Stella Rose Dorazio

Stella Rose Dorazio celebrates at the Maryland Science Center. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / December 30, 2012)

Thousands of people streamed into Baltimore's Inner Harbor on New Year's Eve night to welcome 2013 with a bang of fireworks expected at midnight — a tradition for some and a new experience for others — as police scanned the crowds for threats.

Steve and Lori Foster, along with their twin 12-year-old sons, Luke and Dylan, traveled from Newark, Del., for their first New Year's Eve in the city.

"Somebody told us they have a really nice event down here, so we decided to come check it out," Steve said. The family was staying at the Renaissance hotel and had dinner at McCormick & Schmick's before heading to the celebration.

Police lived up to their promise of a strong presence in the Inner Harbor, with officers at many street corners surrounding downtown. At the harbor, officers stood in groups of as many as six. A police marine unit was in the water, and officers on horseback were also present. State troopers were mixed in with groups of city officers, and the Maryland Transportation Authority had set up a command center.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said there were several hundred officers deployed to the downtown area and that city police were partnering with state police to make Baltimore a welcoming place for visitors on the holiday.

"We want everyone to come out here and enjoy, and come back to Baltimore more often," he said.

The Fosters said they noticed the large police presence right away.

"I said, 'That's either a good thing or a bad thing,' " Steve Foster said. "It's comforting, but it's also a little alarming, to some degree."

Said Lori Foster: "I'd rather see them. It's going to be a big crowd, so a lot of people."

Others visitors had made the trip into Baltimore earlier in the day.

Kelli and Andy Rice, with their daughters Olivia, 7, and Gracie, 3, had come into Baltimore from Leesburg, Va., with Kelli Rice's parents, Jim and Debbie Ray, to visit the National Aquarium, which the girls said they loved.

By 5 p.m., though, the family was headed home for a quiet night in Leesburg. But Baltimore — it was the Rays' first visit — had been a great daytime destination, Debbie Ray said.

"It's impressive. The buildings, the lights and the harbor — it's awesome," she said.

And well before the fireworks were scheduled to explode, it looked like Times Square inside the Maryland Science Center.

More than 3,000 children, parents and grandparents packed the attraction's winding staircase and balconies for a glimpse of the New Year's ball dropping at the stroke of noon. Toddlers danced and climbed aboard taller shoulders as the children's band Milkshake broke into a jaunty rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" amid yellow confetti in the air.

The annual event, in its fifth year, gives the youngest celebrants a chance to ring in the new year without staying up past their bedtime.

Many visitors were science center members and regular attendees of the New Year's event, while others had visited in the past but were new to the event. Anna and Alex Graic of Annapolis had explored the exhibits before, but this time lined up to make noisemakers to mark the holiday.

Anna Graic, 8, reused a plastic water bottle that science center staff helped her fill with plastic beads, glitter and fuzzy balls. On a piece of paper taped to the outside of the bottle, Graic filled in her new year's resolution: "In 2013, I will … turn 9," she wrote.

"We've been here when it's far less packed," said the girls' mother, Jennifer Graic, who also brought along her 12-year-old nephew Daniel Djukic. Despite the crowd, the family was enjoying the event, she said. "It's an awesome experience."

The entrance line stretched from the science center's main doorways to the waterfront promenade by 11 a.m. Monday. While the center often has busier days, with several thousand visitors, "they don't usually all get here at the same time," said Lori Blau, senior director of guest services.

Once inside, visitors packed the science center's usual exhibits on dinosaurs, the human body and space, but could also participate in crafts making the noisemakers, party hats and snow globes.

Half an hour before the peak of the celebration, Milkshake took to the stage, drawing children to press their faces up to glass barriers underneath railings around the museum and to crowd in front of the stage as though they were about to see Taylor Swift or PSY – two featured acts in Times Square on Monday night.

They included Jen Zwarich and her 6-year-old daughter, Bridget, who typically enjoys the science center's body and space exhibits but was excited to see the popular local band perform for the first time.

"I think it's just the idea of a celebration that's really different," Jen Zwarich said.

Six-year-old Landon Barrick had a succinct reaction to the show and the revelry.

"It was awesome," said Barrick, who came with his grandparents, Don and Suzi Barrick of Catonsville, and 4-year-old brother Mason Barrick. While the event was a little loud for the youngest Barrick, it was a holiday must for the family.

"This is our second year here, and we'll be back next year for sure," Don Barrick said.

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