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Disney’s new ‘After Dark’ parties offer super-fans an exclusive experience

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Snow White, right, and her prince greet visitors during Disneyland After Dark Sweethearts Nite on Feb. 7, 2019.

As parents with tired toddlers pushed through the exit turnstiles at Disneyland after sundown on Feb. 7, an equally enthusiastic crowd of eager guests was queuing up to get in.

On that chilly Thursday night, Disneyland was hosting Sweethearts Nite, the latest of its Disneyland After Dark late-night parties. At these periodic events, a limited number of ticket-buyers willing to pay $95 to $109 get exclusive use of the park and most of its rides for four hours.

But the rides aren’t the only attraction. Each of the themed events — Sweethearts Nite was the third in the series since January 2018 — features close-up encounters with Disney characters, special photo opportunities, live concerts, unique food and gift items for sale and custom lighting and other features that most park visitors will never see.

Among the well-heeled ticket-buyers meeting friends in the park for Sweethearts Nite was Diana Griffith. The retired CPA, who was raised in Los Angeles and now lives in Arizona, visits Disneyland and its sister park, Disney California Adventure, three to 10 days a month on her annual pass. She doesn’t mind paying for the After Dark parties because they offer an experience unique from a day visit.

“I love the surprises they build into these events,” said Griffith, who’s also a longtime member of Disneyland’s members-only Club 33. “No two parties are alike. There’s always something new to see and do.”

Since their introduction, the after-hours parties have consistently sold out within weeks of being announced. The next event on March 7, “90s Night,” sold out in January. Still to come this spring is “Heroes Assemble,” a superhero-themed two-night event April 30 and May 1 at adjacent Disney California Adventure park. Tickets go on sale Feb. 19 for annual pass-holders and Feb. 21 to the general public.

Disneyland After Dark was created last year as a throwback to a program the Anaheim theme park introduced in the late 1950s called “Date Night.” Grown-ups could arrive after park operating hours, buy a special couples ticket book and enjoy rides and special entertainment, said Disneyland Resort spokeswoman Andrae Gill.

The Disneyland After Dark name was borrowed from the name of an April 15, 1962, episode of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” TV episode featuring former Mousketeer Annette Funicello leading viewers on an after-hours tour of the park.

Most Disney visitors are content to visit the theme parks for day visits. But the true Disney uber-fans buy annual passes, join the D23 official Disney fan club, collect limited-edition merchandise and snap up tickets to special events.

“It’s an expensive hobby, but there’s no place like it,” said Laura Posey, who flew down from the Bay Area on the morning of Feb. 7, with her husband, Aaron Goldsmid, and their 3-year-old son for a whirlwind date night at Disneyland After Dark.

Both Silicon Valley workers, Posey and Goldsmid had booked an overnight stay at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa and booked a babysitter for their son so they could dress up in glitzy retro attire for their date night in the park.

“We work in the tech industry, and we work really hard and long hours, so this is our escape,” she said. “My husband is not a relaxer, but he loves the rides.”

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A couple poses for an "Aladdin"-themed photo during Sweethearts Nite on Jan. 7, which was one of Disneyland Resort's After Dark special-ticket parties.

After Dark ticket-holders can enter the park at 6 p.m., mingling with the daytime crowd until the park closes for the day. Only then do the specialty food items, custom lighting and costumed Disney characters appear.

Gill declined to say how many tickets it sells for the After Dark events, but it’s designed to ensure guests don’t have long waits in ride lines and can get around to all of the evening’s special events during the four-hour window.

As they enter the park, After Dark guests are handed a printed pamphlet that lists all the attractions that are open, the evening’s entertainment and special photo locations and unique food and gift items for sale.

On Sweethearts Nite, hundreds of guests lined up to be the first to buy an $18 Minnie Mouse plastic popcorn bucket. Hundreds more could be seen waiting for a chance to pose like scattered toys in front of a one-night-only “Toy Story” backdrop.

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A couple at the Disneyland After Dark Sweethearts Nite party on Feb. 7 posed for a photo in front of a "Toy Story"-themed backdrop.

In Fantasyland, guests could walk right on to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a ride usually known for its slow-moving line. And in New Orleans Square, diners were sampling the evening’s specials: Burning Love Valentine churros and chocolate-covered strawberry beignets.

One of the event’s highlights was the Royal Princess Ball in the courtyard near It’s a Small World. A live band played while Cinderella, Tiana and other princesses swirled around the courtyard, first with their princes, and then with park-goers who were quickly invited to join in.

Many ticket-buyers, like Posey and Goldsmid, enjoy dressing up in costumes for the events. Among the ticket-holders seen strolling through the park on Sweethearts Nite were Mary Poppins and her chimney sweep Bert, Woody and Jessie from “Toy Story,” Princess Leia and Chewbacca and Belle and her “Beast” prince.

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Parkgoers dance at the Royal Princess Ball with costumed Disney princesses and princes, right, during the Disneyland After Dark Sweethearts Nite party on Feb. 7.

Mark and Maria Petrello of Long Beach came dressed as “Star Wars” siblings Luke and Leia. They wore the same costumes last spring at the two-night “Star Wars” Disneyland After Dark events and enjoyed the evening so much they’re planning to do at least two of the parties this year.

“It’s fun to dress up, and it’s great walking around without the crowds,” Maria said. “Everyone is in such a great mood. It’s special.”

Griffith doesn’t dress up for the After Dark parties, but she said she never gets tired of returning to Disneyland again and again, since it’s the one park where Walt Disney himself walked the sidewalks and stayed in the apartment over the Main Street fire station.

It’s such a dreamlike place,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone else past or present who has brought more smiles to the world than Walt Disney.”

This spring’s two-night “Heroes Assemble” party will be the first After Dark party hosted in Disney California Adventure. It will feature encounters with Marvel superheroes, including Black Panther and Captain Marvel, a scavenger hunt, a comic art show and Marvel-themed food items, like the shawarma the heroes consumed in the post-credits scene in “The Avengers.” Tickets are $109.

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com. Twitter: @pamkragen