First Night Raleigh 2016 To Celebrate City Firsts

By Karlie Justus Marlowe

“Did you know North Carolina is first in salamander diversity?” asks Terri Dollar with a laugh, before reeling off a list of other unique ways the state and its capital city earns top bragging rights.

As program director of First Night Raleigh, the annual New Year’s Eve celebration held in downtown Raleigh, Dollar’s expertise in this area has grown over the last year as she’s fleshed out the festival’s 2016 theme.

First Night Highlights
First Night programs its events based on what it dubs the “four pillars of First Night”: Celebration, Community, The New Year and The Arts. Here’s a taste of some of the highlights in the works for First Night 2016.
The People’s Procession
A vital part of the annual festivities, the 6pm People’s Procession bridges the night’s children’s activities near the Capitol Grounds with their grown-up counterparts over at City Plaza. Families can use First Night’s decorating stations to jazz up wagons and strollers before walking over to the early countdown and fireworks at 7pm.
Send Your Regrets
Everyone has a resolution – but what about letting go of all those regrets? Last year, Father Time walked around with a bag for visitors to write down their regrets before throwing them away. This year, First Night plans to take that one step further: Burn them (safely!) at a flaming art installation.
Eight Holes of Art
It’s common knowledge North Carolina was the location of the Wright brothers’ flight tests and is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s first public university, but under the radar the state can also lay claim to having the first-ever miniature golf course. In keeping with its Celebrating NC First theme, First Night commissioned nine local artists to each design a mini-golf green that will make for a very unique – and fully functional – New Year’s Eve putt-putt course.
First in Flight
Like its theme, the celebration itself accomplished a few firsts. In 2011, it brought a Ferris wheel to downtown Raleigh for the first time, the same ride used a few months earlier at the NC State Fair. The ride remains an essential stop, especially, according to Dollar, for marriage proposals.

“The event’s footprint is always similar, but we have a new theme every year,” she said. “This year is Celebrating NC First, all about the unique and quirky ways North Carolina is first or number one.”

The event’s signature lies somewhere in the intersection of tradition and innovation, marrying New Year’s Eve staples like fireworks, countdowns and resolutions with fresh combinations of art, music and theater. Since 1992, First Night Raleigh has served as eastern North Carolina’s biggest celebration of the New Year, drawing tens of thousands of people each year from across the state and southeast.

The family-friendly (and booze-free) event predates downtown Raleigh’s recent boom, and has seen bumps in attendance in recent years as more businesses and residential buildings have opened.

“Downtown Raleigh has become so much more accessible. In the past, people were apprehensive about coming downtown late at night,” said Dollar, who expects at least 50,000 to make it out this year. “We don’t hear those comments anymore.”

Dollar and the two other full-time First Night Raleigh staffers split their time between the New Year’s Eve festival and the annual Artsplosure, another downtown festival held each spring that aims to marry art and community for people of all ages.

“When First Night first came to Raleigh, we knew it’d be key for the organizers to know how a festival runs,” said Dollar, who notes the event is part of a national First Night organization that got its start in Boston in 1975. “The city really cares about its success, and we now have one of the biggest, best and longest-running First Nights in the world.”

Planning for the year-end event starts well before the weather turns colder, sometimes starting during First Night itself.

“I’m already planning the next First Night while I’m at the event each year,” said Dollar. “I’ll walk around and think, ‘oh, that’s great! Let’s do that again!’ and ‘Hmm, not doing that again next year.’”

In the fall, Dollar and her staff work with contractors to finish booking each of the event’s 35 venues, pairing artists and performers with plazas, churches, museums, theatres, bank lobbies and street corners throughout two dozen blocks of downtown Raleigh. The festival aims to balance out annual traditions – “It’s interesting to see how important traditions are for people on New Year’s Eve, they want to stick to them,” notes Dollar – with new twists on the theme.

“There are so many amazing, amazing things about Raleigh and North Carolina, and we want to celebrate the positive and fun things,” said Dollar. “Sometimes after Christmas can be sort of a downer, and we try to make sure there’s something to look forward to.”

Covering nearly every corner of downtown Raleigh and introducing new events each year, First Night can be overwhelming for first-time visitors and veterans alike. Make the most of the festivities by planning out the night in advance of midnight’s acorn drop.
5. Download the app
First Night marketing manager Cameron Laws updated the official smartphone app to include geo-located push notifications that will help the app pull double duty as both a pre-planning tool and an on-site navigator.
4. Grab tickets early
Tickets go on sale December 1st, online at and at Harris Teeter and CVS locations.
3. Draft a second-string lineup
Pick out the must-see events and performances, then keep a back-up list in case the crowds fill up or companions drift or linger. Admission to performance sites is on a first-come, first-serve basis, and programs start at the scheduled times.
2. Park (or ride) smart
Check out the color-coded parking maps of downtown Raleigh, and park where you plan to end up. Better yet, take advantage of the free R-Line Downtown Circulator (until 2am) and the First Night Raleigh Tram (operating 7-11pm with a First Night ticket), and the CAT Park and Ride locations to the north and south (regular CAT fares apply).
1. Dress in layers
Even in late December, the notoriously tricky North Carolina weather can mean mild temperatures at the start of the event that quickly turn chilly as the sun goes down. The festivities go on rain or shine, so bring along ponchos and umbrellas if the forecast looks soggy.

< Back to Current Issue