With glittering fireworks and star-studded celebrations from New Zealand to Times Square, the world eagerly welcomed a new year and hoped for a better future Saturday, saying goodbye to a year of hurricanes, tsunamis and economic turmoil that many would rather forget.
Revelers in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America 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-Elysees boulevard popped Champagne corks at midnight, and up to a million revelers were expected to jam New York's Times Square for the famed crystal-paneled ball drop.
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.
“Once the ball drops, I won't give 2011 another thought,” said Kyralee Scott, 16, of Jackson, N.J., whose father spent most of the year out of work. “It was a pretty tough year, but God was looking after us and I know 2012 has got to be better.”
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.
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, was scheduled to return to help host his namesake New Year's Eve celebration with Ryan Seacrest, featuring performances by Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Lady Gaga will then join Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lead the 60-second countdown to the New Year.
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 was welcoming thousands to its downtown, where a giant peach is dropped every New Year's Eve 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 New Year's Eve drops were planned for midnight celebrations. A giant facsimile of a conch shell would be 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 would drop down from a mast of a tall sailing ship. And at the Bourbon Street Pub complex, a drag queen named Sushi would descend in a glittering 6-foot red women's high heel.
The town of Eastport, Maine, will lower an 8-foot-long wooden sardine from a downtown building at midnight, in celebration of its sardine canning and fishing history.
In San Francisco, the waterfront is expected to be lined with revelers for the annual fireworks show. Though the city's fickle weather and persistent fog can never be counted on to cooperate, forecasters say the skies above the city should be clear overnight.
The first worldwide celebrations started in the island nation of Samoa, which hopped across the international date line at midnight on Thursday, skipping Friday and moving instantly to Saturday.
Samoa and the neighboring nation of Tokelau lie near the dateline that zigzags vertically through the Pacific Ocean; both sets of islands decided to realign themselves this year from the Americas side of the line to the Asia side to be more in tune with key trading partners.
In Sydney, more than 1.5 million people watched the shimmering pyrotechnic display designed around the theme “Time to Dream.” In London, some 250,000 people gathered to listen to Big Ben chime at the stroke of midnight.
World leaders evoked 2011's struggles in their New Year's messages with some ambivalence.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Europe's crisis is not finished and “that 2012 will be the year full of risks, but also of possibilities.”
Pope Benedict XVI marked the end of 2011 with prayers of thanks and said humanity awaits the new year with apprehension but also with hope for a better future.
“We prepare to cross the threshold of 2012, remembering that the Lord watches over us and takes care of us,” Benedict said. “In him this evening we want to entrust the entire world. We put into his hands the tragedies of this world of ours, and we also offer him the hopes for a better future.” In Brazil, heavy rains didn't halt parties as upward of 2 million people gathered on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro and nearly as many on a main avenue in Sao Paulo, South America's biggest city. Massive fireworks displays and top music acts graced stages across the nation.
Brazil has seen healthy economic growth in recent years, as the country prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Growth, however, has stalled in recent months, and Brazilian leaders are trying to stimulate the economy in the new year.
“This was a good year for Brazil and I think things are only getting better, it feels like we're making big advances,” said Fabiana dos Santos Silva, an 18-year-old student who gathered with hundreds of thousands of others on a main avenue in Sao Paulo.
Several people preparing to celebrate the holiday told the AP that they would usher in the New Year hoping the Congress would become a more cooperative place. Some talked about their hopes for the presidential election. Others said they hoped to hold on to their job, or find a new one to replace one they'd lost.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted Dec. 8-12 found that 62 percent of Americans are optimistic that the nation's fortunes will improve in 2012, and 78 percent hopeful that their own family will have a better year. Most wrote off 2011 as a dud.
Debbie Hart, 50, of Perry, Ga., called herself the “perpetual optimist” who believes each year will be better than the one before.
“I married a farmer. 'Wait until next year. Next year will be better.' That's what I've been hearing for 30 years,” said Hart. “I have faith.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Chris Hawley and David B. Caruso in New York, Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas, Bruce Shipkowski in Jackson, N.J., Dorie Turner in Atlanta, Greg Keller in Paris, Harold Heckle in Madrid, Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Frances D'Emilio in Vatican City, Meera Selva in London, Bradley Brooks and Jack Chang in Brazil and Melissa Eddy in Berlin.