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Surviving NYE: Times Square

Ailé and I spent the last week of 2013 travelling in the United States’ Northeast. We had decided on spending December 31st in New York City, but we wondered whether receiving 2014 in Times Square would be a sane decision. But we did it, and we loved it. And in the process, we noticed that a lot of blogs and webpages, as well as most of the people we met in New York City, actually discouraged it. So in true Internet spirit, we’ll share our learnings from a great evening with a million of our friends from around the world.

Spending New Year’s Eve in Times Square means different things for different people. Coming to terms with your expectations is the first step in this process. Is seeing the ball drop your main expectation? Or is it to be on TV? Or is it to receive party favors? Or to see fireworks? Or getting drunk with your friends? Or enjoy the artists that play during the evening? I would say that if any of this is a priority for you, then probably spending the evening in Times Square like we did may not the best option for you.

We committed to spending the evening, and receiving the new year in Times Square because we wanted to be part of it: being with strangers from around the globe, feeling the energy of 1 million people and just being dazzled by Times Square. We didn’t care much about Macklemore or Miley Cyrus, or about the fireworks, or even about the ball itself which frankly is a very small object when compared to the screens and everything else in Times Square.

With this in mind, there are options for everyone. You can reserve early in the year for one of the few rooms with a view, you can pay from a couple hundred to a couple grand for one of the parties (with no actual view), you can spend it elsewhere in New York City, like in Central Park, or, you can do as we did and join the public event in Times Square, the one that is actually broadcast on TV, and the one attended by some 40% of the people that are in Manhattan. Keep reading if you want to learn more about this option.

Surprisingly, there are few sources of information about what exactly happens in Times Square in NYE. One of the most complete sources is the Times Square Alliance which has a useful FAQ and a discussion on NYE parties and tickets, etc., but also a wealth of discussion on the actual public event. It might be worthy to monitor local news channels sites 72 hours before, as well as sources like Twitter.

But, since we found a lot of New Yorkers didn’t actually attend the party in Times Square, there are few first person accounts of how exactly this goes. So we’ll try to explain from our experience, and hopefully provide some useful insights if you ever plan to do this.

The first question is when to arrive. We arrived at 2 PM. By that time they had closed some 3 blocks and we were at 48th. Street. After we got in they closed 49th, 50th and so on all the way up to Central Park. This means we spent 10 hours there. After the ball drops, confetti rains and both Auld Lang Syne and New York, New York plays, the NYPD will allow people to leave. This is around 12:10 AM.

How do you enter the event? The event actually happens on Broadway and 7th. Avenue, so NYPD will close cross streets and put entry points on the 6th. and 8th. Avenues. Our recommendation is to take the subway and exit on the 50th or even the 59th, walk towards Times Square on either the 8th or the 6th Avenue and try to get in as up front as you can get. The worst option is to exit on the 42nd. and start walking north to try and find an entry point.

Once you get in, you’ll see pens set up and depending on the time, NYPD might have started allowing people in. There will be a metal detector wand and a bag check. Then you’re free to go stand wherever inside the pen you want. Our suggestions are to secure a spot where you can lean against the fences. Up front is best, because you have uninterrupted view. The fence helps to cope with the crowds pushing, you can lean on it, you can sit and spread your legs, etc.

Notice the crowd will be a living organism. People will start leaving when they realize they have to stand for 10 hours. People will definitely leave to use restrooms (nowhere to be found) only to discover that they can’t come back to the pen. All this will result in natural crowd movements. Every time someone leaves the crowd will push to the front, and depending on what NYPD says, even move to the pen in front of yours. Try to anticipate. Choose good crowd neighbors at least for the first couple hours. Be polite, smile!

Lack of restrooms does not necessarily mean you will stand on a puddle of urine and feces from other attendees, as some blogs say. We sat on the pavement most of our 10 hours there and we never had to cope with such a situation. Note we were in the front of our pen. The pavement is very cold, though. More on cold below.

For most of the evening there will be people selling pizza, water and hot chocolate. Drinks are a no-no because there are no restrooms, and pizza is a no-no because it will make you thirsty. If you have to, it’s something like $20 and I suggest you wait until late-ish 10 PM. Don’t wait TOO long, though, because NYPD will enhance security as midnight approaches and this includes not letting pizza to be sold. We had just one bottle of water reserved for both of us, had a pizza before 11 PM and had a few sips of water just before midnight. We also had granola bars for earlier in the afternoon.

The evening was very cold. We actually had something similar to snow for a few minutes when the sun was still up and then we had the fortune of a clear but actually very cold evening, around the -4C or so. Preparation was key. I had thermal underwear and snow pants, and then a thermal shirt, a T-shirt, a sweater, a synthetic fleece jacket and a heavy fleece jacket on top. I had ear muffs, a thermal hat and thermal gloves. We had double wool socks and both hand and feet warmers (feet warmers are not awesome, but hand warmers are amazing) Also, you will get a runny nose.

You have to think how you will kill 10 hours. I had bought a couple e-books to read on my Kindle app, but I did not read as much as I wanted as the gloves were not touch-ready. I had to control the phone with my nose. We talked a lot to each other (most of our crowd neighbors were Chinese, Japanese or Korean) and listened to music for a while. AT&T data service was not bad for such a big crowd. The event officially starts at 6 PM, and they will keep you entertained with some stuff like the sound checks, an hourly countdown, some videos, etc. We really liked the NASA NYE Video and the AP 2013 Review.

We learned some interesting things. For example, we knew that some people from some parties were allowed to go out in “expanded pens” 15 minutes before the ball dropped. They just didn’t knew which lucky ones were going to be allowed to do so. Also some bystanders were allowed entrance some 40-50 seconds before the ball dropped so if you just wanted to see the confetti and take a quick picture before the crowds were released, that’s also an option.

Going back to sleep requires preparation, too. Going underground is impossible and so is taking a cab. We just had committed to walk to Columbus Circle, but we were actually surprised that most people were walking towards Times Square and not away from it. So trying to walk against the crowd and within the NYPD barricades was a bit awkward. We did end up in Central Park near the Bolívar statue which was a photo-op for Ailé, and then were surprised that the Columbus Circle station for the Uptown 1 was not crowded.

And finally, was it worth it? Just take a look at this or this. It was absolutely worth it!

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