New York's Times Square Preps For Marquee New Year's Event

The New Year's celebration in Times Square in New York is well known, but it actually takes a year of planning. As the event nears, preparations are intense, and it's not just the infamous ball; there are balloons to blow up, confetti to fluff and there's even a place for people to write their wishes on pieces of confetti that will be dropped from seven buildings in the area. With half a billion Chinese watching, and millions in Latin America, it's a worldwide celebration.

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Close to a million people show up each year for New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square and organizers say more than a billion people around the world are expected to watch the festivities on television and on the Web.

As NPR's Margot Adler reports, planning for this night is a year round job and the days before the event are filled with tests.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Testing the ball-drop, that makes sense, given some 32,000 LED lights. But many of the tests are fun and silly, like the confetti test. Tonight, confetti will be dropped from seven buildings. On Saturday, there was a test with the media in tow.

Jeffrey Straus, of Countdown Entertainment, and Allison Hagendorf, a broadcast personality and host of this year's event, dropped confetti from an eighth floor window onto Times Square, over and over.

JEFFREY STRAUS: Three, two, one, Happy New Year.

ALLISON HAGENDORF: Three, two, one, woo.

STRAUS: Whoa, beautiful.

HAGENDORF: Beautiful, I take pride in my fluffing there. You see it floated perfectly.

ADLER: Now, this is taking place December 29th. And the cynic might say, Why wouldn't the confetti float?

All this week, people have been visiting this building, One Times Square, to write their wishes on pieces of confetti. Those wishes get mixed in with the regular confetti.

Jeffrey Straus.

STRAUS: So, if you're in Time Square you see all of these peoples' wishes falling down on you from the sky. And people actually pick them up and save them.

ADLER: I watched Tracy Baggins(ph) write two wishes on a piece of confetti.

TRACY BAGGINS: I guess my first thought would be world peace and actually authentic love.

ADLER: The other thing tourists do here is get their pictures take in front of a big replica of The Time Square Ball. Wilbur Tune(ph), who works for the organizers, is taking pictures of each family group with their own camera or cell phone. And he's totally hamming it up as if they were models on a runway.

WILBUR TUNE: Smile, now look up at the ball. Look all the way up into the ball. Don't move. OK, everybody look at me for the big family shot.

ADLER: Sometimes he has them kiss or put their hands on the ball as if they were holding it up.

The first ball drop took place in 1907, after fireworks were banned. It's an old nautical tradition. The U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington still has a ball descend from a flag poll everyday at noon.

I asked Straus for a few statistics.

STRAUS: About 30,000 Nivea hats that will go out create a sea of blue. We're going to have thousands of red Chinese scarves, celebrating the Year of the Snake.

ADLER: One reason for that is that that they've been working with the Sino-American Friendship Association. And last year, they say, a half a billion Chinese tuned in to the event.

There are about 25,000 blue balloons and you can watch them being blown up, and hear about five percent of them pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPS)

ADLER: And if you are wondering about Porta-Potties...

STRAUS: We have none. There are no Porta-Potties in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

ADLER: And that means if you are coming at 2 P.M. to get a good spot, it's a long wait.

Straus and Tim Tomkins, of the Times Square Alliance, together produce this event. And they are both very proud of how safe it's become.

TIM TOMKINS: I remember coming here in the '70s. You had the horses and you worried about getting picked up by the crowd. That's not the way it is anymore.

STRAUS: When I came here in 2002, there were still one or two retail stores that still put up plywood over their windows, 'cause they were so used to their store windows being smashed either by a thrown bottle or someone got pushed through it.

ADLER: OK, here's my confession, in the '70s, in my 20's, I felt that scariness was thrilling. Now security is tight - no backpacks, no alcohol. Details about police and security are not given out in this post-911 world. Straus says police organizations around the world come to New York to see how the crowds are handled here. Police divide up the crowd into pens surrounded by safety lanes.

Again, Jeffrey Straus.

STRAUS: So instead of having one large party of a million people, we have hundreds of smaller parties. And by the end of the night, everyone in the pen knows each other.

ADLER: It still creeps me out, reminds me of political protests where it isn't so sweet. But there were 2,000 murders a year here in those bygone days. This year, a record low of a little over 400; it's a safer event in a much safer city.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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