Fireworks bring in New Year; some in crowd bid good riddance to 2008

They gathered to say goodbye and good riddance to 2008, to consign a gloomy year to drunken oblivion and stumble into 2009 with hope for better times ahead.

“Get rid of it!” said Afton Burdick, a 23-year-old visitor to downtown’s Fremont Street Experience in a leopard-print dress. “It was a long, sucky year.”

Burdick and her husband, Jacob, both stationed at Washington state’s Whidbey Island with the Navy, were celebrating his 21st birthday — and the end of a grueling 2008.

An estimated 291,000 tourists rang in the new year in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, up from last year but down from the visitor count in 2006 thanks to the ever-worsening economy.

They watched a lower-flying fireworks show than in years past, shot from the tops of garages rather than the roofs of Strip resorts, making them difficult to see from street level.

Hotels slashed prices to fill rooms on the Strip in a year when Americans are tightening their belts. In Reno, fireworks were canceled altogether, for economic reasons.

At the Fremont Street Experience, instead of real headliners, revelers rocked out to a bunch of fakers: tribute bands playing Queen, Aerosmith and others.

Nonetheless, for the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on the Strip, Las Vegas was, as it always is, an oasis from reality, where all that mattered was the party.

The smell of beer and the sound of whooping filled the air. The “2009” eyeglasses — the last year, with two zeros in the middle, that will be conducive to such a purpose — sold like hotcakes.

One man tricked out his plastic bead necklace with a garland of escort-service fliers. Another, 24-year-old Ryan Bane, wandered down the street waving a huge sign reading “Now accepting applications for midnight makeout sessions.”

Alas, as the stroke of 12 approached, there was no making out to be had. Bane, a visitor from Torrance, Calif., tore the sign into pieces and handed the shards to his friends. Each of them waved the torn cardboard in the air as the fireworks went off at The Mirage, and they jumped and hugged each other.

“Oh nine!” they chanted over and over. “Oh nine! Oh nine!”

With the fireworks, pop stars were lined up for midnight shows on the Strip: Kid Rock at the Palms, Pink at the Hard Rock Hotel and Akon at Mandalay Bay.

Other big names didn’t perform, merely lending their presence to nightclub parties: Usher at The Bank inside Bellagio, Denise Richards at Prive in Planet Hollywood, Kim Kardashian at Luxor’s LAX, and Ashlee Simpson-Wentz and Pete Wentz at Pure in Caesars Palace.

At The Venetian and the Lavo club at Palazzo, Fergie was set to both sing a few hits and headline a party.

The partyers careening drunkenly into the new year also witnessed dueling daredevils’ death-defying motorcycle stunts. Both of the major made-for-TV jumps occurred shortly after 9 p.m. on the Strip.

At Paris Las Vegas, Australian motocross rider Robbie Maddison jumped 100 feet to the top of the Arc de Triomphe replica, coming to a stop, then free-falling 50 feet nearly straight down to make a flawless landing on the other side.

At The Mirage, Robbie Knievel sailed 200 feet in front of the flame-spewing volcano on the 41st anniversary of the unsuccessful attempt by his late father, Evel Knievel, to jump over the Caesars Palace fountain.

Knievel’s jump had been billed as a jump over the volcano but took place in the street in front of the volcano instead, causing some head-scratching. In a post-jump news conference, Knievel said he did not know why it had been promoted somewhat deceptively.

“That’s just Fox,” he said of the TV network, which staged the stunt.

Edgar Valencia, 42, of San Francisco said his expectations for the Knievel jump didn’t match the reality. “It wasn’t what I expected. He didn’t jump over the volcano,” Valencia said. “But it was something exciting, something different.”

Valencia came with eight family members and stayed at Circus Circus. “We’ve cut back on a lot of things we would normally do,” he said of vacationing in these tough times. “We’re playing a lot less blackjack and slot machines.”

Karen Ashton, a tourist from Michigan staying at The Mirage, said the approach of 2009 excited her more than any motorcycle jump.

“Out with 2008, in with 2009, a new outlook and a new president,” Ashton said. “Yes.”

Katerina Alexoff, 40, said she has lived in Las Vegas for four years and this is the smallest crowd she remembers seeing on the Strip on New Year’s.

“This is not what it was last year or the year before,” she said.

She is in the construction business, and times have been tough lately. She fears what 2009 will bring to her city. But she’s trying to help: She brought friends from California to party and help out the local economy in the process.

“We are the luckiest people in the world,” Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, flanked, as usual, by two showgirls in big feather headdresses, proclaimed from a stage on Fremont Street. “It’s a balmy night in Las Vegas. … I want all of us who live here to be prosperous and happy in 2009.”

Under the electronic canopy of the Fremont Street Experience, a capacity crowd of 30,000 gathered for the “Tributepalooza” fakefest that was free for locals, $20 for visitors. Officials said it was the largest ever New Year’s crowd at the downtown site, more than double the audience for last year’s pricier event.

The tribute bands weren’t the only ones in costume. Steve Wilson, 55, and five of his friends came to Fremont Street dressed in black pompadour wigs, black suits, red scarves and sunglasses. Their resemblance to Elvis was slight, but that didn’t stop dozens of people from shaking their hands, snapping photos with them and kissing them on the cheeks for luck.

“It’s New Year’s Eve! It’s Las Vegas!” local resident Wilson said by way of explanation for his costume. He said he wanted to bring a little cheer to the city after a particularly rough year.

An undisclosed number of Las Vegas police, aided by Nevada National Guard troops, were responsible for securing the celebration areas. Sgt. John Loretto said there had been no information to lead police to be on special alert.

As of 11 p.m., Las Vegas police were reporting 26 arrests, including three felonies.

At Boulder Station around 10:50 p.m., a man claiming to be in possession of explosive material prompted an evacuation at the property. A “guy claiming to have a device” was taken into custody, Loretto said.

Loretto said he was unsure whether the casino had ordered a full or partial evacuation. Representatives for the resort could not be reached late Wednesday.

The 291,000 total New Year’s Eve visitors to Las Vegas predicted by tourism officials was more than last year’s estimated 284,000 but down from 305,000 in 2006.

Canadian John Sedo, 38, marked his eighth year in a row ringing in the new year in Las Vegas.

“I could travel anywhere in the world, but I come to America,” said Sedo, holding a plastic football-shaped container of beer.

Sedo, who works in oil refining, said he has been monitoring the U.S. economy closely. When America’s economy plummets, it affects the entire world, he said.

“In the long run, I think we’re going to get through this,” he said.

Review-Journal writers James Haug, David Kihara, Richard Lake, Antonio Planas, Mike Weatherford and Warren Bates contributed to this report. Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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