NEW YORK – Despite months of economic gloom, revelers throughout the country welcomed the new year with merrymaking and even optimism.
“The worst part of last year was probably trying to get through financially,” said Liza Mazzotte, a composer who had come from California to join the hundreds of thousands of celebrants in frigid Times Square to see the Waterford crystal ball drop. “I’m not worried about what I lost. I’m going to be looking to the future.”
As the clock struck midnight Wednesday, a ton of confetti fluttered down on the revelers bundled up in fur hats, coats and sleeping bags. Fireworks burst atop the tower where the ball was lowered. Noisemakers screeched, partygoers kissed and cheers echoed through the corridors of midtown Manhattan.
Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton, expected to be secretary of state in President-elect Barack Obama‘s administration, joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lower the ball atop 1 Times Square for the 60-second countdown to midnight.
The National Weather Service said the midnight temperature at Central Park, just blocks from Times Square, was 18 degrees and the 16 mph wind blowing through the urban canyons made the wind chill just 3 degrees.
The temperature had fallen a couple of degrees when city sanitation crews started sweeping up the confetti and other party trash Thursday morning. Last year, crews removed more than 40 tons of garbage.
While that cleanup was under way, thousands of people were already gathering in Pasadena, Calif., along the route of Thursday’s Rose Parade. Organizers said any economic hit they might have suffered was lessened because commitments to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on floats have been in place for at least a year.
“We do feel one of our jobs is to bring optimism at a time when things are not so good for so many people,” Tournament of Roses Chief Operating Officer Bill Flinn said.
Many other New Year’s Eve traditions around the country were in place, but the nation’s economic troubles made many people less interested in giving 2008 an expensive send-off. Public celebrations were canceled in communities from Louisville, Ky., to Reno, Nev., and promoters in Miami Beach, Fla., reported slower ticket sales than expected for celebrity-studded parties that they say would have sold out in past years.
But New York’s celebration didn’t slow down. Five minutes before midnight, 1,000 balloons with the words “Joy,” “Hope” and “2009” were released from rooftops in the area. The Waterford crystal-covered ball — 12 feet in diameter and weighing nearly 12,000 pounds — was lowered as the crowd erupted in cheers.
Sam Tenorio and his family drove to New York from Orlando, Fla., so his teenage daughter Brianna could see the Jonas Brothers perform live in Times Square.
“The economy is what it is. It’s going to turn around. You just have to be positive,” Tenorio said. “That’s what we’re doing, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I think that’s why most people are here tonight: optimism.”
Some had waited hours in the cold penned up behind barricades in tight security.
Among them was 19-year-old Samantha Smith, who had traveled with her fiance and college friends from Florida. She wore a face mask and had stuffed hand warmers in her gloves. “I’m kind of comfortable because I have a ton of layers on,” she said.
Along with the Jonas Brothers, Lionel Richie and the Pussycat Dolls performed. Dick Clark made several TV appearances from inside a studio, and Ryan Seacrest hosted the event.
Las Vegas casinos put on a midnight fireworks display and daredevil acts, including a 200-foot jump at The Mirage hotel-casino by Robbie Knievel, son of the late Evel Knievel.
The stunt made Knievel appear to jump over a manmade volcano perched in front of the hotel-casino, though he actually jumped next to it as it spewed a fireball under him.
A spokesman for the biggest player on the Las Vegas Strip, MGM Mirage Inc., said more than 90 percent of rooms were filled, albeit at historically low prices reflective of a down year for tourism and gambling. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said the strip would be packed with around 290,000 people.
David Reed, 34, of Henderson, made an exception to his usual year-end festivities to be one of them.
“I had a strict philosophy of not going anywhere near the Strip on New Year’s Eve,” said Reed, who lost his job in May as an office worker. “I wanted to say good riddance to 2008, 2008 sucked.”
Some celebrations didn’t go off as planned. Aspen, Colo., authorities evacuated a large section of downtown and canceled fireworks over Aspen Mountain after suspicious packages and threatening notes were left at two banks. Wind and rough water in the harbor caused Baltimore officials to postpone a fireworks celebration. Reno, Nev., canceled its fireworks show for the first time since 2000.
“With the downturn in the economy, with people getting laid off and with the tightening of budgets all over town, we just didn’t think it was right to spend $20,000 or $30,000 on something that goes up in smoke,” Reno Mayor Bob Cashell said.
Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson expected he would save $33,000 by canceling his traditional New Year’s Eve party.
Elkhart, Ind., planned a party at its outdoor skating rink, with volunteers leading some games, instead of a $5,000 event with fireworks. “I think most people understand,” said Arvis Dawson, executive assistant to the mayor.