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Some Tampa Bay high school seniors won’t get a Grad Nite party this year

Pinellas and Pasco school systems are not on board with allowing seniors to attend Grad Nite at Busch Gardens.
Cheetah Hunt and other coasters at Busch Gardens, will be open for Grad Nite for high school seniors to ride in the dark for two dates in April. But some school districts are not allowing students to attend.
Cheetah Hunt and other coasters at Busch Gardens, will be open for Grad Nite for high school seniors to ride in the dark for two dates in April. But some school districts are not allowing students to attend. [ SPECIAL TO THE TIMES | Busch Gardens ]
Published Mar. 24
Updated Mar. 24

Both Busch Gardens and SeaWorld will host Grad Nite parties for the first time in years, but some local schools will not let their seniors participate.

After a five-year absence, Busch Gardens is bringing back Grad Nite this spring, giving high school seniors the chance to have a night in the park to themselves on April 16 and 23. The catch is that tickets have to be purchased through the schools, and many schools started the year forbidding off-site events.

At the Pinellas County school district, the answer is a hard no — and prom is canceled, too. Pasco County’s superintendent of high schools also says their schools won’t be participating in Grad Nite.

“Due to the ongoing pandemic, Grad Night and prom are not happening this school year,” said Pinellas school district spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas. “The health and safety of our students is a top priority. Schools are choosing other activities that follow the district’s safety protocols to celebrate their seniors.”

Hillsborough County is leaving the choice up to each principal, said spokeswoman Tanya Arja.

Marnika Hancock, 18, a senior at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, said the news of no prom or Grad Nite was sad, “because we all looked forward to this. But we kind of saw this coming.”

“Our senior year really went down the drain,” Hancock said. “We worked so hard over our four years we should get something, even like a dinner or something. We didn’t even get a class picture. This year is pretty depressing.”

Whisper Wiseman of Seminole, a parent of a freshman and a senior at Osceola Fundamental High School, said the parents and students she has talked to appear to be “frustrated, sad and confused” by the decisions the school district has made this year.

“The kids are at the school already, wearing their masks. They are already together and they go to sporting events. We have wrestling and track meets, so the fact that we can’t have prom or Grad Nite, it’s just not consistent,” Wiseman said.

Wiseman has been working with other parents to come up with some school-approved events for seniors such as a movie night on the football field or a senior breakfast. She has heard talk of parents at other schools trying to organize private events for their seniors.

“We parents might be taking it harder than the kids because we know what they are missing,” Wiseman said, “and we know later on this is the group that will never have those memories.”

Individual registration for Grad Nite is not available. The cost is $69.99 per person, which includes a meal voucher and drink at select restaurants.

For every 10 teens who sign up, a chaperone gets a free ticket. They also get an exclusive lounge with free beverages and unlimited front-of-the-line access to rides like Cheetah Hunt. The deadline for schools to apply is April 2.

Those interested should start with their school. Information can be found at buschgardens.com/tampa/group-events/youth-events/grad-nite.