News » Whistler

First Night a success



Organizers happy plan for alcohol-free New Year’s Eve is working

After the negative publicity that surrounded Whistler's First Night 2000, there was a lot riding on the outcome of this year's event.

But organizers and police are now breathing a sigh of relief after declaring First Night 2001 a success.

"Everybody felt relieved and not so much vindicated but satisfied that this is the way to go," said Maureen Douglas, who organized First Night.

Reports of a near-riot in Whistler dominated headlines last year and a RCMP press release at the time said: "Whistler was plagued with drunk and violent behaviour."

Police made over 100 arrests that year, filling the Whistler jail to capacity and sending the spill-over to jails in Pemberton and Squamish.

This year there was a 65 per cent reduction in arrests, with 42 people taken in by police for drunkenness and breach of peace. Fifteen of those were moved to the jail in Pemberton.

"We were thrilled by that and we attribute that to the marketing that we do pre-event," said Douglas.

In the advertising that preceded the First Night 2001, the message was loud and clear that it was going to be an alcohol-free festivity.

Police were extremely vigilant in confiscating any open alcohol in and around the village, as well as at the two road blocks leading into the village.

According to police, about 2,500 litres was taken from partiers at road blocks or as they were coming off the buses. This is about the same amount that was confiscated last year.

"The road blocks were a vital part of keeping out the liquor being brought into town," said RCMP Sgt. Norm McPhail.

There was one road block to the north of the village and the other at the south.

The police presence on the road was essential for the event's success, as well as keeping the roads safe, said Douglas.

After the crowd spun out of control last year, organizers spent a lot of time researching the psychology of crowd control, specifically looking at the First Night event in Boston which hosts over 1 million people.

To keep the crowd in check, organizers made sure there was a strong police presence at the event.

There were over 100 officers on hand who were overseeing the crowd, said McPhail, who also agreed the event was a success.

"We had adequate resources there to control any situation if it were to occur but we were fortunate enough that nothing occurred," he said.

The police say they have shown they can control big crowds in Whistler successfully.

The repercussions of this success may be felt in the future as people look at Whistler as a venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"Every night would be celebrations like that if the Olympics were here," said Mayor Hugh O'Reilly. "It has to be within some boundaries that are reasonable and last night proves that we are moving in that direction."

Organizers have developed a three-year plan that aims to change the way people view New Year's Eve in Whistler. Specific goals are to ensure that First Night is alcohol free and safe for all ages to enjoy. This year was the second year of that three-year plan.

"We are redefining people's expectations of New Year's," said O'Reilly. "Historically, all you had to do was look at the events in the past that got so big and so out of control that we had to stop having them."

Now the events are a lot more family-oriented and geared for all ages.

First Night 2001 included a hat making tent, a lantern making tent, an area called Airing Whistler's Laundry where local artists painted on bed sheets, and Illumination tents where people could write messages for the New Year. There was also a big barrel with a fire called This is So Last Year where people could write down their regrets on a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it into the fire.

"We were trying to build symbolism that reflects back on the New Year," said Douglas.

The idea behind the different tents was to provide people with things that make New Year's Eve a little different than any other night, she said.

With between 4,000 and 5,000 people attending First Night, Douglas said certain tents became very crowded.

Next year some of the more popular facilities will be bigger and they may switch some of the venues around to achieve this.

"We will definitely work on expanding what we do next year," she said. "Those are the kind of nuances that we will work with now."

After this New Year's success, First Night in Whistler may not always be remembered solely for its near riot.

"This year was really important," said Douglas. "Last year we turned the corner and this year we are on the road that we want to be on with this event."