By Jill Colvin, Leslie Albrecht and Mariel S. Clark
MIDTOWN — Cheers and whistles broke out in Times Square Friday night as New Yorkers and visitors from all over the world ushered in the new year with an explosion of fireworks and song.
Revelers began the countdown to midnight as they danced and sang along to Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind."
Just before the ball dropped, hit performer Taio Cruz performed John Lennon's "Imagine" — the first time the song has been played live at the New Year's event.
"It's overwhelming, we're from Georgia, so we're not used to this many people. It's exciting but it's nerve-racking," said Zach Dehil, 24, a corporal in the marines.
"I love it!" said Enrique Romero, 43, who had traveled all the way from Venezuela to see the ball drop.
Dianna Threadgill, 37, traveled from Ohio to celebrate her 15th anniversary in Times Square.
"It was worth the trip. It was worth the two-day snow delay to get here. It was worth the five-hour wait," she said, standing in the middle of Broadway as the confetti fell around her.
"This is a cool way to ring in the new year," she said.
Ke$ha riled up the crowd earlier with her hit "Tick Tock," which had the crowd shimmying and shaking as they waited for the clock to strike midnight.
"It's exciting, very exciting!" said Sharronda Smith, 20, who came from Union City, N.J. with her boyfriend, Michael Romero, 23.
Romero agreed. "There's a lot of energy. It's a lot of fun."
People began to gather in the square early Friday morning for the city's biggest celebration of 2010, which officially kicked off at 6 p.m. with a performance by Rick Springfield, who got the crowd singing along to his hit, "Jessie's Girl."
Many revelers brought food with them in anticipation of hours of waiting on the big event. Those who didn't were a perfect captive audience for vendors peddling $20 pizzas and $10 boxes of a dozen donuts.
Among the takers were Vincent and Emilie Vancoillie of Compiegne, France. The couple was on their honeymoon, but said they were happy to share a cold cheese pizza in a crowd of hundreds of strangers packed in front of 50th Street and 7th Avenue.
"We'd rather see the ball drop than eat in a restaurant," Vincent Vancoillie said.
By 7 p.m., people were lined up body-to-body up to Central Park, many decked out in sparkling "2011" glasses and hats.
With hours of waiting stretching ahead of them, some in the crowd turned to creative forms of entertainment. Dave and Chris Canning of Cadillac, Mich. were stationed at the southern edge of a crowd control barrier on 51st and Seventh Avenue, and had a clear view of the glowing ball at the top of One Times Square nine blocks south. They entertained themselves by watching to see whether anyone would step in a pile left behind by a police horse.
"The poo has been the best part so far," Canning said.
When two police officers removed the waste with a piece of cardboard and a trash bag, Dave Canning shouted out, "Just leave one piece, man!"
"We need more horses," Chris Canning said. "We don’t get much entertainment back here on 51st Street."
Several blocks below the Cannings, more dedicated revelers had arrived extremely early to secure front row seats for appearances by celebs like Ryan Seacrest and Ke$ha.
Best friends Cushmeer Muhammad, 39, and Gregory Boozer, 40, from New Jersey, began their wait for the ball to drop at 8 a.m.
"It’s the best party ever!" Muhammad said, of the pair's third New Year's in Times Square.
Despite strict rules, including no booze, no backpacks and no re-entry, more than a million people were expected to fill the square to watch the 12-foot wide, Waterford crystal ball countdown the final seconds to 2011.
Dianna Threadgill, 37, traveled from Ohio to celebrate her 15th anniversary in Times Square. But she almost didn’t make it. She and her husband Richard, 37, were supposed to arrive last Sunday but were delayed because of the massive snowstorm.
"It's a great thing to check off of your list," she said of the New Year's Eve celebration. "You've got to do it once."
An increased police presence, bomb sniffing dogs and snipers on rooftops were also present as the city beefed up security for the area's first New Year's celebration since the failed attempted car bombing in the spring.
Ricardo Gama, who brought his family from Portugal to the U.S. to watch the ball drop, had been concerned about whether it was safe to bring young kids to the square because of the crowds. But he was pleasantly surprised when he arrived.
"I feel very secure. There are so many police," he said. "I'm coming back next year."
Despite the tightened security, celebrants seemed to be enjoying the evening.
"It's crazy! It's like the biggest party anywhere in the world!" said Sandra Ojeda, 21, who traveled from Peru for the New Year's celebration. She and her friend Melissa Francia, 22, came prepared with mini vuvuzelas and staked out a spot at 10 a.m.
Francia said she'd watched the ball drop every year on TV and couldn’t believe she was finally here. So far, the two had met fellow travelers from Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Africa, South Africa and Canada.
"It's a once in a lifetime experience," Francia said.
Bouncing with excitement near 44th Street and Seventh Avenue were two U.S. Marines, Lance Cpl. Dustin Torres, 21, and Cpl. Brian Willett, 20, of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Torres and Willett returned in July from a seven-month deployment in Marjah, Afghanistan.
Torres beamed as he took in Times Square on the biggest night of the year. "It's so beautiful," he said. "It's amazing. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning opening his presents."
The event held special significance for Maureen Clancy, 50, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer on Jan. 1, 2006. She and her husband Seamus Burns traveled from Arroyo Grande, Calif. to see the ball drop to celebrate her survival.
"We're very grateful that we're here," Clancy said, noting that only 44 percent of women diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer make it to the five-year survival mark. "This is a milestone and it's my sincere hope that it's one of many," Burns said. "It's hard to see your future when you get diagnosed with cancer. This is for us another validation that we have a future."