Last week, I experienced one of Orlando’s theme parks in a whole new way: I was a chaperone at Universal Orlando’s Gradventure. Gradventure is the resort’s celebration for eighth-graders — and only these middle-school students and their chaperones are allowed in Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios during the special-ticket event. In fact, after 7 p.m., the parks are locked down and participants are not allowed to leave, though they can travel between the parks, until the end of the event at midnight. Imagine being in two theme parks with thousands of middle-school students!
Schools can sign up for one of three Fridays in May, giving students a chance to mark the end of their middle school years and their graduation to high school. Even though I have been a Florida resident for more than two decades, I grew up in Indiana and seeing my son get to go to a huge theme park for a school celebration still seems amazing to me. And as often as he goes to theme parks, he still was looking forward to this special event with his friends.
To keep things safe and comfortable, there were a LOT of rules we had to follow. It started with what to wear. Most schools designed their own T-shirts and students wore those with appropriate shorts or jeans. Our school requires students to stay within the county’s dress code, which was stricter than Universal’s. Still, Universal does prohibit clothing with holes or shredding; clothing with obscene or offensive language or graphics; visible undergarments; tank tops or undershirts; clothing that exposes excessive portions of the skin that may be viewed as inappropriate at a school function (e.g., bikini tops and bottoms); short shorts; area codes displayed on clothing; and accessories such as chains, spiked collars or studded/spiked belts.
In addition to their attire, students were limited to only drawstring bags, although chaperones could bring any size backpacks they wanted. Everyone was required to go through a metal detector and personal screening, where security personnel checked for weapons, alcohol, illegal drugs and cigarettes. The process was efficient and not unlike what my family and I are used to doing when we visit the theme parks. My son’s school had so thoroughly emphasized its own guidelines — no outside food or drinks, no medications, etc. — that I didn’t see anyone from our groups have any security issues.
And then we were in! We arrived about 5 p.m., and Universal Orlando was still open to the public for two more hours so it was crowded. Our group decided to hit one of the big roller coasters, The Incredible Hulk. That was my first time in the queue, which was loud. I got to know it well, though, as we were in line for 90 minutes. Thankfully, that was by far the longest wait of the night. Once Gradventure officially began at 7 p.m., the wait times dropped significantly.
It was recommended that students spend some of those first two hours at dinner — probably because of the crowds! — but my kids were too excited to just go sit in a restaurant. So, we sought out food after The Hulk. Gradventure tickets, which cost $85 at my son’s school, include Universal Orlando admission, roundtrip travel from the school on a motorcoach, school T-shirt and a dinner voucher. The dinner voucher can be redeemed at one of eleven locations in the two parks and included an entrÃ©e (salad, hamburger, chicken nuggets), French fries, a Coca-cola Freestyle drink and a chocolate chip cookie. Our group chose The Burger Digs and most of us did indeed have burgers. They were pretty bland, but food was not our focus, so we filled our bellies and got back out to the rides.
One beverage option that we did applaud was the souvenir Gradventure cups. They each cost $6.99 and were refillable at Freestyle and ICEE machines all night long. Not only did I appreciate being able to quickly get my Diet Cokes all night while we were running to the attractions, but I also liked the style of the sipper cup. It was designed more like a travel cup so a straw was not needed and no handle meant it could be easily stowed in a backpack pocket.
There were several chaperone perks, too, that were accessible with a special wristband we were given. Parents and teachers can visit chaperone-only lounges that have complimentary light snacks and beverages. Plus, we were allowed to skip the regular lines at most rides and attractions with complimentary Universal Express ride access. These seem like great perks, but they weren’t really practical for me because I was with my group of kids all night.
Of course, the kids had fun taking in all the Universal attractions with their friends, but they also browsed the gift shops and enjoyed the DJs playing current music. Getting a Butterbeer in Diagon Alley at 11:30 p.m. wasn’t too shabby, either. All in all, it was a fun night!
For more information about Gradventure, visit UniveralOrlandoYouth.com