As director of Highmark First Night Pittsburgh, Sarah Aziz has spent months and months, year after year, working out all the details for the biggest family party of the year.
But while she is running the show on New Year’s Eve, Sarah is doing double duty, keeping her three kids happy as they enjoy the celebration and countdown to the New Year.
Her experience as a mom and the ultimate insider make Sarah the perfect guide for First Night Pittsburgh, marking its 25th anniversary this year. She agreed to share her pro tips to maneuver the excitement filling the 14-block Cultural District. Expect fireworks, a zany parade, an array of staged performances, hands-on activities, magic shows, live concerts – and more fireworks.
Follow this guide for the best New Year’s Eve ever.
Buy your buttons
Admission Buttons are $10 each, free for ages 5 and younger. Pin the button on your jacket for access to all indoor and outdoor activities. Buy buttons online, at Cultural Trust box offices or participating Giant Eagle stores.
As soon as you buy the Admission Button, register with the Cultural Trust. Look over the schedule of indoor venues, which require reservations, and make selections as soon as possible to avoid disappointment. Tickets to shows like the Kids Comedy Show at Penny Arcade and Zuzu African Acrobats, while free, are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
A cool way to get the whole family involved is to march in the First Night Parade. Volunteers who sign up by Dec. 22 will receive free Admission Buttons. Parade participants – 500 volunteers of all ages are needed – meet at the David Lawrence Convention Center to pick their puppets and line up for their starring roles in the big puppet dance through the streets. It’s an experience your kids won’t want to miss!
Before heading out for the night, Sarah always goes over a map of the area with her kids. She shows them ahead of time what they’re going to be doing and even outlines parameters: They can buy one thing from all of the flashy vendors, for example, but no more.
And she sets up a meeting point, just in case anyone slips away from the group.
One thing to consider before attending is your parking options since there will be big crowds in addition to street closures. Check the Trust’s parking app to find parking.
Sarah’s family usually parks in the Theater Square Garage, where you get a reserved spot if you buy a $40 VIP experience package, which includes priority access seating to shows.
Parking on the North Side or Station Square and catching a ride on the T is another way to avoid the mania of Downtown parking. If riding public transportation looks like the best option, kids 12 and younger ride free with an adult wearing a First Night Button beginning at 4 p.m. Dec. 31. Check routes here.
Start off with a bang
For little kids who might not make it to midnight, the Dollar Bank Children’s Fireworks explode in the night sky at 6 p.m. at the intersection of 7th Street and Penn Avenue. Sarah recommends arriving by about 5:30 p.m. to get in position for the best view.
Following fireworks, warm up in the Family Tent, sponsored by Highmark & Allegheny Health Network, at the corner of 7th Street and Penn Avenue.
“It’s a huge tent. It’s heated inside and there’s lots of hands-on activities,” Sarah says.
Open from 6 to 11 p.m., kids can do take-home crafts at the Citizens Bank Children’s Theater Series and EQT Bridge Theater Series table or help Allegheny County Park Rangers identify animal scat. Accept building challenges from Steel City LUG (LEGO Users Group) or learn about Pittsburgh history with activities from the Fort Pitt Museum.
Take in a show
There are plenty of shows to choose from: comedy, ballet and Broadway tunes. Consider this a reminder to reserve your seats when you buy your Admissions Buttons. Once you know the shows you’re committed to, you can plan around those times and venues to catch ongoing street performances and concerts.
For the little ones, up to about 10 years old, Sarah recommends the Penny Arcade at Arcade Comedy Theater. “They think it’s hilarious,” she says.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School will perform excerpts from “The Nutcracker” at the August Wilson Center, while Lee Terbosic Live – Magician & Comedian works the O’Reilly Theater crowd. Fans of Stephanie Keyes’ YA fantasy series will love to hear her reading from “The Star Child.”
All of these shows are great for the kids, Sarah says. In fact, you won’t find a show at First Night that is not family friendly.
Catch carnival fun (and a bathroom break)
Stop at Fifth Avenue Place where kids can glory in face painting and balloon artists. Pondering what’s ahead in the new year? Get your fortune told for a sneak preview of events.
Pittsburgh Center Creative Reuse will be celebrating a Scrappy New Year with oodles of reclaimed fabrics, trims, and ribbons.
The area has restrooms and changing tables – bonus! – which makes for a nice stop as you’re making your way through town.
Stop for street performers – from fire to ice
The Fire and Ice Plaza at the intersection of 9th Street and Penn Avenue will amaze revelers of all ages. This choreographed, high-energy show will have you gasp as Ice Creations ice carvers wield chainsaws that shoot sprays of snowy ice into the air. Steeltown Fire brings its fire jugglers, fire breathers and fire dancers who move among the ice carvers. The kids always are in awe, Sarah says. Check the schedule for times on the four shows.
Go Glow Crazy!
New this year is the Steel City “Let’s Glow Crazy” Dance Party by Emerald Owl Productions. Three parties are planned for the night in EQT Plaza. This entertaining addition to the First Night lineup is geared specifically toward middle school-aged kids, Sarah says. They will love dancing the night away. Pro tip: Wear your best glow-in-the-dark clothing, accessories and glow paint for maximum “Glow Crazy” fun.
Eat out – and in
Your favorite food trucks lining Ninth Street will sell the kind of snacks kids love. Stop by the food court in Fifth Avenue Place for a burger or Chinese food. Or take advantage of the many restaurants throughout the Cultural District, from tacos to pizza, that Sarah says are fan favorites with the kids. If the latter is your choice, reserve a table ahead of time.
Rage the parade
The signature First Night New Year Parade commemorates the 25th anniversary with a “Black and Gold Turns Silver” theme. The parade starts at 8 p.m. at the David Lawrence Convention Center, heading to Fifth Avenue Place on Penn Avenue, then turning onto Stanwix Street.
While anywhere along Penn Avenue will provide you with a great view of Cheryl Capezzuti’s larger-than-life puppets, performance groups and fire trucks, Sarah recommends heading to a spot closest to your car’s parking spot. For many little kids, this is the end of the night. It’s already an hour past bedtime for many, says Sarah, laughing, and it’s time to say, “Happy New Year” a few hours early.
Or stick around
If you have older kids and decide to stay through to the final countdown, many of the shows have later times slots.
Durand Jones and the Indications will take the Highmark Stage to countdown to the New Year. Watch as the Future of Pittsburgh Ball rises atop Penn Avenue Place. When the clock strikes midnight, Zambelli Fireworks burst into the New Year.