Alex Waters watched appreciatively as two masked friends on pedestals struggled to knock each other to the ground.

"This is the coolest thing I've ever been to," he proclaimed between shouts of "oh brother" and "you're goin' down."

The gladiator ring was Waters' first stopping place at Ironwood Ridge High School's island-themed graduation party May 18, but he'd already received the golf cart tour of the event, along with a lemonade mai tai and a welcoming Hawaiian lei.

He'd seen the life-sized wooden ship wrecked against the stairs of his school and the glowing volcano near the hot tubs. He knew something of what lay in store.

Project Graduation, a nonprofit organization designed to entice seniors to stay safe and off the road on graduation night, offered its first blowout parties at Ironwood Ridge and Canyon del Oro high schools last week.

The Northwest business community played its part, donating about $47,000 in cash to split between the two schools, and about $20,000 more in donated items, to put on one heck of a party.

"The whole reason is to keep graduates safe from not only a fatal accident, God help us, but also from a DUI," said Mary Snider, head organizer of Ironwood Ridge's party. "That could compromise a career choice later on. Let's protect them that night when they could lose their decision-making skills."

That was a two-year job. For a few organizers, it was a full-time job for as long as a year, Snider said. For all volunteers, it involved intensity toward the end.

"Most of my committee chairmen have not been sleeping more than four hours," she said. "We have a joke that we think the most productive time is night, when our minds just won't turn off."

But the two schools' hundreds of volunteers finally reached the hectic end of thousands of hours of work at jobs ranging from the construction of a drop ceiling for Canyon del Oro's gym to the construction of 100 palm trees for Ironwood Ridge's gym.

"I have a cell phone and a land line and they sometimes ring at the same time," Snider said, illustrating the pre-party craziness. "I finally turned my cell phone off, and the message box got filled."

Once volunteers finished constructing the party sets, they were needed to help with security - checking in students' backpacks so no disruptive items made it into the party.

"We've been so careful with our kids to screen them and make sure no contraband comes in," said B.J. Meyer, a head organizer for Canyon del Oro's blowout party.

Then hundreds of volunteers shifted their attention to showing graduates a good time.

At Ironwood Ridge's party, students were greeted with tropical drinks under a high archway advertising "Illusion Island."

Golf cart tours took them past a sea-themed dance floor, a neon video game room, a busy casino, and a spa that featured soothing music and pampering that ranged from nail care to haircuts to full-body massages.

"We want to see the same reaction on students as the first time they went to a favorite amusement park," Snider said before the party.

Over 90 percent of the school's 300-some grads bought $75 tickets for the party.

In a courtyard area, hip-hop music blasted as tour carts moved back and forth under a decorative leafy canopy.

"This is nuts," graduate Brent LeFevers said of the party, as an animated and impromptu photo shoot broke out near his table. "It's pure insanity."

"The school's, like, transformed," said Meghan Carey, the graduate sitting next to him.

Hours later in Illusion Island's theater, more expletives were uttered. The theater featured a floor-size blue mat that was turned under at one end to resemble a wave. Festive mattresses, scattered about, appeared to be catching waves.

"This is freakin' awesome," graduate Matthew Marquez announced to his friends.

Marquez picked up a shark-shaped floatie and carried it to the door.

"I think I'm going to have to wear it out there," he said.

At 2:30 a.m., all the partiers gathered to watch a comedian hypnotist turn 18 of their friends into dead weight. Under his influence, they talked to their shoes, sang Martian dance songs, and impersonated George Bush.

The sleep-deprived audience members simultaneously rose to their feet as the hypnotist commanded four male graduates to go into labor.

One Project Graduation volunteer likened the two years of party preparation, itself, to the process of having a baby.

"It's like nine months of pregnancy, and the labor and delivery are these four days the men and women set up," Karen Pickle said. "Two days later, you'll forget the pain and suffering and you're like 'I'll do this again.'"

The next evening, May 19, Canyon del Oro's party began.

Of the school's 300-some new grads, 227 bought the $50 tickets.

Immediately after throwing their graduation caps in the air, the grads walked through what resembled a hole on the horizon of a panoramic highway scene.

The music emanating from an old car out front explained it all: "Get your kicks on Route 66."

Inside, a lighted Chicago skyscape dominated a spiffy dining hall, filled with disorienting lights and loud music. Two blinking red lights emphasized a particularly tall Chicago tower.

As grads finished their dinners and dancers spelled "Chicago" with their arms, a balloon artist busied himself with making hats for all the people at a table near the front.

Graduate Julianne Rooney, who sported a giant flower hat, marveled at the décor surrounding her.

"It doesn't look like the gym at all," she said. "It doesn't even remind me of school at all."

After dinner, a temporary wall came down to reveal a working casino with three-dimensional sets worthy of a professional stage production.

Casino chip cashers stood in the office of a pink Route 66 Motel with a lighted sign and metal porch chairs, and a cookie server worked out of a three-dimensional 66 Diner that advertised, truthfully, "open 24 hours."

In the middle of the room, craps dice tumbled and slot machines jingled for lucky gamblers playing with fake money to win prizes later.

Outside, a carnival offered various diversions - sumo wrestling, a toilet paper roll throw, a sky-high drive-in theater, and Las Vegas-style temporary airbrush tattoos.

The tattoo stand, with flashing red lights and a nearby white grafittied van, attracted many female fans - they wanted tattoos on their stomachs.

"I want one on my back," Arjana Hrustic said, not one to follow the crowd. Friends urged her to do it, and she chose the tattoo that spells "love" in Chinese.

Hrustic joked about what her parents would think - "I'm like, 'Mom, look what happened to me grad night!'" - but her satisfaction was evidence that Project Graduation was probably a success.

"I think it's awesome," she said. "It's a lot of fun because a lot of people showed up. I think they should keep doing it, definitely."

Both schools have leftover start-up money for parties next year, organizers said. Canyon del Oro has a few thousand dollars left over for next year's Project Graduation party, and Ironwood Ridge has a surplus of more than of $5,000.

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