Tourists celebrate New Year's Eve early and often in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- Revelers packed the Las Vegas Strip just after midnight Wednesday morning to welcome the new year and watch a barrage of fireworks launched from the rooftops of 10 casinos.

The celebrating was so much fun that many people did it twice -- cheering and waving noisemakers three full hours before midnight for a concert at the Venetian hotel-casino that was televised live to the East Coast.

"It's Vegas! Everything is possible," explained 41-year-old Pearl Bokala of Fresno, Calif.

An estimated 270,000 tourists were in town for the holiday, and though tens of thousands crowded the Strip, which was closed to traffic, many retreated to the quiet of hotel rooms.

Joy Koehl, an American Airlines flight attendant on layover, headed to bed early, partly because she was "a little worried about terrorism."

"It's a high-profile place and there's a lot of people here," said Koehl, 45, of Palmetto, Ga.

Though 900 police officers lined the Strip, security concerns largely seemed minimal. Few major problems and less arrests than usual were reported, police said.

"Everybody's having a good time without getting crazy," Lt. Vincent Cannito said.

Casinos and city officials hoped the national exposure from the concert and television news highlights would help Las Vegas shake off its continuing tourism slump. Hotel occupancy has been up about 3 percent from last year but down about 6 percent from 2000, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

"New Year's always has a great economic impact on the city," said Alan Feldman, spokesman for casino operator MGM Mirage.

The midweek timing of the holiday and continued economic and terrorism worries resulted in slower bookings than expected for the city's 127,000 hotel rooms.

Raucous private parties, warm weather and the lure of gambling nevertheless attracted eager partygoers who spilled onto the Strip from myriad casinos and shops. Many quickly returned inside after the fireworks display.

Stu Waddell of British Columbia, Canada said he was ready to get back to gambling in 2003.

"I haven't had any luck at the slot machines," explained 75-year-old Waddell, standing outside New York-New York hotel-casino after the fireworks show. "Maybe in the new year."

Others stumbled back to off-Strip hotels.

Ricky Peterson, 20, of West Covina, Calif., was surrounded by jeering friends after he slipped on slick streets and fell flat on his back shortly after midnight. His foot-long drink stayed upright in his hand.

"Priorities, you know?" he said.

Temperatures were in the high 40s just after midnight.

The Stratosphere hotel-casino was illuminated by red, white and blue projection lights throughout the night. It raised a giant ball at the stroke of midnight in an inverse of the Times Square tradition.

Downtown, swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performed at a dance party favored by locals.

"This is what Las Vegas is all about," exclaimed Mayor Oscar Goodman, toasting a borrowed drink at the downtown Fremont Street Experience. "Yay Las Vegas!"

Cold weather in northern Nevada shortened celebrations there.

At Lake Tahoe, an estimated 40,000 people braved ice, snowdrifts and temperatures in the single digits to welcome in the new year. Chased by the cold temperatures, most celebrants disappeared back into resorts on both side of the state line shortly after midnight. And about 30,000 shivering spectators were in Reno for a 12-minute fireworks display.


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