I Survived New Year’s Eve at Times Square! What’s It Really Like? Should You Go?
I’ve always been curious about New Year’s Eve at Times Square. I was curious about the experience, the glitz, the glamour, and what goes on behind the scenes. But not so much in the “screams-in-glee-party-all-night-Woo-Hoo!” kind of way that’s shown on TV. Mostly, I wanted to feel what it’s like to have a ton of confetti float down on top of me.
So I did it! I survived New Year’s Eve at Times Square. And having done it, I can now speak from experience and help YOU decide if you should go next year.
Instead of me detailing HOW, I’m just going to share my experience and let you take it from there. First, this comes from the perspective of a simple, normal guy who’s not much of a partier, who likes people (especially the strange ones), and more importantly, likes to explore and experience challenging and different things. As a result, this article gives you the inside scoop—the good, the bad, and the monotonous—along with suggestions on how you could make it better. Ultimately, even with all of my negatives, my conclusion remains the same: You should go.
But allow me to share my experience so you can make that determination on your own. Read on for the inside story . . .
How I Survived New Year’s Eve at Times Square
I spent way too much time looking into transportation information. I researched multiple sites, where to stand, when to arrive, how to enter, etc. Because I wanted to use my hotel rewards points for a free stay, we stayed in a cheaper New Jersey hotel (Meadowlands Stadium area) and took a 12-minute train ride in to Penn Station. (It seemed even faster.)
Once off the train, we followed the signs, walked out onto 34th Street and 7th Avenue, and headed towards the prime location – the Bowtie on 45th street. This is where Broadway comes in at an angle and meets 7th Avenue. This is where it all begins, where the stage is set up, and where you can clearly see the ball drop. We were not allowed to walk directly up 7th Ave towards the main area (it was closed off and we were redirected to 6th Ave).
Because of my concern about beginning the day with as empty a bladder as possible (more on this important topic later), we made a reservation online for a restaurant on 43rd between 6th and 7th. (Surprisingly, the restaurant had plenty of empty tables.) Surrounding Times Square, the police had the entire area secured for at least a block away. We couldn’t get to the restaurant without reservations. We had to show them proof. Others had to prove that they were staying in a hotel or that they lived or worked on the street. With no proof (or big press pass badge thingies), no one was allowed closer to the Bowtie area. Security was very tight (and I really appreciated seeing such a huge police presence).
Since we were allowed in through the first barrier, as we left the restaurant we tried to walk directly to Broadway and 7th, hoping that maybe they would allow us in since we made it past the first check. The police were polite, very nice, quick to help, and talkative. And they were very strict about where people could go. They didn’t let us in. They told us to go back to 6th Ave, walk many blocks AWAY from the Bowtie, and enter 7th Ave through 50th St.
Essentially, they were putting people in at the far end, letting the areas fill up, and then letting people move closer in a very controlled manner, one corral at a time.
What Can You Bring?
Multiple sites, even official sites, were not clear as to what kind of bags, exactly, were allowed. We read, “No large bags, backpacks, or knapsacks.” None stated how large was large. But these same sites suggested bringing food and crossword puzzles (or whatever) because there would be no vendors in the area and once allowed in to a corral, you were not allowed back in should you leave for any reason. So, you should bring things, but how should you carry them?
I even called the police station to ask this question, explaining that I didn’t want to bring a small bag that was deemed too large, thus forcing me to throw it away (or take it back to the hotel). Police told me that small purses and “fanny packs” were allowed, but that they would be thoroughly searched. They repeated, “No backpacks. No knapsacks. And no umbrellas.”
My wife brought a small over-the-chest purse/bag and I brought something I purchased from a military surplus store that was made to attach to military gear and hold a small gun and ammunition. (Most people, however, would just call it a heavy duty fanny pack – not me, though, as I would never wear a fanny pack!) We were allowed in after a very thorough search. People in front of us with backpacks, even small backpacks, were turned away. They weren’t happy. Security was also very strict about umbrellas. Being that the forecast was for rain all evening long, I saw many umbrellas tossed onto the street. (One person in our corral made it through with his umbrella and the crowd openly and verbally treated him like a pariah when it was opened. The anti-umbrella backlash was strong and fierce!)
