots and vines that things are connected that you never imagined could be. I just go with it, much like I did that night, carried along by sheer joy. It's living at its finest.