U.S. rings in 2012 as world bids 2011 farewell

Ryan Keegan, of the Queens borough of New York, and his girlfriend Lauren Chicoine, of Bennington, N.H., share a kiss as they celebrate the new year shortly after midnight in New York's Times Square Jan. 1, 2012.
AP Photo

Updated at 12:40 a.m. ET

NEW YORK - Revelers erupted in cheers amid a confetti-filled celebration in New York's Times Square to welcome in the new year, part of star-studded celebrations and glittering fireworks displays around the world to usher in 2012.

From New Zealand to New York, the world eagerly welcomed a new year Sunday and hoped for a better future, saying goodbye to a year of hurricanes, tsunamis and economic turmoil that many would rather forget.

In New York, hundreds of thousands gathered at the crossroads of the world to witness a crystal ball with more than 30,000 lights that descended at midnight. Lady Gaga and Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the crowd in the final-minute countdown of the famed crystal-paneled ball drop.

Matheus Campos, a law student from Brazil, threw both arms in the air as the new year began in Times Square.

"It's awesome," he said.

Revelers in Australia, Asia, Europe and the South Pacific island nation of Samoa, which jumped across the international dateline to be first to celebrate, welcomed 2012 with booming pyrotechnic displays. Fireworks soared and sparked over Moscow's Red Square, crowds on Paris' Champs-ElysDees boulevard popped Champagne corks at midnight.

But many approached the new year with more relief than joy, as people battered by weather disasters, joblessness and economic uncertainty hoped the stroke of midnight would change their fortunes.

"It was a pretty tough year, but God was looking after us and I know 2012 has got to be better," said Kyralee Scott, 16, of Jackson, N.J., whose father spent most of the year out of work.

Some New York revelers, wearing party hats and "2012" glasses, began camping out Saturday morning, even as workers readied bags stuffed with hundreds of balloons and technicians put colored filters on klieg lights. The crowds cheered as workers lit the crystal-paneled ball that drops at midnight Saturday and put it through a test run, 400 feet above the street. The sphere, now decorated with 3,000 Waterford crystal triangles, has been dropping to mark the new year since 1907, long before television made it a U.S. tradition.

In Times Square, hundreds of thousands people crammed into spectator pens ringed by barricades, enjoying surprisingly warm weather for the Northeast. The National Weather Service said it was about 49 degrees in nearby Central Park — about 10 degrees warmer than the normal high temperature.

As the country prepared for the celebration, glum wasn't on the agenda for many, even those who had a sour year.

"We're hoping the next year will be better," said Becky Martin, a former elementary school teacher who drove from Rockford, Ill., to Times Square after spending a fruitless year trying to find a job. "We're starting off optimistic and hoping it lasts."

Many expressed cautious hope that better times were ahead after a year in which Japan was ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami, hurricanes wreaked havoc across the country and a debt crisis devastated Europe's economy.

"Everybody's suffering. That's why it's so beautiful to be here celebrating something with everybody," said Lisa Nicol, 47, of Melbourne, Australia.

For all of the holiday's bittersweet potential, New York City always treats it like a big party — albeit one that now takes place under the watchful eye of a massive security force, including more than 1,500 police officers.

Dick Clark, who suffered a stroke in 2004, put in a few brief appearances mentioning that he has hosted his namesake New Year's Eve celebration for years, but said "tonight, it's better than ever." Clark, looking cheerful but struggling with his speech, introduced a performance by Lady Gaga and also assisted in the countdown. The show, hosted by Ryan Seacrest also featured a performance by Justin Bieber.

Natalie Tolli, a 13-year-old from Yonkers, said "it was the best time I ever had, especially seeing Justin Bieber in his red hat."

The father, George Tolli, said he and his wife and three daughters and son waited since 2 p.m. to get their place.

"It was a pleasant surprise, very controlled," he said. "In my 51 years, I've never been here for New Year's. But I did it for the kids. And it was worth it."

In Las Vegas, police shut down a four-mile section of the Strip to vehicle traffic six hours before midnight, letting revelers party in the street. Casino nightclubs touted pricey, exclusive bashes hosted by celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Fergie, and fireworks were expected to shoot from the rooftops of eight of the city's most famous casinos.

Atlanta welcomed thousands to its downtown, where a giant peach dropped at midnight. Fireworks were to be launched from the top of the Space Needle in Seattle; in Houston, tens of thousands were celebrating at a party with country singer Delbert McClinton.

In summer temperatures at Key West, Fla., three separate midnight drops took place. A giant facsimile of a conch shell was lowered at Sloppy Joe's Bar, Ernest Hemingway's favorite watering hole when he lived in Key West. At the Schooner Wharf Bar, the bar owner dressed as a pirate wench and dropped down from a mast of a tall sailing ship. And at the Bourbon Street Pub complex, a drag queen named Sushi descended in a glittering 6-foot red women's high heel.