An estimated 1.5 million New Year’s Eve revellers thronged Sydney Harbour on Tuesday to watch 7 tons of fireworks light up the bridge and the Opera House.

Organisers boasted that their crackers, rockets and bangers were louder and flashier than those that will follow in London and Berlin.

“I’ve never seen so many people in Sydney,” said 90-year-old Dorothy Humphries, as she and husband Alf, 92, gave up their bid for a ringside seat and settled for a faraway bench. “When we were younger you could just turn up on the night and get a good view.” A pre-bedtime firework display for children at 9 pm (1000 GMT) was followed three hours later with a 12-minute midnight extravaganza to welcome in 2014.

In between was a one-minute pyrotechnic blast that was the handiwork of Mambo clothes designer and Mental As Anything musician Reg Mombassa.

The Mombassa moment referenced Cranium Universe, a self-portrait of the artist showing the inside of his head filled with a constellation of stars and planets — a prospect that drew Sydney resident Jennifer Mason to the waterfront.

“I haven’t done the fireworks for years,” Mason said. “I said ‘let’s do it’ and we have!” Jakarta-born visitor Tiono Said was astonished at the massive crowds.

“We didn’t know you had to get here early,” the 32-year-old said. “I think we’ll just have to stand the whole night until the morning.” Better prepared were American visitors Meg, Lucinda and Beth, who booked their positions at Luna Park, near the bridge’s north pylon, months ago.

“We always reckoned that Sydney was the place to be for New Year’s Eve,” Beth said.

Simon Butler, a 63-year-old from the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, doubted the official claim that a quarter of the inhabitants of Australia’s biggest city would be on the harbour at New Year’s Eve.

“They always say that,” Butler said. “But too many people anyway. I never go. Getting old is not for sissies. My knees can’t take all that standing.” Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, authorities in Wellington were taking a similar attitude, choosing to spend big on a New Year’s Day picnic and concert on Wednesday rather than on youth-oriented late-night fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

But the North Island town of Gisborne, at least, gave a rousing New Zealand welcome to the New Year with its Rhythm and Vines festival.

The star attraction was German-born internet mogul and one-time fugitive Kim Dotcom, who was due to wow the audience with his own band, performing six songs from his debut Good Times album.

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