At 2:00 pm, security let us past the 49th St gates into the corral and eventually, after several moves towards the ball, we landed in a section between 46th and 47th. We heard that people in the prime spots, just a block-and-a-half away, had arrived before Noon, so we were rather pleased with how close we were to everything.
The stage was set up less than two blocks away, but it seemed further as we could barely see the lights and the rigging. We were hoping that one of the giant screens surrounding us would be used. The Waterford Crystal Ball location was in clear view, and a wonderful-sounding speaker was playing every high note clearly with the bass being full and deep. (I took the pictures shown in this article, so you can see exactly what I saw. I am not short, being a half-inch shy of 6-ft tall, but I was still constantly shifting to be able to see between the hats because I couldn’t see over them.)
“I got my freebie. I saw a countdown with Steve Harvey. That’s enough for me!”
And Now . . . We Stand . . .
At this time, approximately 2:30 pm Monday 31 Dec 2018, we began standing. For 9 ½ hours, we stood... in that same spot. It started raining at around 3:00, so for 9 hours we stood in the rain. (Sometimes it drizzled, but it usually had more gusto and it never was a downpour.) Thankfully, I had a great hiking poncho. My shoes, however, and my 3 layers of socks were soaked so much that I squished out water with every step.
When the clock struck 4 pm, I joked that all we had to do to kill the time was imagine our day at work was JUST beginning. “Sit down, check your email, and imagine yourself going through a typical workday... real-time for the next 8 hours.” I quickly abandoned that idea since I was seeking a way to KILL time, not make it longer.
Many people bought cheap dollar store rain ponchos (for either $10 or $20, depending on which lucky vendor they ran into on the way) and ended up leaving at around 8 or 9 pm with their clothes totally soaked due to leaks. Others tried to tough it out without cover, like a guy directly in front of me who wore a very thick sweater. He bent down once and I could see his t-shirt underneath sticking to his back, totally soaked through. His girlfriend “rang it out” a few times and it was impressive how much water his sweater held. Another young fellow had a big, beautiful afro and he bragged that this would serve as his umbrella. I was envious and totally believed him, but it wasn’t enough. By 9pm, it was roughly 40 degrees and the rain and wind picked up a bit. He, like many other drenched people unlucky enough to have waterproof cover, started crawling over the barriers crying for warmth.
The police told us the crowd would thin out as people began to get cold or realize how hard it is to JUST STAND for many hours. They were right. At three- or four-o’clock, everyone was motivated and excited. After 2-3 hours of standing, people started discussing the advantages to watching this from home. The “first wave” of casualties happened after the 7pm countdown shortly after the freebies were handed out. (“I got my freebie. I saw a countdown with Steve Harvey. That’s enough for me!”)
Many more casualties took place between 7 and 9 pm, when the rain picked up and it seemed to get colder. Most of the people who made it beyond 9pm remained until the ball dropped.
How to Combat the Monotony
We made friends with a small group of people next to us and had some nice conversations. After all the small-talk was done, people were desperate for anything that could help kill the time. Any hint of a conversation that was remotely inclusive of others woke people up and they seemed sort of thankful that at least SOMETHING was happening to help kill the time.
Seeing how receptive people were to ANYTHING entertaining, I wished that that I’d brought something to get more people involved in a conversation or some sort of game or sing-along – maybe a few magnetic travel games or Head Bandz (the game where people wear a head band holding a word and they have to ask questions to try and figure out what their word is). That would’ve helped so many people get to know each other and we’d have a lot of fun killing time. Lesson learned!
(There is an app equivalent to the Head Bandz game. Search for "Heads Up!" I SO wish I had known about this before New Year's.)
