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Thousands descend on downtown to ring in the new year

Whether they were marching toward First Niagara Center for the Sabres-Islanders hockey game, rolling up to Statler City for the Ice Ball or snaking around the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center – with children in tow — for First Night Buffalo activities, New Year’s Eve revelers covered practically every inch of downtown Buffalo on Thursday.

With more restaurants opening and more hotels going up downtown, the venues of choice for New Year’s Eve celebrations increased as well for couples looking to ring in the New Year in style and for those seeking to celebrate as a family.

Ken and Sarah Fujiuchi, of Buffalo, planned to make an early night of it with their 4-year-old son, Max, and daughter, Margot, 2, so they all settled in for donuts and cappuccino at the Public Espresso & Coffee inside Hotel @ the Lafayette. The proprietors of the shop intentionally tied the night’s offerings to the annual downtown ball drop in Roosevelt Plaza, calling it the New Year’s Eve Donut Drop.

“It’s typically a cold evening, so we thought, how could we warm people up?” said co-owner Sam Scarcello. “It’s totally a family thing going on here.”

Scores of families from around Western New York typically show up for First Night Buffalo activities, a New Year’s Eve staple at the Convention Center since 1988. Tara Casten and Albert Scheifla of Niagara Falls and their 4-year-old daughter, Avalese, were among the throng looking for a little family fun.

“This is our first time going out in five years, since we had her,” said Casten. “This is like a big night for all us.”

First Night is a national event that is celebrated in many cities across the country, though Buffalo’s is probably the longest running, according to Carrie Meyer, executive director of Independent Health Foundation, which annually sponsors the local even, which is always billed as drug and alcohol-free.

The aim, said Meyer, is “to start the New Year off right, in a healthy environment. So we’re asking the parents to be great role models for their children. Celebrate together. Ring in the New Year together and show that you can have fun without the drugs and alcohol.”

Tiffani Papillion, of Buffalo, and her pre-teenage daughters, Vanyasia Davis and Danielle Davis, also were first-timers to the event. While the girls admitted looking forward to having fun on the various carnival rides and bounce houses offered on the second floor of the Convention Center, Papillion said she looked forward to some more adult revelry later on in the evening.

“That is, if they don’t tire me out first,” Papillion said.

Of course, many others venturing downtown also planned on making more of an adult evening of it. Several restaurants downtown and across the region hosted theme parties, including Salvatore’s on Transit Road in Depew, which held a swanky masquerade ball in the Bellamore Room.

Harold and Camille Screven, of Clarence, stepped out of the Hyatt Regency Buffalo downtown looking like a million bucks in their fancy formal wear as the couple strolled over to Statler City for the Ice Ball. It was not a typical New Year’s Eve for them.

“It’s wonderful. You don’t do this every day,” said Camille Screven. “A lot of times we sit home and watch the ball drop on television.”

Harold Screven said he made a last minute decision that the couple should go out this year.

“After the Ice Ball finishes, we’ll walk back. There’s usually a big crowd around here then,” said Harold Screven.

The annual New Year’s Eve ball drop at the Electric Tower on Roosevelt Plaza was a highlight of the night’s festivities. Events in the plaza were kicked off with a performance by singer Caitlin Koch. DJ Jickster from 97 Rock co-hosted the program with Jeff Russo, Katie Morse and Ed Drantch of WKBW-TV, Channel 7. The station began its live broadcast at 11 p.m. Video walls set up by Indigo Productions showed images of the ball drop here and in New York City’s Times Square. A fireworks display followed the ball drop.

Others, like Crystal Porter, Jasmine Mungro and Sara Hinriksdottir of the Canisius College women’s basketball team, preferred to skate through the evening as they took to the ice at Fountain Plaza.

“The girls thought it would be fun,” said Mungo, who hails from Washington, D.C. “So why not ring in the New Year – and on such a nice Buffalo day – with a little ice skating.”

It was, indeed, a treat for Porter, who is from Houston, Texas, where ice skating on New Year’s Eve is practically unheard of. Hinriksdottir, who comes from Iceland, was no stranger to ice-skating, but she still saw it as a novelty.

“I did it a lot when I was younger. I have my own skates, actually, but I haven’t done it in years,” Hinriksdottir said.