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First Night offers same tried, true fun

Bubbles floating through the air surrounded 10-year-old Alyssa Kobernick, who dipped her wand into a dish of soapy water and created one of her own.

It was Kobernick's first trip to the annual First Night New Year's Eve celebration downtown.

"It's a lot of fun," she said of the bubble blast stage. "I took a nap today so I can stay up until midnight."

Downtown St. Petersburg buzzed Friday night with families enjoying the non-alcoholic celebration. Parents pushed strollers and children danced to the beat of drums that echoed through the city's streets.

Families walked around downtown, navigating their way through more than 30 events that included music, glass blowing, dancing and children's games.

In its 12 years, First Night has had its share of rough patches, including bad weather and financial woes. But this year, comfortable weather lured people in, said organizer Pat Mason.

Mason said the crowd was so large that toward the middle of the evening she worried about running out of buttons. Buttons show volunteers that a festival-goer has paid and gets them into indoor events. Mason said she ordered 11,000 buttons for the event.

"This evening went absolutely fabulous," she said. "I never know how many people to expect until about the week before with the extended weather forecast."

About 250 volunteers worked the event, manning booths, ticket counters and event entrances.

At the Hurricane Man Stage, festival-goers wrote down their problems of 2004 and pinned them to the cloth hurricane effigy to be burned at night's end.

Nancy Moore handed out muslin strips and sharpie markers to people hoping to squash the year's problems.

While the evening was light-hearted, some of the strips were not. They listed everything from illnesses to credit card debt. They read: "Daddy's cancer," "a miscarriage," "tsunami" and "dependency on alcohol."

Jessica Kyles, 11, wrote "Shawn dumping me" on her strip.

"We're writing about our boyfriends," Kyles said. Friend Heather Peterson, 13, laughed and chimed in, "And about our brothers and sisters."

At the Cajun Stage, the Gumbo Boogie Band played while children danced.

Gumbo member and rub-board player Chaz Trippy said this is the second time he has played the event, which he loves. But he remembers the less successful years.

"About three or four years ago it was about 38 degrees," he said. "There were about 10 people in the audience. It's much better tonight."

Mason said event organizers try to provide something for everyone. Blues and opera stages were "jam-packed," she said, with lines waiting to get in.

Organizers planned fireworks to end the evening and bring in the new year. There was a display at 8:45 p.m. and another was scheduled for midnight.

"It's been a beautiful, beautiful evening," Mason said. "We had beautiful weather and we have a beautiful town."

Radha Nath is handed a candle as she enters the India Stage at the Museum of Fine Arts during Friday's First Night 2005 celebration in St. Petersburg. The classical Pharata Natyam dance of India uses candles "to remove ignorance and evil, and to welcome a new year of peace and prosperity," said Geeta Raaj, Nath's dance teacher.