We tested something: If people are bored and there’s a real possibility of something happening that you can’t see because you’re surrounded by people, when someone simply counts down real loud, “THREE... TWO... ONE...!” the entire crowd, without thinking and without justification, will continue with, “WHOO-O-O-O-O!!” This worked twice.
Live Video Cams of Times Square
I did not realize there were live video cams online until after when I was searching online to find visual evidence of my being there. If you go next year, it could be fun if you know where these are and get on the phone with someone at home looking at the cams.
Google the term "times square live video cams."
At around 3 or 4 pm, they started playing pop/dance music, songs that most everyone knew – music that’s kind of fun and entertaining, I guess, but not for literally hours at a time. If I was able to show off my studmuffin outfits and all my moves, like if I were in a NIGHT CLUB and I were still in my twenties, and if I weren’t outside standing in the rain, in a corral, unable to move more than a step... THEN the music would be perfect.
After one of the performers did a sound check I guess the sound guy had his own music to play through the sound system. Queen’s “We are the Champions” started playing and everyone joined in! But they literally cut it off halfway and went back to the pop/dance crap. My new British friend asked, “In 40 years, will people be singing any of this stuff?” The answer: Definitely not.
Later they did it again. They started playing Bohemian Rhapsody and more than half the crowd of all ages and nationalities started singing... again. It was wonderful! “This will pass the time,” I thought. “Play songs that everyone will sing along to.” But they stopped again mid-song and everyone groaned.
I’d bet they could’ve played Broadway songs, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and so many others, and everyone would’ve been singing together. It would’ve been the greatest party ever! (This wouldn’t work in the first hour or two, though. People need to be more desperate. Do this after three or four hours of standing IN ONE SPOT with nothing to do and people will sing anything!)
I googled “songs that everyone knows the lyrics to” – do you know these songs?
"Bad Romance" – Lady Gaga
"All Star" – Smash Mouth
"Baby Got Back" – Sir Mix A-Lot
"I Will Survive" – Gloria Gaynor
"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and “Time After Time” – Cindy Lauper
"I Will Always Love You" – Whitney Houston
"...Baby One More Time" – Britney Spears
NOTE: I didn’t say these were GOOD songs...
Can you imagine the supreme beauty of millions of people all together singing, “I like big butts and I cannot lie...?”
That would be incredible!
No one sung along to the songs they played. Some people moved, but not necessarily because the beat was so catchy or because they wanted to dance; rather because of the monotony. It was just background noise, with nice bass. This would be such a wonderfully memorable celebration, but they will never do it.
"Sweet Caroline..." Bahn Bahn Bahhhh!
What Marketing Geniuses Should Have Done
There other seemingly obvious things the organizers and advertisers could’ve done...
With so many giant screens everywhere, advertisers could’ve shown fun facts or trivia questions. People would be glued to the screens all night long. They could’ve even left product info or their logos on the screen or flashed the cool movie clips in between questions. Instead, the marketing geniuses thought it would be more effective to play the same things over and over again, for 10+ hours.
Here are other examples of missed marketing opportunities:
-- I was standing immediately next to a Comedy Club. Had they paid comedians to roam the sidewalks next to the corrals (or even INSIDE the corrals) and do what they do best, people would’ve been SO happy!
-- M&Ms store was behind me, Hershey’s Chocolate world in front. Other restaurants and food places surrounded the area (Bubba Gump Shrimp, Olive Garden, McDonald’s). Had they passed out free samples with a coupon or something to read (like their history or whatever kind of ANYTHING that would’ve helped pass the time), people would’ve been forever thankful.
To me, this seems so simple it makes me wonder if the Times Square NYE organizers forbid them from doing something interesting unless they paid megabucks to be an official sponsor. Still, they already have their massive screens blaring away above everyone. Why not be a little interactive?
