As the parents of thousands and thousands of pre-teens and teens already know, Christmas is officially arriving just shy of two months early this year—October 24—with the release of the final chapter of the wildly successful High School Musical franchise.  

This time around, however, the singing, dancing and romancing adventures of Troy (Zac Efron), Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale), Chad (Corbin Bleu) and Taylor (Monique Colman) are getting the big screen treatment, which can’t help but seriously up the ante for fans who’ve been eagerly anticipating the Wildcats’ senior year.

And make no mistake, the fans of High School Musical, which launched on the Disney Channel back in 2006, are hopelessly devoted. Much like a flashback to Beatlemania in the ‘60s or the boy band pandemonium of the ‘90s when Backstreet Boys and ‘N SYNC reigned supreme, the recent premiere events for High School Musical 3:  Senior Year across the globe have brought out scores of screaming girls—and yeah, plenty of guys, too, who are captivated by the catchy pop songs, relatable high school triumphs and struggles, and yes, the particularly photogenic cast.

In fact, when trying to make sense of the movies’ widespread appeal, Efron, whose charismatic onscreen presence has led the editors of several major entertainment mags to christen him “the next big thing,” repeatedly credits the fans for the best three years of his life. “What can I say? I’m soaking it all up,” says Efron at a recent media event at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles. “It’s been a real dream fulfilled for me, and I’m so excited for HSM3 to be in theaters. Sure, all the travel and constant attention can be a little crazy at times, but you won’t hear me complaining. I can’t thank the fans enough for their support. Seeing them be so excited about what we’re doing truly never gets old.”

Changing Lives, Breaking Stereotypes

While there’s plenty of those trademark dance routines that Efron says “don’t leave anything on the dance floor but a pile of sweat” and high school drama that plays out when prom, college prep and big games are all on the horizon, there are some more serious themes that emerge in HSM3.

“For my character, Gabriella, she has always been ruled by her head. But in this movie, the audience sees her kind of torn by her heart and her head,” Hudgens says. “She’s making tough decisions, trying to figure out what to do with friends, family, her relationship with Troy, school—basically all the stuff that every high school student deals with. When you’re in high school, that’s the only reality you know, so life outside of those comfortable halls poses all kinds of difficult questions and decisions that forever alter the course of your life.”

Aside from the inevitable change that comes with adjusting to post-high school existence, a theme that’s prevalent throughout several of the characters’ storylines is that your future plans have to be your future plans—not your parents’ or even your friends’.

“One of the biggest lessons from the first movie is to break stereotypes. The power forward [of the basketball team] wants to be a pastry chef. The star basketball player wants to be a thespian,” says HSM co-producer Don Schain. “The message to children is that you can be whatever you want to be.”