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Region offers plenty of ways to count down to the end of 2011; From Buffalo to Jamestown, partygoers won't lack for New Year's Eve entertainment

As the hours tick down toward 2012, the excitement is heating up from Niagara Falls to Jamestown in anticipation of tonight's New Year's Eve festivities.

One of the top area New Year's Eve attractions -- First Night Buffalo -- took shape Friday as volunteers transformed the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center into a carnival-like scene.

The Buffalo Sabres are bringing back the "Tux and Pucks" event -- a popular, mostly annual tradition that began in 1978 -- to First Niagara Center tonight in their game against Ottawa.

The Buffalo Ball Drop and Fireworks show will ring in the New Year at midnight from the Electric Tower on Washington Street.

First Night crews Friday prepared amusement rides, created a colorful Storybook Land and set up chairs for people to attend a smorgasbord of shows.

For the past 23 years, thousands of residents have trekked downtown to attend the region's alcohol- and drug-free New Year's Eve bash. WNY United Against Drug & Alcohol Abuse is once again teaming up with the Independent Health Foundation to stage the 5 to 10 p.m. event.

Foundation Executive Director Carrie Meyer said this year's festivities include exotic animal shows, a hypnotist, laser tag and an Elvis impersonator. Storybook characters will spring to life. For children, there will also be bounce houses and merry-go-rounds.

There are even activities for health-conscious folks, who will be able to have their blood pressure and cholesterol checked.

"It's a great place for families to come together and ring in the new year in a safe and healthy atmosphere," Meyer said.

Tickets can be purchased in advance for $8 at Wegmans stores or bought at the event for $10. Children 2 and younger are free. For a full list of events and information about free parking, visit www.firstnightbuffalo.org.

After First Night, tens of thousands of revelers are expected to head toward Roosevelt Plaza at the base of the Electric Tower for the 10:30 p.m. launch of the Buffalo Ball Drop.

Billed as "the second largest such event in the United States," next to the one in Times Square, local singer Caitlin Koch and the Jamie Moses Band will headline the show. Koch, a native of Orchard Park, won a radio "Buffalo Idol" contest.

Local television talent Keith Radford, Joanna Pasceri and Kendra Eaglin from WKBW-TV, along with Larry Norton and D.J. Jikster from 97 Rock, will lead the event.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda told reporters Friday the city has a comprehensive plan to protect public safety. Brown said the city is working closely with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and the Erie County Sheriff's Office.

"We will have an extensive plan for public safety for New Year's Eve to make sure that the many revelers that come into the City of Buffalo have a fantastic and safe time," Brown said.

Besides First Night and the ball drop, the Statler will also be ringing in a new era with a New Year's Eve gala through its Statler City Ice Ball.

"The Grand Dame of Downtown is preparing for the biggest party in her 88 years on New Year's Eve," reads a billing for the gala, which will cover a 2-acre, indoor city block with bands, food and drink.

The grand-opening, ribbon-cutting ceremony will be at 4:30 p.m. That's when the new Lobby Bar will be showcased, and tours will be offered in the renovated areas of the building. Then, about 4,000 guests are expected for the Ice Ball.

"So many people have a family history and emotional attachment to the Statler," said Mark D. Croce, Statler City president. "We decided the best way to celebrate the official grand reopening is to invite everyone to join us for a party that would have made Ellsworth Statler proud."

Tickets -- $150 each -- will get revelers access to three levels in the building, where they can enjoy musical guests, including the Jim Tudini Orchestra in the Golden Ballroom along with Jeremy Hoyle & the Strictly Hip, Nick Battistella's "Sinatra and More" and DJ Stix in other areas of the Statler. There will also be five hours of open bar, four hours of a buffet put on by the Buffalo Chop House and a midnight balloon drop and champagne toast.

The Sabres hope to hold a ball of their own on the ice. A slate of events are planned at One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza tonight as the "Tux and Pucks" event offers fans a chance to toss aside their jerseys and instead turn out for the hockey game in formal dress.

The festivities will include a pregame tailgate tent party and contests with prizes for fans during the game, including a grand prize of more than $20,011, as part of the Sabres Alumni 5 0/5 0 raffle.

"It should be a festive atmosphere. It's a sellout. It brings another 18,690 people downtown," said Michael Gilbert, Sabres vice president of public and community relations.

Gilbert said the idea of bringing back the event caught on as the organization discussed ways to improve the fan experience this year.

"You don't normally see people wearing tuxedos to a Sabres game. It's something we haven't done in several years," said Gilbert, adding that Sabres fans will also be given party hats and noisemakers when they enter the game.

For those not in downtown Buffalo, there will still be plenty of ways to celebrate:

In Niagara Falls, the Hard Rock Cafe will host its third annual New Year's Eve Guitar Drop, where the restaurant will lower a 10-foot Gibson guitar 120 feet onto Old Falls Street to ring in the New Year. The Wailers, the band of late reggae legend Bob Marley, will perform at a free outdoor concert.

The event begins at 8 p.m. with the free concert. Food and beverages will also be available, and the event will include a midnight fireworks display. All ages are welcome. A VIP tent -- at $95 per person -- will open at 9 p.m. and include access to a heated area, a buffet, drinks and front-of-the-stage access for the concert.

The Fairgrounds Event Center in Hamburg will hold a Hamburg Bicentennial New Year's Eve Semi-Formal Ball starting at 8 p.m. There will be live music by the Divas from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., a midnight champagne toast, gourmet food, open bar and other attractions. Admission is $80 and is restricted to those 21 and older.

The Ulrich City Centre on Main Street in Lockport will host the 8 p.m. launch of the third annual Rockin' the Locks New Year's Eve celebration in the Lock City. There will be performances from Niagara Idol finalists, followed by the bands Sorry and the Teasers. Also featured at the alcohol-free event will be a children's petting zoo, a 100-foot ball drop at midnight led by Lockport Mayor Michael W. Tucker and city officials, and a 15-minute fireworks show. Hot food and drinks will be available.

In Jamestown, a night of music and art will be put on at the Fenton Grill at 2 E. 2nd St. Doors to the grill will open at 7:30 p.m., according to reports. The New Year's Eve event, which costs $20 per person or $30 for a couple, will host bands Big Leg Emma and Smackdab and will also include exhibits from local artists, along with a midnight toast.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com and bmeyer@buffnews.com