NEW YORK (Reuters) - Revelers gathered hours ahead of midnight in New York's frigid Times Square on Monday for the traditional New Year's Eve celebration that ends with the descent of a huge crystal ball at the stroke of midnight.
Up to a million people were expected in the blocks around Times Square, and another billion people were expected to watch on television, city officials said.
People filled pens in the center of Times Square hours before the end of 2012. Police set up barricades to keep away the overflow crowd. Once people entered the police pens, they were not allowed to leave, no alcohol was permitted and there were no restrooms.
The spectacle erupted at 6 p.m. when the ball rose to the top to the top of its 70-foot (21-meter) poll and fireworks went off.
A few minutes earlier, the cheering crowd turned silent when the ceremony released balloons for each of the victims of the December 14 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Mark Barrigan, a medical software product manager, traveled from Dallas to witness the ball drop live for the first time this year, fulfilling a longtime wish.
"It was one of those bucket list items," Barrigan said, referring to a list of wishes before one dies.
Asked what he was hoping for in the new year, Barrigan replied, "Hopefully they'll make some good decisions in Washington, D.C."
Elsewhere in America, same-sex marriage becomes legal at 12:01 a.m. in Maryland.
Maryland, Maine and Washington state became the first three U.S. states to approve gay marriage by popular vote on November 6. Nine states and the District of Columbia now have statutes legalizing gay marriage.
The temperature in Times Square was predicted to hover just above freezing around midnight, with a possibility of rain or snow flurries, forecasters said.
The revelers came for the people-watching, for which Times Square is famous, and to see performers such as Taylor Swift, Psy, Carly Rae Jepsen and Neon Trees.
Mary and Phe, two tourists from Montreal, arrived in Times Square at 3 p.m. and planned to brave the cold for the nine remaining hours of 2012.
Mary, who worked for the city of Montreal and declined to give her last name, hoped for the new year to be similar to the previous one. Phe, a therapist who also declined to give her last name, said "maybe (getting) a boyfriend" would be a good new year's resolution.
The illuminated, crystal-covered ball -- some 12 feet (3.7 metres) in diameter and weighing nearly 12,000 pounds (5,443 kg) -- was due to begin its descent at 11:59 a.m. EST and drop the 70 feet (21 metres) in 60 seconds.
One of those crystals was engraved with the name of Dick Clark, the American entertainer who hosted a popular television presentation of the Times Square New Year's celebrations for decades.
He died in April of a heart attack. Clark had suffered a stroke in 2004 that sidelined from the New Year's Eve show for the first time since he launched the annual broadcast in 1972.
But he gamely returned to the program the following year, and had continued to announce the annual countdown to midnight.
As part of the city's New Year's Eve celebration, more than one ton of confetti was to be released from the rooftops of surrounding buildings in Times Square.
The end-of-the-year crowds capped a year in which 52 million people visited New York City, the third straight record-breaking year for tourism, city officials said on Monday.
More than a million additional tourists visited the city in 2012 compared to 2011, a 2.1 percent increase, they said.
The first version of the ball in Times Square descended in 1907 from a flagpole. (Additional reporting by Joshua Lott; Editing by Daniel Trotta, David Gregorio and M.D. Golan)