It takes about half a year to plan First Night Raleigh, the annual New Year’s Eve bash in downtown Raleigh.
After Raleigh arts festival Artsplosure ends in May, the same organizers turn their thoughts to the new year. At first it’s mainly brainstorming and concept work. By September, though, the organizers kick into high gear and really start putting the pieces together.
Between 50,000 and 80,000 people annually descend upon downtown Raleigh on New Year’s Eve, and event organizers want to give them a First Night to remember.
“City Plaza is truly the only place that can hold the amount of people that come down for this,” says Cameron Laws, marketing director for both First Night Raleigh and Artsplosure. “It’s North Carolina’s party.”
This year’s First Night on Sunday features 100 performances in 35 venues with musical guests Holy Ghost Tent Revival and Cane Mill Road.
It kicks off early at 2 p.m. with the DIY Festival at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the North Carolina Museum of History along with activities on Fayetteville Street. That include the Art Putt mini golf course, the First Night Ferris wheel and the F-5 pendulum ride.
Later, the evening brings music and comedy and other attractions.
The evening procession with drums and the Paperhand Puppet Intervention at 6 p.m. leads the transition to the evening activities. The lineup begins at 5:30 p.m. north of the State Capitol on Edenton Street. It makes its way south on Salisbury Street, east on Davie Street and then south on Fayetteville Street.
The first acorn drop and fireworks at 7 p.m. rings in 2018 for little ones, while the midnight Acorn Drop rings it in for everyone.
Appropriately for a New Year’s celebration, First Night 2018’s organizers intentionally mix the old with the new.
“We have these traditions people develop where they go to the improv or go see the opera or all these different things that we bring back year after year because they’re so popular,” says Laws. “The other half of it is really these new things that you’re probably only going to see just this one time.”
Art Putt is a good example of both. It’s a recurring attraction, but this year’s version of the 9-hole mini golf course features neon art by local artist Nate Sheaffer. It fits this year’s theme, which is Let’s Glow Crazy. In total, First Night 2018 features seven such interactive exhibits. Many of the musical offerings are interactive, too.
“We have partnered with the great Raleigh Trolley to do something called the Jolly Raleigh Singing Trolley,,” says Laws. “It’s pretty much what it sounds like.” You board the trolley, she continues, and you sing along with various popular sings.
There’s also a Canadian group called Lumens bringing a musical virtual reality experience, while the annual community jazz jam comes to Salisbury Street First Baptist Church, too. As far as more traditional concert experiences, offerings include the NC Opera, glass harpist Brien Engel and roots musician Amythyst Kiah. Indeed, bluegrass remains one of First Night’s popular recurring attractions, as do the handful of improv comedy troupes that perform each year, Laws said.
“It’s a lot of stuff you can just see only once,” she says. Many First Night venues are off residents’ radars, especially during any other time of year. Laws said these rooms stand out in her mind from when she started going to First Night as an attendee.
“It’s a lot of auditoriums and churches and museum areas that a lot of people probably wouldn’t step foot into otherwise, because they probably wouldn’t have a reason to,” she says.
Even years ago she recognized First Night as a once-in-a-year opportunity.
“I always like activating those spaces, like the Highway Building Auditorium and all those spaces that I know I didn’t know existed until I started going to First Night Raleigh.”
What: First Night Raleigh 2018
When: Starts at 2 p.m., Dec. 31
Where: City Plaza and downtown Raleigh
Cost: $11 in advance. $15 adults, $12 children day-of. $50 VIP pass.
First Night by the numbers
Here are some facts about First Night 2017 provided by organizers.
No. of attendees: 50,000
No. of volunteers: 270
No. of venues: 35
Economic impact for Raleigh: $1.37 million