Some revelers, wearing party hats and "2012" glasses, began camping out Saturday morning, even as workers readied bags stuffed with hundreds of balloons and technicians put colored filters on klieg lights.
"Everybody's suffering. That's why it's so beautiful to be here celebrating something with everybody," said Lisa Nicol, 47, of Melbourne, Australia, after securing a prime spot next to the main stage.
Houston tourist Megan Martin, 22, staked out her space with her boyfriend at 10:30 a.m. She said the party ahead would be worth sitting on cold asphalt all day in a spectator pen ringed by metal barricades.
"I told him the pain only lasts tonight, but the memories last forever," she said.
Many Americans will usher in the new year thinking that 2011 is a year they would rather forget. But as the country prepared for the celebration, glum wasn't on the agenda for many, even those that had a sour year.
"We're hoping the next year will be better," said Becky Martin, a former elementary school teacher who drove from Rockford, Ill., with her family to attend the Times Square celebration after spending a fruitless year trying to find a job. "We're starting off optimistic and hoping it lasts."
Reminders of a trying 2011 around the globe could be seen in the multi-national faces of visitors to the so-called "Crossroads of the World" this week.
Asked how his 2011 went, a Japanese tourist who gave his name as Nari didn't know enough English to put it into words as he visited the square Friday, so he whipped open his phone and displayed pictures he had taken of damage wrought by the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the island nation and his home city of Sendai.
"Not a good year," he said. Then he smiled and added that things are now much better.
The annual dropping of the New Year's Eve ball, from a flagpole 400 above the street, is taking place this year under relatively warm weather, with the temperature at midnight expected to be in the low 40s. The sphere, now decorated with 3,000 Waterford crystal triangles, has been dropping to mark the new year since 1907, long before television made it a national tradition.
Security checkpoints at the city's bridges and tunnels were beefed up in anticipation of the celebration. The New York Police Department's plans for protecting the city from any terrorist attack included sending 1,500 rookie officers to Times Square, where hundreds of thousands of revelers pack into closely watched pens, ringed by barricades, stretched over 17 blocks. Officers will blend into the crowd wearing street clothes. Others, some heavily armed, others wearing radiation detectors, will watch from rooftops and helicopters.
Cautious hope was the watchword elsewhere, too.
In New Orleans, crowds in the French Quarter were starting to build Friday, with New Year's visitors rubbing elbows with college football fans flocking here for Tuesday's Sugar Bowl matchup between Michigan and Virginia Tech.
"People are tired of being stressed and poor," said David Kittrell, a glass gallery owner from Dallas visiting the Crescent City for its New Year's celebrations with his wife, Barbara. The couple has endured a rough few years, as the recession cut into their sales. But they said business had been getting better.
Atlanta was expecting to welcome thousands to its downtown, where a giant peach is dropped every New Year's Eve at midnight. Fans decked out in the orange and navy blue of both the Auburn Tigers and the Virginia Cavaliers lined the streets Saturday afternoon for the Chick-fil-A Bowl parade, cheering on marching bands, floats and a pack of Star Wars stormtroopers.
Debbie Hart, 50, of Perry, Ga., was in town with her family for the bowl game. She called herself the "perpetual optimist" who believes each year will be better than the one before.
"I married a farmer. 'Wait until next year. Next year will be better.' That's what I've been hearing for 30 years," said Hart, an Auburn fan wearing a bright orange jacket and tiger-print scarf. "I have faith."
Cities prepared for celebrations both traditional and unusual.
Miami has its own fruit, The Big Orange, a neon citrus with a new animated face that will rise up the side of a downtown hotel as fireworks go off nearby. The town of Eastport, Maine, will lower an 8-foot-long wooden sardine from a downtown building at midnight, in celebration of its sardine canning and fishing history.
At the Mall of America's Nickelodeon Universe, patrons will be able to walk an orange carpet, strike a pose and have their photo taken on their way into a party there.
And Las Vegas prepared to host hundreds of thousands of partiers on the Strip to welcome the year with rooftop fireworks, expensive celebrity-studded parties at nightclubs and an urge to bid adieu to 2011.
Several people preparing to celebrate the holiday told the AP that they would usher in the New Year hoping the U.S. Congress would become a more cooperative place. Some talked about their hopes for the presidential election. Others said they hoped to hold on to their job, or find a new one to replace one they'd lost.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted Dec. 8-12 found that 62 percent of Americans are optimistic that the nation's fortunes would improve in 2012, and 78 percent hopeful that their own family would have a better year. Most wrote off 2011 as a dud.
Shahid Ahmad, 53, a sporting goods vendor who has set up in downtown Atlanta during big events for the last 13 years, said his last two New Year's Eves have been slow in sales compared with years prior. He said he's hopeful that the job market will improve in 2012.
"If you worked in corporate America and you lost that job, I promise you that level of expertise could be used in whatever community you're from," said Ahmad, unfolding Braves, Falcons and Hawks T-shirts and hats. "You may not have the six-figure-plus salary, but you will be able to sustain."
Associated Press writers Chris Hawley in New York, Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans and Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report.