As the clock struck midnight, a ton of confetti rained down while the partygoers hugged and kissed.
Josh Torres and his girlfriend, Sarah Manganello, both 21, screamed and cheered as they watched the ball drop. Manganello had advice for people in the new year: "Learn from what you've done and move forward."
The wind chill made it feel like 1 degree in the area, but that didn't stop the throngs bundled in fur hats, heavy coats and sleeping bags from attending the event.
Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton helped Mayor Michael Bloomberg lower the ball atop 1 Times Square for the 60-second countdown to midnight. Last year, Hillary Clinton was in Iowa campaigning for the presidency, and now she's expecting to be secretary of state in President-elect Barack Obama's administration.
Many other New Year's Eve traditions around the country were in place, but some festivities fell victim to hard times, and those that remained felt somewhat subdued. 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 was still going strong. Five minutes before midnight, 1,000 balloons with the words "Joy," "Hope" and "2009" were released from rooftops in the area. The Waterford crystal ball - 12 feet in diameter and weighing nearly 12,000 pounds - dropped 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."
Pauleene Romero, from Anchorage, Alaska, came to the celebration by herself on a whim.
"I had a bad year," she said, not wanting to elaborate. "I just wanted to do this for myself, as a way to start off a new year."
She stood with Karoline Kosiorowski, a University of Connecticut student, and Emilia Chodkiewicz, a teacher from Warsaw, Poland.
"Everyone watches the show from New York," Chodkiewicz said. "I just wanted to be here this year."
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.
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.
Others weren't so lucky. Windy weather and rough harbor waters caused Baltimore officials to postpone a New Year's Eve fireworks celebration. In Reno, officials canceled their 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," Mayor Bob Cashell said.
Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson expected to save $33,000 by canceling a New Year's Eve party he traditionally throws, a spokeswoman said. Hundreds of revelers were still expected to watch the Times Square countdown on a big screen at a separate, free event in the city's downtown business district.
Elkhart, Ind., planned a party at its outdoor skating rink, with volunteers leading some games, instead of a $5,000 event with fireworks. The city hadn't gotten any complaints about the scaled-back celebration, said Arvis Dawson, executive assistant to the mayor.
"I think most people understand," he said.
Philadelphia celebrated New Year's Day with its more than century-old Mummers Parade, though it had fallen into jeopardy when city officials withdrew about $400,000 in support.
After weeks of limbo, the Mummers Association successfully raised enough private donations to continue the pageant filled with flamboyantly dressed performers, sometimes described as the city's Mardi Gras.
Rich Porco, a Mummer for 51 years, said the uncertainty made this "one of the worst years I've ever been involved with."
Instead of preparing for the festivities, "you found yourself thinking more about, 'Is there going to be a parade?"' Porco said. "It was hard."
In Pasadena, Calif., hundreds of thousands of spectators were expected for the 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 may or may not feel the effects of the economy this year, but more likely next year," Tournament of Roses Chief Operating Officer Bill Flinn said. "We do feel one of our jobs is to bring optimism at a time when things are not so good for so many people."
The Peach Drop, which has been the staple of downtown Atlanta's New Year Eve since 1989, was expecting almost 100,000 in attendance at Underground Atlanta - an 80,000 dropoff from last year. Some attendees believed the shaky economy played a part in fewer people showing for the event, but they said it wouldn't deter their spirits.
John Buleey, a building contractor from Dawsonville in north Georgia, expects hard times to come next year. The 39-year-old also said the struggling economy should improve by the year's end.
"Sure, we'll go through tough times," said Buleey, who wore a shiny, gold-colored hat that read "Happy New Year" across the front along with his five family members. "But judging from the past, this country will overcome our financial woes."
College student Shannon Hill and Leanne Key, a flight attendant, attended the Peach Drop for the first time. The two 19-year-olds, who live near Atlanta, said having a new president could help the struggling economy heading into the new year.
"Hopefully with Obama in office, he'll provide a big boost for us," Key said. "We as a people also need to realize where we are as a society and what we're about to go through. In the long run, I think we'll move past these tough times."
And plenty of Americans seemed ready to celebrate - even the National Association of Realtors, despite a flood of foreclosures and a credit crunch that has made mortgages difficult to get. The group had a float in the parade for the first time.