PANAMA CITY BEACH — Pier Park in Panama City Beach will ring in the New Year tonight with the help of 10,000 inflated beach balls.


PANAMA CITY BEACH — Pier Park in Panama City Beach will ring in the New Year tonight with the help of 10,000 inflated beach balls.



Festivities will kick off at 5:30 p.m. for the sixth annual New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop and continue until 2014 reaches the Gulf Coast.



Susan Estler, vice president of marketing for the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said the event drew 40,000 attendees last year and officials are expecting an even bigger turnout this year.



“I think with the start of the Beach Ball Drop, it certainly has changed New Year’s Eve here in Panama City Beach for the good,” Estler said. “The event has just grown tremendously and has become a popular event throughout the Southeast.”



One thing that makes the event unique, Estler said, is that it offers two countdowns to 2014 – an earlier one for children and another at midnight for adults.



“There are two different sets of activities and one is very family friendly,” Estler said. “Traditionally, it’s very difficult for kids to stay up for New Year’s Eve, so I believe we’ve done something very unique.”



The family celebration will begin at 5:30 p.m. and will feature face painting, costumed characters and exclusive giveaways, as live entertainment from The Barry Fish Band and Alex Angelo. At 8 p.m., 10,000 beach balls will descend over the crowd on Pier Park Drive with an accompanying fireworks display.



“It’s great to see a kid’s face light up when they get a beach ball,” said Mall Manager Brent Gardner.



The festivities will continue with a countdown celebration featuring live music by local reggae-rock band Heritage and the Rupert’s Orchestra. The New Year will be met with a glowing 800-pound beach ball drop and a second fireworks show.



As the event continues to grow, Gardner said the theatrics have kept up.



To provide a better view for spectators, tonight’s 8 p.m. fireworks will take off from directly above the Beach Ball Drop on Pier Park Drive instead of the Russell-Fields City Pier and the midnight fireworks display will be released in a “domino effect” down Pier Park Drive and finish at the pier.



Pier Park expects to welcome between 40,000 and 60,000 people for the event, which provides a big boon to businesses, Gardner said.



“This is our sixth year holding the event and it’s gotten bigger and bigger every single year,” Gardner said. “Whenever we can hold events here in Panama City Beach it's just good for business overall because you’re drawing people to the area.”