If you like your new year to come in with a bang, you're in luck because events on both sides of the bay will light up the skies. Here's a quick look at the two, and some insider tips for viewing:
Channelside Lights Up the Bay: Pace yourself, because this event starts at 1 p.m. and goes into the wee hours at Channelside Bay Plaza in Tampa. This year, viewing of the midnight fireworks from the wharf area will be limited to the first 3,000 people. To control the crowd, wristbands will be given out for access at the Garrison Street gate starting at 8:30 p.m. Only persons with wristbands will be allowed on the wharf. The party ends at 1 a.m.
If you're planning on grabbing a bite to eat at some of the Channelside restaurants before the fireworks, organizers are advising you to make reservations or be prepared to wait. Parking will also be at a premium around the area because of an afternoon hockey game at 5 p.m., and even Ybor's garages and lots are likely to be fuller because of the Outback Bowl night parade and numerous parties going on there. Parking in the Whiting Street, Fort Brooke or Convention Center garages might mean a longer walk to the festivities, but could be a smart bet if you get there later in the evening.
Suggested other viewing spots for the fireworks: Cotanchobee Park, the Sail Pavilion at Riverwalk (expect a crowd at the bar, but no cover), the newly anointed Tampa Bay Times Forum grounds, the grounds of the Marriott Waterside, spots along Harbour Island and the grounds of the Tampa Bay History Center (its Columbia Cafe will be open until 9 p.m., but the center itself will close at 3 p.m.). Channelside Bay Plaza is at 615 Channelside Drive, Tampa.
First Night St. Petersburg: Organizers of this family-friendly, alcohol-free celebration of the new year encourage people to buy a button ($10 for everyone, children under 5 free) to attend some of the concerts and other activities to help offset the costs involved in staging this event every year. It's worth price because of all of the sights and people out and about.
If you have kids, you'll need a button to get into First Kids at the Pier, where they can enjoy all kinds of fun activities on the third floor. It starts at 5 p.m., but be sure to wear comfortable shoes for the processional to the Bubble Stomp that takes place around 8:30 on Bay Shore. (Get there early because once the stomping of the Bubble Wrap starts, it goes quickly!)
Other entertainment that requires a button includes American Idol's Michael Lynche, hometown country singer Suite Caroline and the St. Petersburg Opera Company. (Buy early to get the fun light-up buttons, which are limited; hand stamps will be used after they're gone.)
The first fireworks will go off at 9 p.m. and the second at midnight. Best spots for viewing include Straub Park, Vinoy Park (which usually doesn't have any First Night events scheduled there), the Pier, North Shore Park and Demens Landing. If you decide to try dinner at one of the restaurants along Beach Drive, call ahead for reservations. Some, like Bella Brava, are booked, but are still accepting walk-ups. The firepit bar area at the Renaissance Vinoy is likely to be a great place for hanging out if you have a bar tab going, but potentially very crowded.
If you've ever been to any event on the waterfront, you know that you'll need to use the downtown garages, so get there early and you're likely to find a spot in the BayWalk garage; otherwise, a longer walk is in store. Street parking will be available too, but be sure to feed the meters; enforcement doesn't take a holiday.
Most of the events are centered around Straub Park on Beach Drive between First and Fifth avenues N. Visit firstnightstpete.com for the entire schedule and to find outlets for tickets.