Massively Selfish, Greedy A-HOLE OF THE YEAR Award
The complete and entirely despicable A-HOLE OF THE YEAR Award goes to whoever created and then advertised on that video screen placed literally directly behind the central focus of the entire New Year’s Eve celebration.
Think about this: Mention the Times Square Ball and most everyone knows that it’s the famous ball that is dropped during the most famous New Year’s celebration in the world. In fact, I did not realize that there is even a celebrated event, complete with loudspeaker announcements and singers right before and after, when the ball is RAISED. This happens at 6:00 pm. During the night, on TV and live in NYC, they talk about this largest crystal ball in the world. They even give a 5-minute history lesson about the ball (and shown a video that no one can see because the screens are too small and too far away)!
So, the whole attention of the night is this ball. Millions of people line up on two historic streets (7th Avenue and Broadway) and this ball is placed in such a location that every one of these millions of people can see this ball. The countdown to the new year literally follows the ball for 60 seconds as it slowly descends to set off fireworks!
So, the Dept of Redundancy Department wants to remind you that all night, from 6 pm to midnight, the focus is on this ball. People want to see the ball. They want to see the shiny crystals changing colors in the night sky. They are excited about this ball and stare in the direction of this ball for many, many hours.
Having said all that, some advertising genius decided to annoy the entire world by placing a giant video advertising screen directly behind the ball.
It was very difficult to see the ball and only during those wonderful brief moments between ad changes when the screen was dark did people get to see the centerpiece of the night. Maybe on TV, the cameras showed it from a different angle, but for all the millions in Times Square, it was just a mess.
As proof, look at the pictures I took during the night. I can make out Hulu – which I’m going to personally cancel due to this immensely selfish act – but I have no idea what the other ads are for because I COULDN’T READ IT. There was something in the way! Literally millions of dollars in advertising wasted because they thought it was a good idea to put their ads purposely behind THE Waterford Crystal ball.)
“The entire world will see our ads!” —Marketing Genius
"I hate those companies now." —The Entire World
They even kept this screen on during the 60-seconds, and even the TEN seconds, of the world-watched New Year’s countdown. Earlier in the evening, we discussed how wonderful it would be if the many giant screens would go dark for just the 10-30 seconds of New Year’s countdown. Everyone would get to see so very clearly the ball dropping and then the fireworks and the clock. It would’ve been so memorable. The advertisers would’ve earned everyone’s respect.
But of course, they didn’t. I was hoping that, at a minimum, the one blaring screen directly behind the ball would turn off for at least that iconic dropping of the ball moment. It didn’t. I’m sure all those advertising geniuses were proud of themselves, “The entire world will see our ads!”
And thus, the award for “Complete Selfishness Money-Over-Everything A-hole of the Year” goes to the owner of this screen and its advertisers.
All of this jaded me. Please don’t let anyone tell you that this is a celebration of the transition to the New Year. It’s not. It’s a means to sell advertising. That’s it.
Something many do not know: there are no bathrooms! And once people step inside their section, they are not allowed to leave; and if they do leave, they are not allowed back in (unless they go to the “back of the line”). This became my biggest concern prior to the day! I tried to come up with some sort of strategy...
Adult diapers were mentioned in multiple articles. I actually bought some to test (but more as a Christmas joke). I was SO hoping that would be a solution. (A guitarist friend once bragged about how he was able to drink all night during gigs without needing to leave to go to the restroom. "There I was talking to the girls and none realized I was peeing!")
As it turns out, Depends doesn't hold much "liquid." This discussion came up 9 hours into our adventure and the lady next to us said she works with the elderly and they just don’t work as well as everyone wishes as she’s had to clean up many messes. She and many around us were all starting to get a little concerned with more than an hour to go. (One young college girl from Missouri quietly admitted that she was wearing them.)
So, not wanting to risk "overflow" in our clothes and having to deal with that itchy discomfort for the rest of the night, we decided to tough it out.
