First Night Raleigh brings delights for New Year

jstancill@newsobserver.comDecember 31, 2013 

— From indie rock to opera, comedy to yoga and ballroom dancing to ukulele strumming, revelers found a way to groove their way into 2014 at the First Night Raleigh celebration.

Kids tried on fanciful animal masks before the People’s Procession, a funky parade that snaked through downtown toward the evening’s ultimate destination: the site of the giant acorn drop. There, the adult crowds waited for midnight, while the youngsters had a bedtime-appropriate New Year’s countdown at 7 p.m.

On Fayetteville Street, people sampled barbecue sandwiches, cotton candy and deep-fried Girl Scout cookies, while they waited in lines for two popular carnival rides – the carousel and a guitar-shaped thrill ride called “Rock Around the World,” which swept its passengers in a circular motion high above the crowds.

Evan Miller, 4, of Durham, stared at the ride longingly, but it wasn’t to be.

“We’re just looking at it, going ‘No way!’ ”said his mom, Nichole Miller. Evan would have to settle for the fireworks at his first acorn drop.

Jefferson Williams, 8, of Raleigh, stepped off the ride like a rock star, bragging to his mom that he didn’t scream. At all. “I think it’s pretty awesome!” he said.

The festive scene was punctuated with the sounds of bagpipers and Japanese-style drummers. Inside the N.C. Museum of History, children waited for an artist to paint their names on posters in Chinese calligraphy. At the auditorium, the crowd clapped along with a Canadian folk band called Ten Strings and a Goat Skin. Outside, families crowded around novelty tents to buy blinking hats, sabers and deely boppers.

The First Night tradition in Raleigh began 23 years ago, and its popularity has soared in the past five or six years, said Michael Lowder, executive director of Artsplosure, which puts on the alcohol-free, family-friendly event.

Crowd estimates won’t be known for a few days, Lowder said. Generally, the party draws smaller numbers on weeknights. The record was two years ago, when New Year’s Eve fell on a Saturday; one organizer estimated that the crowd topped 100,000.

“I think there’s been a critical mass of really great things happening here,” Lowder said. “People are just more comfortable coming downtown. It’s become a destination.”

People gravitate to their own favorites among the nearly 70 attractions and performances. Some like the comedy acts. Others go for the parade. And some choose a more mellow approach with yoga or a jazz trio.

Pamela Lietz brought her family of four to First Night for the fourth time. On Tuesday, they volunteered for two hours, making noisemakers with paper plates, dried beans and streamers. Then they set off for Fayetteville Street in what has become a Lietz family tradition.

Raleigh residents are lucky, Lietz said, to have a dynamic New Year’s celebration in a safe environment.

“It’s kind of fun because when all of the families are leaving, all the 20-somethings are coming with their short skirts and glitter,” Lietz said.

Her daughter, Lucinda, 8, was dazzled by First Night. Her favorite part? “The fireworks. And the light-up glasses.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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