OCEAN CITY — The 21st First Night celebration Monday welcomed both the new year and visitors returning for the city’s first big gathering since being flooded by Hurricane Sandy.

The annual event, featuring entertainment throughout the island, was expected to draw more than 7,000 people, fewer than last year’s count of about 10,000 but still positive as the tourist destination tries to regain customers chased away by the storm.

“We weren’t sure they were going to have it this year, and when we heard they were, we were thrilled,” said Jeanne Mackes, of Center Valley, Pa., who was buying 11 tickets for family and friends Monday morning inside Stainton’s on Asbury Avenue.

Stainton’s itself was a symbol of the city’s recovery. The building had nearly 2 feet of water inside, and crews worked for weeks to get it reopened. On Monday it looked as if nothing had happened.

Mackes and her husband, Fred, said they wanted to attend the event long before the storm hit because of all the family-oriented activities, but after Sandy passed there was extra incentive to return.

“We wanted to come out and support the city,” she said.

Ocean City’s First Night is one of the longest-running and most popular celebrations of its kind in the state, older and larger than similar events such as those in Haddonfield and Mount Holly. It started at 4 p.m. with rides and musical performances at more than 17 locations and was scheduled to culminate at midnight with fireworks.

While promoted as a kid-friendly atmosphere in the famously dry community, it also draws adults who enjoy the long roster of bands and singers.

“We don’t really drink that much, so we don’t miss that part of it,” said Terry Brown, of Palermo in Upper Township, who was buying tickets for himself and his wife Monday for the fifth year in a row.

The city enjoys putting on the event, too, because it helps promote the island and bring in business during an otherwise slow time of year. Parking lots and shops in the downtown were already crowded Monday morning in advance of the celebration.

This year, there was the added importance of advertising the fact that Ocean City has mostly recovered from the storm and is anxious for tourists to return. City Public Relations Director Mark Soifer looked at every person buying tickets like a potential marketing tool, hoping they would tell friends and neighbors that the city is up and running.

“Of course, there are still some people that need help, but we are open for business,” Soifer said.

Kelli Kyle, of Egg Harbor Township, was one of the volunteers selling tickets Monday morning at Stainton’s, and she said they had more than a few people say they were skeptical the tradition would continue this year, not knowing how badly the area was hit by Sandy.

“They were like, ‘Oh, wow! We’re surprised you guys are here,’” she said.

The storm actually attracted at least one family. William Beall, a contractor from Upper Darby, Pa., has been cleaning out homes on the island since October. He decided to buy First Night tickets for the first time with his wife, Rebecca, as well as their 7-year-old daughter Ella and 4-year-old son Max, since he was already in town.

Beall said work probably will keep him here for some time into the new year as well, evidence the island is still not 100 percent recovered.

“Every time I’m about to finish a job I get a call for three more,” he said.

Contact Lee Procida:

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