To prepare, I drank almost zero liquids all morning and did not have breakfast. We booked a table for an early lunch but mostly so that we could use the restroom one last time before entering the "no flow" zone. I ordered a veggie burger and fries and loaded it with salt in order to retain water. (Does salt actually help you not pee? I have no idea but it was worth a shot.)
I went in, hoping for the best, hoping that I could just hold it for the 10 hours we stood waiting for the ball to drop. I did, but it wasn't easy!
But now I understand why Times Square clears out so quickly after the ball drops! (Also, the police push people out of the area so the cleaners are not there all night.) I barely made it to Penn Station where I stood with many neighbors for a L-O-N-G time.
I had joked to someone after telling them we're heading to Times Square for New Year's Eve, "All those people yelling and celebrating the ball drop... They're wearing soaked diapers! That cute girl... Peed herself! Handsome guy... Peed in a crowd! Everyone you see on TV who have been there since before Noon... need a change of diapers."
I have no idea how people near the stage were able to last more than 12 hours. We got there at around 2 PM and I struggled mightily. So, if you ever talk to someone that was near the stage, please ask this question and let me know. (Catheters, maybe??)
See that cute girl on TV smiling, dancing, and waving her New Year's freebie next to the stage? She peed herself.
TV Versus Times Square
What we saw and heard while standing in the excitement of the crowd was NOT what was on TV. The only time we heard anything other than music was when the TV show flashed over to the few minutes of live broadcasting from Times Square. In other words, they played 10 to 15 minutes of pop-ish songs between the live performances. Occasionally, the hosts would appear “LIVE FROM TIMES SQUARE” in fake excited voices, “Even in the rain it is just amazing to be here!” They’d say a few sentences, announce the next artist, and then disappear for another 20-40 minutes.
Close to top of the hour, another host (that was a terrible actress at pretending to be excited and interested in whatever the guests were talking about) and someone else (it was Steve Harvey a few times and then he stopped appearing, which was sad because I really like Mr. Harvey) would talk about resolutions or the wishes people submitted to be on the confetti.
Whoever this female host was seemed to not want to give up her treasured air-time because even as the 10-second countdown was happening both on-screen and loudly over the speakers, she would continue to talk! The corralled millions would be COUNTING DOWN THE NEW YEAR for other countries East of New York City (a main purpose of every attendee!) “10! 9! 8! ...” as the host completely ignored everyone and just kept talking. The screen would replace her with the countdown graphic and she would KEEP TALKING. This happened three or four times. It was very strange. She thankfully realized what was happening and joined in the countdown when just three or four seconds remained.
Obligatory Diversity-Themed Political Correctness
Right after the “6:00 pm Lighting and Raising the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball,” the organizers thought it was a good idea to begin the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration with a “Sino-American Friendship Association (SAFA) Chinese cultural performance from Chongqing China.”
It wasn’t a performance. Sorry. One of the many Asians surrounding me said out loud, “China must have paid a LOT of money for that infomercial.” (I suspect this person was Japanese because China and Japan are definitely not the best of friends. Still, the guy was right!)
That wasn’t as bad as the multiple Hispanic moments where they repeatedly insulted every nationality but themselves. It was very subtle, but it was noticed. While I think Hispanic culture should be embraced and appreciated, I don’t think it was appropriate for someone to say, “Latin Power!” after singing their Spanish-only songs. And this was shortly after the President of Univision excluded the rest of the world with his 8-minutes of Hispanic-centric talking. At least the Chinese speaker didn’t say, “We’re the best culture in the world!”
After that, the Associated Press presented its 2018 Year-in-Review, which should’ve been titled, “2018 Only the Bad News Year-in-Review.” Many good things happened in 2018, but not a single one of them was mentioned. Thus, according to the Associated Press, the only news worth mentioning are mass shootings, anti-Trump politics, and human death toll disasters. I overheard in the corral, “Ok, well THAT was depressing.”
What About the Entertainment?
