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Sober thrills fill First Night air

Thousands oohed and aahed their way into 1999, watching fireworks, lasers, musicians, magicians and dancers at First Night celebrations around Tampa Bay.

Hundreds did a little dancing of their own.

New Year's Eve was a cool, calm and crystal-clear night, encouraging hordes of families to don light jackets and sweaters and go out celebrating under a full moon.

St. Petersburg, Tampa and Dunedin were among nearly 200 U.S. and Canadian cities to hold First Night, a family-oriented, alcohol-free alternative to champagne and formal wear.

Downtown St. Petersburg's party kicked off with sound and fury _ a laser light show outside Tropicana Field that seemed like a combination of a Disney display, psychedelic rock concert and Florida Power infomercial.

Laser graphics gyrated on a screen to thumping bass music as green lasers shot over the heads of a massive crowd in the parking lot.

"It was really high-tech, the most magnificent show I've ever seen. It seemed like we were in the year 3500," said Perkins Elementary third-grader Jake Walters, who got showered with laser-lit confetti in the front row. His New Year's resolution: Score more hockey goals in his recreation league.

The show ended with great geysers of flame, a signal for crowds to migrate downtown and take in the sights at two dozen venues.

The Historical Museum had the blues. Snow White was at the Florida International Museum. African dance and percussion livened up the Barnett Tower lobby, competing with other places' rock guitarists, Latin jazz, classical flute and piano.

Children watched magic on The Pier, scratched out chalk art on sidewalks and got into other hands-on stuff.

"This is so great for the kids, I can't even tell you," said Pinellas Park secretary Maddie Corben, shepherding three young ones through the streets. Her New Year's resolution: Stop trying to lose weight.

In downtown Dunedin, hundreds walked up and down the blocked-off Main Street, enjoying the music, window-shopping and ducking into food tents for snacks.

Cook Larry DePaulo grilled up chicken, cheesesteaks and sausage as a jazz band played in a nearby bank parking lot.

"Our company has done several First Nights around the Tampa Bay area, and we always see families together," DePaulo said. "I've worked at least seven New Year's Eves, and I always enjoy it because of the people I meet."

Across the bay, First Night Tampa Bay centered on Curtis Hixon Park, south and west of the alcohol-soaked revelry in Ybor City.

Organizers expected the crisp, dry weather to draw more people than last year's celebration, when attendance was estimated at 25,000.

While participants in large part said they turned out to avoid rowdy drinking crowds, some said they were there to hear live music, which ranged from jazz to blues to alternative.

"We wanted to ring in the new year without having to deal with the drunks," said Belinda Brown, of Tampa, who arrived with her husband and three children.

A new addition to Tampa's First Night was the Crucible of Regrets, where passers-by wrote their regrets for the past year on slips of paper and added them to a fire. Then they trekked to the nearby Resolution Tree to display their resolutions.

As midnight neared, a Countdown Fire and Water Finale set the tone for the New Year's cheers.

In St. Petersburg, festivalgoers ushered in the new year with a giant conga line that snaked and shimmied to North Straub Park, where they counted down to a fireworks show that filled the sky.

_ Times staffers Sarah Schweitzer and Scott Keeler contributed to this report.

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