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Fun easy to find at First Night Crowd estimated at 5,000 attends annual event in Buffalo Convention Center

Shrieks of delight could be heard as escalators carried families to the Buffalo Convention Center's second floor.

There, in an unlikely, carnivallike setting with colorful, blinking lights and old-fashioned refreshment stands, children rode on amusement park rides, jumped around in bounce houses and raced cars by remote control along a miniature racing track.

"It's awesome -- bouncy and dizzy," exclaimed Andrew Botwora Jr., 13, of South Buffalo, after stepping out of a large inflatable marked by a towering Tyrannosaurus.

Downstairs, an assortment of children's entertainers and hands-on activities -- from a magician and improvisational comedy to drawing and drumming -- helped bring a fun end to 2006 for an estimated 5,000 at Buffalo's annual First Night event.

The evening culminated on Washington Street near the former Niagara Mohwak building, where thousands stood in a steady rain to watch the ball come down and fireworks go off, signaling the end of 2006 and the start of 2007.

The most well-attended events included a show by magician Michael Blaine, in which he hypnotized all 15 people on stage -- and another half-dozen more watching.

Jeff Musial of Nickel City Reptiles and Exotics amused a standing-room-only crowd by placing hissing cockroaches native to Africa and Madagascar on a young boy, who went along with it in good humor.

Musial also drew gasps by doing a demonstration holding a 4-foot-long alligator.

For the younger set, Glenn Colton sang and strummed "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as 3-year-olds Ella Fourtner of South Buffalo and friend Jenna Abaya of Indianapolis

twirled to the music.

"It's a nice atmosphere, and it's fun," said Annette Miecoicki of Lockport as 8-year-old daughter Missy enjoyed a soft-serve vanilla ice-cream cone.

Ameer Lucas said he enjoyed the First Night atmosphere after watching 2-year-old daughter Zion perched atop a merry-go-round horse as her mother, Clarissa, stood watch.

"She's enjoying [the rides]. Everything she wants to do she'll do tonight. People are safe here," Lucas said.

Holiday music was provided just out of range of the noisy Tornado ride by Select Choir of Highgate Heights Elementary School 80, and the Niagara Falls Housing Authority Choir.

The event was the second in the Convention Center since First Night moved from its previous location at Buffalo State College and elsewhere in the Museum District.

Several people said they were glad all the activities were under one roof.

The kidfest went from 5 to 9 p.m., giving parents with sitters enough time to join the revelers on hand for the annual ball drop from the Electric Tower.

It was slated to fall this year alongside a compact-sized Ford Edge, whose panels were made at the Ford Stamping Plant in Woodlawn.

First Night celebrations began in Boston, Mass., 30 years ago and are now in nearly 200 cities. It was started in Buffalo in 1988 by WNY United in cooperation with Rich Products.

Independent Health Foundation, the current sponsor, took over in 1992.

Numerous other corporate sponsors this year included First Niagara, Wegmans, Lamar, M&T Bank, WKBW-TV and The Buffalo News.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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