I read articles and comments about how New Year’s at Times Square was like a free concert, full of some of the most popular artists from multiple genres. It’s true that many artists played, but it is NOT like a concert. Some artists lip-synced in the past, but I’m sure these people actually sang live.
Because of the rigid time schedule of being on live TV and syncing everything up with commercials and live feeds to other locations, the music had no freedom. In fact, prior to 6:00 pm, when things kind of started at Times Square, multiple artists ran through their songs for a sound check. It was more entertaining than just standing there but since we couldn’t really see them on the screen and since they were not allowed to venture outside of the radio versions, it was essentially the same as listening to the CD. (A few sang medleys so that was interesting.)
A few artists had their performances shown on a large screen located at the corner of 7th Ave and Broadway (that was mostly devoted to How to Train Your Dragon clips all night long). Not all of them were shown, however, which I didn’t understand. In fact, during the times when people were talking (Ryan Seacrest, Jenny McCarthy, and others), they weren’t shown on the big screen. And since the stage was far away and covered by lights and cameras and whatever else, most everyone in Times Square, except for those in that first block, never saw anything. We could only hear. So if you’re thinking of attending for the free live concert, unless you plan on getting there at 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning, you should just stay home and play the show loudly through your stereo.
We talked about what an amazing show it would be if all those massive screens up and down the blocks, or even just a few, displayed the entertainment. If they did this, time would pass so much quicker and many, many more people would be attentive to the screens. Then, the whole night would be a true show instead of just standing in a corral listening to something that was too far away to see, and then later bragging that you were there in Times Square at New Year’s Even (kind of what I’m going to do shortly).
Instead, this is what we saw: hold your phone away from you and play a video vertically (NOT wide screen mode). That is exactly the size screen I saw. Most people were even further away.
Should I Go or Just Stay Home and Watch It on TV?
This all leads to the question: Should you go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve?
Yes, you should go!
Standing there in one spot for 8 to 12 hours was very difficult. The experience was kind of like when I hiked 10 miles in the heat of a mountainous desert area south of Phoenix, Arizona:
It wasn’t really a lot of fun, it was physically demanding, the view was initially kind of exciting and intriguing but that soon wore off, and the weather was rather unpleasant. But it was an accomplishment. It was memorable. And because it was such a challenge, I am proud that I did it. I have pictures that I personally took from the top of a mountain very few people ever see. And I have pictures from 7th Avenue in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I was there! I saw everything firsthand that the rest of the world can only talk about.
I enjoyed meeting and talking with people around me. Just standing in one spot was not a lot of fun, but this was my fault since I should’ve brought games or thought of things to do. Yes it rained the entire time, but I had the poncho and that’s actually what made it even more of an accomplishment that I survived! (But I think it was actually easier to deal with than the extreme cold I’ve seen in the past.)
My partner, Misty, summed it up perfectly:
If we chose for this to be our one and only... at least we can watch on New Year's Eve from the comfort of our home and say, "WE DID THAT!!”
Just visiting New York is exciting. Even if you live in a big city, no place equals New York when considering the totality of the experience:
- Street vendors
- Snobbish people wearing expensive clothing
- Crazy men talking to themselves
- Cabs honking
- Police officers everywhere who are quick to help or just talk
- Locals who are bored with it all and don’t have the patience for gawkers like myself
- Bluntness and rudeness (which is so fun for me to experience), but also surprisingly nice people
- Stores selling products only seen in magazines
- Tourists from all over the world
- Places that have appeared in so many movies and TV shows,
- ... and on and on and on.
ALL of that is magnified on New Year’s Eve. Remember, the entire experience includes everything leading up to and after the Countdown, not just the standing there in the corral.
No, it is not a beautiful, happy vacation in paradise. But this experience, no matter how challenging and imperfect, I will remember fondly forever.
You should go.
Yes, you should go. You'll brag about it next year.
New Year's Eve at Times Square
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© 2019 Rob Daugherty