It was 1991 when about 1,000 people came to Ocean City to ring in the new year - family-style - with a few live shows, some music and some amusements.
Fast forward 21 years to 2012. On Monday, Dec. 31, more than 10,000 people will head to the resort to enjoy concerts, dinner, dancing, rides, golf, dozens of children's entertainers and shows for all ages filling 18 separate venues. After a countdown to 2013, the evening is capped by fireworks at midnight.
First Night in Ocean City has certainly grown.
"We call this the best entertainment value on the Jersey Shore," says Mark Soifer, public relations director for Ocean City and a member of the First Night Committee since the event was founded. "We have close to 70 choices you can make in a period from 4 p.m. to midnight. And, of course, there are the fireworks at midnight. And the price, $15 per person, I don't know how that can be beat."
First Night entertainment ranges from popular children's shows featuring magicians, jugglers and puppeteers to Broadway shows, ballroom dancing, the award-winning "Trout Fishing in America" - even Japanese drummers. Venues include the Music Pier, the Civic Center, Ocean City High School, Gillian's Wonderland Pier, the Ocean City Free Public Library and St. Peter's United Methodist Church.
"The format is basically the same (as in past years), but it's a great format," says Michele Gillian, director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and a First Night Committee member. "We have the jitneys that start at 5 p.m. that transport people. All the shows are about 45 minutes long, and nothing is more than a 15-minute walk."
The $15 admission button also includes access to rides at Gillian's Wonderland Pier from 5 to 9 p.m., plus miniature golf at Gillian's Adventure Golf from 2 to 9 p.m.
"We have 18 venues and 80 different shows, the two golf courses open on the Boardwalk," Gillian says. "We actually open the rides right after the 4 p.m. kickoff. Some young families come out for the beginning of the night. There is something to do for everyone. You can go classical with the Ocean City Pops and Norristown Doo Wop. We have karaoke and Jungle John. We try to change it up all the time."
For the first time this year, Soifer says, the new observatory at Ocean City High School will be open to the public during First Night.
"So people with buttons will be able to go check out the stars on New Year's Eve," Soifer says.
The year's First Night will mark the first large-scale event for Ocean City following October's storm. Organizers have set aside First Night buttons this year for those who may have financial difficulties due to the storm's damage.
"With the economy and people still under a lot of stress from the storm … you know, this is something nice for them and it's something reasonable," Soifer says. "We have an angel fund - anybody who can't afford a First Night button, call us and we'll take care of it. Anybody still suffering the effects of the storm come and get free buttons to the show."
Soifer says the First Night committee also wants to get the word out that Ocean City is up and running again.
"Our downtown is 90 percent back, our Boardwalk is in real good shape," Soifer says. "I think this is the first major event where the city is basically restored. There are still people in town who need help and we're helping them … but we're trying to get the word out that we're OK."
Stay until midnight and join the countdown celebrations at the Music Pier (Moorlyn Terrace and the Boardwalk), Civic Center (6th Street and the Boardwalk), Ocean City High School (6th Street and Atlantic Avenue), and the Ocean City Tabernacle (5th Street and Wesley Avenue). Then step outside to enjoy the spectacular fireworks display (6th Street and the Boardwalk), weather permitting.
Parking is free in Ocean City during the winter. Municipal lots are located throughout the city, including the Transportation Center, city lot at 5th Street and Asbury Avenue, 8th Street, 9th Street, Moorlyn Terrace and the Tabernacle. All performance sites are located within walking distance of one another.
Jitneys will provide free transportation from 5 p.m. until midnight for button holders, operating continuously between sites starting at the Transportation Center (9th Street and Haven Avenue) and the 7th Street Parking Lot (7th Street and Central Avenue). A map and list of all pickup and drop-off sites is available at www.firstnightocnj.com.
First Night Food
The Ocean City Restaurant Association will present "A Taste of the Jersey Shore" at Ocean City High School, with hourly seating from 4 to 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve. Cost is $20 for adults, $8 for children. Complete menu is available at www.firstnightocnj.com. Reservations can be booked online at www.eatinocnj.com.
First Day, First Dip
New Year's Day will be another busy day in Ocean City, as the First Night fun spills over into First Day activities.
A 5K Boardwalk Run/Walk begins at 1 p.m. at the Music Pier, located at the Boardwalk and Moorlyn Terrace. Registration starts at 11 a.m. Entry fee is $20 and includes a T-shirt, or $10 without a shirt. Pre-registration fee is $18 if received before Dec. 28.
The age groups include 14 and under, 15 to 19, 20 to 29, 30 to 39, 40 to 49, 50 to 59, 60 to 69, 70 and over. The walk is non-competitive. The Boardwalk is in good physical shape the entire length. Contact race director Mike Givens at 609-861-0674 or email email@example.com.
Join hundreds of bathers for a "First Dip" in the ocean, set for 2 p.m. Tuesday. All participants should report to the registration area in front of the Music Pier, where they will sign a waiver and receive a "Beach Nut" certificate. Visitors also will be able to make an optional donation to support OCNJCARE, the volunteer organization assisting Hurricane Sandy victims.
Shoppers are invited to kick off the New Year with First Day in the downtown along the Asbury Avenue business district. Most stores will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information, call 609-525-9300.